And you know that forms of speech change
over a thousand years, and words back then
that had great value seem wondrous strange
to us, and yet they spoke them so
and succeeded in love as well as men do now.
—Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus & Criseyde (c. 1385)
The above lines are translated from Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English, but I wish I could read you the original lines aloud. In Chaucer’s hands, the Middle English is as sonorous and lyrical as can be, its soft French vowels and precise German consonants shaped in the music of Chaucer’s poetry.
But listening to Middle English is even harder than reading it. Chaucer’s words may look familiar, but they’re pronounced differently from ours. In the century following Chaucer, the transition from Middle to Modern English was accompanied by The Great Vowel Shift, when English got tired of sounding like French and German and decided to sound like English. (When it got tired of sounding like English, it moved to New Jersey.)
But Chaucer’s point is that, even though language changes, its function is always the same: to attract a mate, fall in love, and generally involve ourselves with one another, romantically and otherwise.
That’s true for other species too. Biologist Roger Payne’s famous study of humpback whale songs tells the same story: in one mating season the males all sing versions of a single song. Over time the song changes as some phrases gets dropped and others added. After five years they’re all singing a whole new song. Older whales sang a different song, but as Chaucer would say, they fared in love as well as whales do now.
The songs change, but not the reason for singing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about linguistic change since my son Harry, a linguistics student at the University of Hawaii, sent me a copy of an essay published in an academic journal and written entirely in Hawaiian Pidgin.
A pidgin is a simplified form of a language such as English that emerges between peoples who don’t both speak it and which is characterized by simplified grammar and spelling, a simplified lexicon, and other irregularities.
Hawaiian Pidgin isn’t just a blend of Hawaiian and English; it developed during the middle to late 19th century when laborers from countries including China, Portugal, Japan and the Philippines arrived to work on plantations and needed a common language. And it hasn’t replaced the Native Hawaiian, which is making a comeback, but is a language all its own, largely oral, and, as the author of the essay argues, one that has the virtue of being the way many of his students think and talk.
The essay, called “Da state of pidgin address,” is by Lee A. Tonouchi, an English teacher who has committed himself to writing entirely in pidgin. Tonouchi’s pidgin seems humorous, but it’s an honest and serious attempt to break through “the hegemony of English.” In destigmatizing pidgin, Tonouchi hopes to end the prejudice against those who speak it.
I wish I had space here to quote extensively from his piece because Tonouchi’s argument is compelling. But here’s a brief taste:
“da standard english talker is going automatically be perceive fo’ be mo’ intelligent than da Pidgin talker regardless wot dey talking, jus from HOW dey talking. Get studies dat show dis kine speech biases and discriminations, but I no need really look da studies, cuz I can see dis happening insai my classrooms…”
Tonouchi goes on to describe how his “pidgin” students often make no sense when they try to write standard English. Not so when they are free to write in pidgin without worrying that their work is being graded. Tonouchi writes:
“das da voice dat comes most natural to dem . . . and I’m all like WOW, dey get ideas. Stay organize. And can understand too. . . . You kinda wondah how kids come out li’dis. Trying fo’ write ‘english’ but end up writing stuff dat no even make sense.”
Tonouchi is not the first to try to destigmatize a non-standard language. In the 13th century, the Italian poet Dante wrote a defense of his Italian vernacular over Latin as a medium for serious literature. Dante’s argument was validated, of course, by his creation of one of the glories of Western Civilization, The Divine Comedy—in Italian.
Dante’s argument echoes down the centuries to our own time. It took the Roman Catholic Church until 1965 to abandon Latin and require that Mass be conducted in the local vernacular.
Tonouchi may be pidgin’s Dante, trying to lift the stigma off a non-standard vernacular. For the sake of his pidgin-speaking students, I hope he succeeds.
I hope he succeeds for all our sakes. In my job as a technical editor, I am continually confronted by sentences that make no sense, written by people with advanced degrees. The sentences make no sense not because the authors are not intelligent, but because they think of writing as something other than simply communicating.
Maybe they’re trying to sound sophisticated or intellectual or bureaucratic. Maybe they think big words sound better than little ones. Maybe they think their bosses won’t approve if things sound too plain, too clear, too easy to read and understand.
Throughout this column, I have argued that we all know how to use language to communicate, since we do it every day of our lives, and when we write we need to somehow access that knowledge and write more like the way we talk.
If we follow that argument to its logical conclusion, we end up writing pidgin. I don’t know that I’m ready to pursue my own logic that far. The kind of analytical writing we need in the sciences and at our jobs often seems to require a more precise grammar than pidgin affords.
But Tonouchi is right: we have to find a way to give students the freedom to write the way they talk in their real lives. I just don’t know how we do that.
Last week I was talking with my friend India Busby, a student at UAS, about whether pidgin could be taught the way we teach any language. The power of any vernacular, pidgin included, comes from its being a creature of the streets, something that happens, growing not out of academic culture but out of a real culture that people live and breathe. How do you teach in a classroom something whose virtue comes from its not being taught in a classroom?
New technologies have us writing more than ever before, and all our tweeting and texting and emailing and chatting are bound to change the language. It’s entirely possible that we are witnessing the beginning of another cataclysmic or semi-clysmic or demi-clysmic, some-sort-of-clysmic change in language, the emergence of a whole new vernacular, a change on a par with The Great Vowel Shift.
And why not? Language changes because we do. A thousand years from now, it will be a much different world, and people will speak a much different language — even in New Jersey. But you know they will fare in love as well as we do now.