Life Log

Code Sliding

Over at Transterrestrial Musings Simberg has a post about human tribes without the words for larger numbers and how it impacts their ability to count, but then follows it with something I want to quibble with. So first he notes:

Here’s an interesting article that says that human tribes without words for numbers larger than very small numbers (e.g., one) have trouble counting:

Gordon gave the Pirahã people in his Science study may have seemed alien to them. In one typical test, the researcher set out a group of one to 10 nuts and asked each participant to place an equal number of batteries–used because of their availability and size–on the table. The participants performed perfectly when matching sets of up to three batteries, but at four batteries the accuracy rate dropped to about 75 percent, and by nine none of the Pirahã got the right answer…

The idea that learning a linguistics has a major impact on the very way we think has been around since I took Intro to Anthropology. Chomsky spends time on it, if I remember right, and it’s one of the reasons I want to learn more languages (I know some Spanish, a wee bit of Latin from a class, and knew a little French and German as a kid), particularly ones outside of latinate derived ones I’ve studied (Chinese would be a good start).

So far so good.

But Simberg’s next is this piece that I feel the need to dissect and challenge him on:

We’ve been told for years by the politically correct that “ebonics” or “black English” is as legitimate a form of the language as standard English, and that black children shouldn’t be penalized for using it (even though such usage could cripple them in the potential range of employment and social opportunities in which they might otherwise engage). That it had its own grammar, but was just as useful a language, with the ability to express just as complex concepts, as the norm. Well, maybe. But consider this thesis, based on the article cited. If the grammar (and vocabulary) of a language can restrict the ability to deal with mathematical concepts, isn’t it possible that an inner-city patois is similarly unable to allow the mind to grasp concepts that are necessary for life in a highly technological society?

1) The piraha are an isolated group. Inner city youth are not. They are watching TV and using technology. Less than their richer suburban counterparts, but if you’ve ever looked at the wiring job on a modded ghetto blaster car, they do shit with technology that I have to hire pros to travel to my university to do (ever see MTV’s Pimp My Ride?)

2) To believe what Mr. Simberg says you’d then also have to believe that all the wiggaz out there (white suburban kids who talk, dress, and sound like urban youth as so excellently parodied in Malibu’s Most Wanted) would be unable to understand the high technology all around them. That is demonstrably not so.

3) What about other non-urban people incapably of proper grammar? It isn’t just eubonics, have you ever spent time in rural America? The same grammar deconstruction is applied among the older, and younger folks that I have observed out here in the boonies of Ohio, and it’s just as much a dialect as eubonics, it’s just that rural folk aren’t black, so there is no conservative distaste of ‘rural speak.’ What about Scottish accents, or any of the harder to understand Irish or English dialects as featured in your average Guy Ritchie film? Should we undertake to eradicate these dialects as well in the name of helping these people understand their world better?

4) I grew up in the Caribbean and spoke dialect that most Americans couldn’t understand when I was among my friends, and proper Queen’s English when with my mother. This is called Code Sliding and is fairly common among many people. I notice people in rural America here doing it all the time, talking in one particular modal manner with the good ole boys and changing to corporate america when back at work talking to the boss.

Eubonics won’t stop you from being able to grasp a high tech society. It can change the way people view you though, which is why I learned to code slide consciously at a very young age in order to 1) not be looked at as snotty by my friends and 2) to gain respect from westerners who thought speaking in dialect was ‘bad english’ and a sign of reduced intelligence.

Remember, I had to learn language all over again when I came to the states. The dialects and modes of english here are different.

Just some stuff to rebutt his initial argument and let people mull over…

6 thoughts on “Code Sliding”

  1. Associations with language and accents have always been a part of human society. My parents, who were born and raised in the Philippines, each spoke a different dialect that might as well be classified as different languages. They had to learn the national language (Tagalog) which was actually a dialect sans enlarged. Then they had to learn English since the Americans only taught in that language after taking over the nation. Depending on whom they’re speaking with and in what language, their status is judged the same way many Americans view those with the stereotypical “southern” accent (e.g., sugah, honey, etc.)

  2. I don’t know much about linguistics, but this sounds to me like Sapir Worf again, a theory that, as I understand it, dictates that how we think is constrained or determined by the language we know. Great Ted Chiang story dealing with the theory, by the way.
    But I thought I had read that this theory was seriously out of favor, and that there was strong evidence against it. I’m surprised to see it coming up, if that’s the case.
    Long story short, I agree with you, Tobias. I too codeshift a lot, basically to suit the dialect of whatever I’m dealing with. Tech-speak, Rural slang, etc. I don’t think any of these modes of speak and language have much effect on my intellectual capabilities.

  3. Boy this is a huge topic. It seems that those who know the most about it and those who make the most inaccurate comments get the most press.
    Meanwhile Ebonics is a label for linguistic features that linguists are interested in study. It has little to do with promoting “self-esteem” though I do accuse those who make up these stories seem to be putting down others to bolster their own shaky self-esteem.
    Also, I saw Ebonics in action in a classroom as an aid to help teach students from neighborhoods where Ebonics is common so they can more rapidly and accurately code-shift so that they can pass a job interview for a better job.
    None of this has much to do with self-esteem.
    Worfian theory is crap if you think about it for a moment. I forumulate neologisms all the time to better describe my environment. All language at one time was formulated by one human or another to describe their world.
    Anyway, I’ll step down from the lecturn now and turn away from the chior. Thanks for reading.

  4. Another aspect to the ebonics/rural south dialect debate is its sociolinguistic factor. Each dialect identifies not only the speaker to his/her peers, but also the speaker’s own personal sense of identity. True, code switching is imporant, but to say Ebonics is not legimitate as a dialect is to question the the sense of identy maintained by its speakers.
    As for the Piraha case, I feel that saying language is the reason for the mathematic difficulty is a vast oversimplification. A more likely rationale is that these people understood the instructions by the context of their definitions; that is, that there is no need to be exactly accurate because it was not valued by the culture. This, of course, opens another debate about whether language defines the culture or vice-versa, which I don’t care to get into here.

  5. I’m not sure the theory that the lack of arithmetic ability is linked to language is really proven by those experiments. All it shows is that people who don’t have concepts of numbers higher than 2 or 3 also don’t have words for those higher numbers. I’m pretty sure that those same tribes don’t have words for pi or i or a lot of other fancy math concepts. Big surprise. I’d be more likely to believe that we make up names for concepts we use, and that not having any use for pi or i or 9, these people had no need to invent names for them.
    As for the ebonics thing, kids have been trying since time immemorial to get out of doing their homework. It’s particularly popular to claim that what’s being taught is irrelevant and useless in “real life.” The fact that kids from certain ethnic groups are able to recruit political activists to their side is amusing but irrelevant. Bottom line–quit whining and diagram yo sentences homey.

  6. For some reason this reminds me of going to Athens and getting odd looks from people when I spoke to them on the street. Growing up with my family, I never realized that the Greek I learned:
    1. contained the rough equivalent, to Athenians, of a 19th century Alabama accent, and
    2. was chock full of outmoded slang from the 60s.

Comments are closed.