Friday 17 February 2012

Intelligibility and familiarity RULE! apparently ...

Today's class was looking at the legitimacy of varieties of English, among other things.

Whenever I do this class, the students looking at the different language/varietal examples always decide if something is legitimate based on two aspects: intelligibility and familiarity. Whether or not it is "pure" - whatever that means - doesn't seem to have a bearing. For example, they always decide that Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is not legitimate, as it does not fit the two criteria of intelligibility and familiarity.

I always feel rather good about the decision to base legitimacy on intelligibility; if a speaker of English is clearly spoken, or if written language expresses ideas clearly, then that's the important thing as far as I'm concerned, although this may not address the issues raised in the term "legitimate". The familiarity criterion is something of a problem, however.

In terms of whether a variety of English is accepted as a New Variety (NVE), of course it has to be shown that the code has regular, observable patterns which are used by a homogeneous group of people in a number of different settings. Having the variety as an L1 is also often given as an important criterion. However, this does not mean that the NVE is necessarily intelligible, and it is not always the case that it is going to be very familiar to all other speakers of English.

Here is the conflict - if you like - between the description and acceptance of NVEs / world Englishes and approaches such as the Lingua Franca Core; just because something is an established variety it does not mean it is intelligible (many accents of British English are not, for example) but, in order for people across the world to communicate in English, if it is to be THE international language, there has to be enough commonality in the code for people to be able to understand each other and - at least to some extent - for it not to be too unfamiliar.

So what we're talking about here is people being diglossic, i.e., having access to and being able to use both their own variety of English and to be able to switch to a code which is intelligible to as many (other) speakers of English as possible. This situation already exists in some countries such as Singapore, which has Standard Singapore English and also the more localised Singlish, often vilified as basilectal. This is a bit of a simplistic description but it will do for now.

Is this too much to ask? Well, I don't think so, but I'm fortunate enough to speak a variety or ideolect which, I'm told by a lot of people, is very clear - and I haven't got RP (which, in its most extreme form, is not always clear!). Where other native speakers of Old Varieties of English (OVEs) are concerned, this may be a hard sell; if you've been speaking English all your life and then someone tells you you'll need to change it so someone "foreign" can understand you, rather than the other way around, my sense is that there might well be resistance to this.

English, just as any language, grows and changes. What speakers of OVEs who are not intelligible have got to realise is that, to keep up, their English will need to grow and change, too. I really wouldn't want us to get left behind. We're fortunate enough as it is that English has emerged as the international lingua franca in the way it has; resting on our laurels is really not an option.


  1. excellent blog.


    "if a speaker of English is clearly spoken..."

    but clearly spoken in whose view? Barring some particular personal problem or idiosyncracy, isn't the speaker necessarily clearly spoken for members of his/her speech community?

    “However, this does not mean that the NVE is necessarily intelligible, and it is not always the case that it is going to be very familiar to all other speakers of English. “
    Again, speakers of the NVE must be intelligible to each other, no? It doesn’t seem to make much sense to describe a variety as not being intelligible if hundreds of thousands or millions of people are speaking it evey day, even if many others, NS and not, might have problems understanding it.
    “…but I'm fortunate enough to speak a variety or ideolect which, I'm told by a lot of people, is very clear…”

    Instead of “very clear”, wouldn’t it be better to go for “which people from a wide variety of language backgrounds find easy to understand”?
    I think we’d be doing ourselves - as teachers or learners - many favors by using terms like "clear", which may come loaded with all sorts of baggage.

    Some interesting parallels in all this with Spanish. Many Spanish media still refuse to accept the legitimacy of Latin American vocab. and grammar. If an Argentine footballer gives an interview to a Spanish paper he may either have what he says silently “translated” into what are regarded as more acceptable forms , or, if the paper concerned feels vey enlightened, just have his words speckled with italics, to signal their supposedly exotic and deviant nature.

    1. As regards 4. I would like to ask just two questions:
      A) What's the point of any footballer (whatever their nationality) being interviewed? and B) What can you expect from anyone involved in interviewing footballers?

    2. I'm not going to get drawn into a discussion on the merits (or not) of interviewing footballers ... ;D

      3. OK, so perhaps "maximally intelligible" is better in this context than "clear", where MI means "to the vast majority of speakers of English around the world". I'm not entirely sure I'm happy with the term "maximally intelligible", though.

      There are also issues with the word "intelligibility" vs e.g. "comprehensibility" ... I'm not going to get into that debate, either.

      1. Does this deal with Q.1, too? And yes, speakers are (usually) intelligible in their own speech community, but this often compounds the problem. HKE speakers, for example, use HKE with each other in certain settings and can understand each other, but are puzzled when someone else also using a variety of English can't understand them. On a related point, the media are up in arms when someone like Cheryl Cole gets rejected by the US ostensibly because of her accent.

      I don't mean by this that one necessarily has to change; if you want to be understood by speakers of other varieties of English than your own community, though, you've got to. Having the complacent attitude that one speaks e.g. British English so that's all right is not good enough.

      I think that also deals with Q. 2, but let me know if not.

      4. It's interesting to know it's going on in other language groups, too. A lot of this is politically / socio-culturally motivated, of course. I'd like to think we're moving away from this in English but I don't think we're there yet.

    3. Forgot to say "thank you!" for the first comment. :D

  2. of course I meant,

    "I don't think we’d be doing ourselves ..."

  3. Hi Jane,

    Very good writing. I live in Asia and am open to the variety of Englishes that is spoken here.

    If we were in a foreign country, say Malaysia, where while English is a second language, a vast majority of Malaysians speak the Manglish variety, which one takes precedence - your need to be understood by the locals, or the importance of upholding the 'proper' English, at the risk of not being understood at all by the local?

    I personally would start code-switching when I find myself in such a situation. Just my two cents. :)

  4. You go ahead adding your two cents!

    Yes, exactly - one usually adapts to one's linguistic environment; you code-switch/mix or style-shift. It's perfectly natural. However, some speakers just don't realise they need to - or, even, are unable to - switch to a more intelligible style or code.

    A lot of this has to do with your experience of various linguistic communities; if you've never had a need to use a different style/code up to a particularly point then, when it does happen, you may well not be equipped to deal with the situation linguistically. This can lead to resentment / reticence, as it moves people out of their comfort zone. We see this in the UK when people have to deal with overseas call centres.

    Someone I follow on Twitter said he persuaded the students to try using one "style" for the whole weekend to see what happened, and he tried it, too. He writes: "I did 'over-excited lecturing style' - this confused the man at Boots quite a lot when I asked him for some paracetamol...". :D

  5. "Would you please sell me two third-class tickets from London to Brighton and back again, and I will pay you the usual fare for such tickets." —Otto Jespersen, The Philosophy of Grammar