Thursday, February 21, 2019

To Say Something and Not Mean It

What does it mean to say something and not mean it?

I think about this a lot. I first thought about it when I wrote a paper on oath-taking in legal settings for a sociolinguistics class during my masters degree. I didn't and still don't understand how oaths can function without the underlying assumption that we might otherwise be lying all the time, and further, in current society oaths themselves also do not appear to act as the guarantors of truth-telling they once were. In fact, I think we've now bizarrely inverted things; I assume that in a court case where various parties have taken oaths they are more likely to be lying than in everyday, non-oath-underwritten speech.

This notion of making promises or oaths or really any utterances with no intention of truthfulness also came to mind when I thought about musicians who started their careers when they were Christian or otherwise religious and later disassociated themselves from their religious beliefs. Having been a Christian rock fan in the 90s, I've noticed this about a few bands who've reunited recently.  What does it mean when the sing the songs they wrote earlier? Conversely, what does it mean when I sing along with XTC's "Dear God" when I hear it on the radio ("Dear God/ I don't believe in you") even though I do believe in God?

What does it mean when someone promises to bring their child up in the Catholic faith at a baptism, even though they do not consider themselves Catholic and have no intention of doing so?

What does it mean when someone proclaims that they join themselves to another person until death, but at some point -- whether before or after making that proclamation -- decides that they may not or will not be joined to that person until death?

I write about religious things here because religious speech acts seem to be particularly exploitable in this way -- side note: did you know that in the US is not illegal to preach a faith you do not actually believe, thanks to a pretty weird and fascinating Supreme Court case? I mean, I don't know why it would be illegal, but it does seem..bad?

Bourdieu wrote that Protestantism essentially ONLY comprises language, which I think if you're religious you can't really believe, but the fact is, one can say something, something that is presumably meant to only be uttered with sincerity, that appears to have no this-worldly guarantor, and not mean it. Satire exists, of course, but what I'm talking about isn't satire -- it's fulfilling a ritual by making a (potentially) false utterance.

What does it mean to say something and not mean it?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What should we call beliefs about language?

Problem: the term "folk linguistics" strikes me as insulting and maybe something invented by linguists to explain how non-linguists have dumb, nonscientific ideas about language.

Other problem: "language ideology" seems bad too, because "ideology" implies a kind of Marxist "false consciousness" which also suggests that regular people are dumb to have the beliefs they do about language.

Solution? What do we call "non-professionals'" beliefs about language? Deborah Cameron strikes me as the most reasonable voice on this -- we all have beliefs that some ways of using language is better than others -- but her term, "verbal hygiene", seems too specific/jargony.

linguistic preferences?
language beliefs?
language judgements?


Friday, October 05, 2018

Chinese and English in BC's Lower Mainland

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the place of "Chineseness" in the linguistic/cultural landscape of Vancouver/BC/Canada. In 2010 my friend Ai Mizuta and I did a presentation at IAWE about the "Chinese/English Interface" in Vancouver; I still see this as an important and interesting issue but I think it needs to be expanded to include language ideology and language policy at both the macro and micro level. I've been trying to develop a hypothesis about the place of Chinese linguistic (and indeed cultural) literacy in this geographical area but every time I try to say it in a short sentence I get tripped up.

There's a sense in which Chinese lx/cultural literacy is "underground" in Vancouver, but it's hard to see Chinese as a 'minority' language in some ways. For example, 76% of people who live smack dab in the middle of Richmond speak Chinese as their primary language (the three blocks between Granville St and Westminster highway next to #3 road). I think the total number of people in BC who speak a Chinese language is close to 30% of the total population (compared to around 1% French? These are old and maybe mis-remembered numbers). Yet Chinese-language businesses tend to be described in the mainstream media as having an air of, I don't know, "secrecy" about them? Like almost literally going back to the turn-of-the-century racist caricatures about Chinese "inscrutability?"

It is true that multiple Chinese-language Uber-like ride-hailing services, which are illegal in BC, seem to be currently running here. It's also true that Chinese-language para-educational companies that provide services many faculty members and administrators would view as somehow unethical operate, and my sense is that they operate in part because the mainstream view in Vancouver is that Chinese doesn't exist.

I don't mean it literally doesn't exist. I mean that it is something that is assumed not to actually be a part of our (un/)official shared discursive world; this is in part because of Canadian language policy, which enshrines only two languages (French and English) as official, but it's also in part because of a long history of straight-up racism and marginalization of Chinese people since the founding of this province.

I think about the Chinese-language linguistic landscape of the campus where I work -- advertisements for education, food delivery, events, etc. -- and I wonder what other domains we see Chinese being prominent in here. Real estate, certainly, but really you can find it almost anywhere. I live in one of the "whitest" neighbourhoods in Vancouver (allegedly) and I can see Chinese-language signs from where I sit in this cafe. There are four or five businesses with Chinese-language signage on my block alone. This is to say nothing of the ongoing and often bizarre "Chinese sign controversy" in Richmond which has resulted in a city bylaw "encouraging" but not enforcing all signs to include at least "50% English." This is an issue that will apparently not die, as its champion is now running for city council in Richmond. [UPDATE: She lost.] I don't live in Richmond, but the way that this stuff gets talked about in online news comments (forgive me for reading them) strikes me as stomach-turningly racist and xenophobic.

This doesn't mean that these things shouldn't be studied, though; in fact it probably means the opposite.

What methodological tools are useful, I wonder, for a study that would look into both the empirical "status" of the Chinese language vis-a-vis English and other languages in this urban linguistic landscape, but that would also account for the ideological marginalization of the language and its speakers vis-a-vis English and other languages? I get the sense that due to the political situation it is inevitable that Chinese exist in some kind of dynamic relationship with English here. I don't know how to go about studying or explaining this, though.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Plagiarism and Ritual

1. In "the west" we understand plagiarism as misrepresenting "someone else's words" as "your own words," or putting your name on someone else's work.

2. The idea that you can "own" words is dubious, but the idea of putting your name on something someone else laboured over seems pretty clearly "wrong" to most of us educated in the western/north american liberal arts milieu.

3. There are many situations, in many cultures, in which social structures -- rituals -- call for the rote recitation of long "word-ensembles"*.

4. E.g., liturgies and standardized tests.

5. There may be ritualized situations which some of us would see as calling for "self-expression" in which others would see as calling for, essentially, recitation. Consider:

6a. An evangelical church I know recently featured a sermon which was mostly the pastor telling anecdotes about his life;

6b. a Catholic church I know recently featured a homily which the priest appeared to have found on the website of another parish and read aloud.


7a. When confronted with a standardized test or high-stakes writing assignment, I (and many of my students) generally attempt to produce something that I would characterize as "original," personal, in some sense made-up ex nihilo, inasmuch as this is possible, on the spot;

7b. when similarly confronted, some students I know will rely on a previously memorized essay read in a textbook or online, or will copy another student's essay, or pay someone else to write an essay**.

8. Whether a or b, in both situations, a ritual obligation has ben fulfilled: a sermon has been delivered. An essay has been written. What was called for has been provided.

9. One can easily generalize and say that the "white" / "english" /  north american Protestant way calls for "originality" while the "ethnic" / "non-english" non-western Catholic way calls for something where what is given is re-presented.

But the lines blur.

10. In both cases, genre expectations are fulfilled. Understandings of authorship may differ; the notion of the lone genius seems to loom larger in the imaginations of those who would lean A rather than B. But even in the case of A, there is much language-re-use, there are ritualized, reified moves. Even in the case of B, there are "individual" flourishes, customizations.

11. We all seem to know intuitively the demands of genre: rituals must be carried out. The essay must have an introduction, a conclusion. The meme must have this picture and this grammatical structure. But the rules of how 'originality' functions in the creation of texts are occluded to the point of being almost impossible to discern. Who am I to be "original?" I'm not God!  "I ain't never read my own words before!"

12. If I can't even tell you how my own writing is "original" and yours isn't, how can I ask you to do it my way?

*this term from the Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths' chapter "Kidnapping," a "theological defense of plagiarism."

** to be honest, I use the term "essay" extremely loosely here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Students and Faculty Don't Agree about Cheating

From a 2012 study at Waterloo University (

Incidence Seriousness
Students Faculty    Students Faculty
1. Unpermitted collaboration 48% 64% 33% 80%
2. Getting questions/answers from someone 32% 38% 68% 94%
3. Copying a few sentences from internet27% 80% 76% 90%

From, I believe, a 2002 study in the US and Canada - I don't know if this one is prevalence or seriousness - I assume seriousness. (

By far the trickiest thing here is writing. Faculty think that "copying sentence from the internet without citing" happens WAY more than students do, like almost 3 times more. Similarly, the McCabe study treats plagiarism, "cut and paste," and paper from mill differently, but I have a feeling many students and faculty would have different understandings and definitions of these things.

My informal surveys of first year-students, local and international, overwhelmingly get this answer:
" I don't really see much cheating and it's not a big deal."

My conversations with faculty members overwhelmingly get this response:
"cheating is rampant, especially among international students."

Is this a clear case of right and wrong? Different interpretations of the same phenomena? Competing discourse worlds?

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Ge Chuangui's English Works Republished

This is huge! A pioneer of English education in China during the republican period and beyond, Ge is best known for his Chinese-English dictionary, which is still in print, his textbook The Writing of English (英语写作), and to contemporary scholars probably for his coining of the term "China English" in 1980. He died in 1992.

I hadn't checked for a while but I just googled him and found that a Shanghai publisher has  in the last few years issued, as best as I can discern, three volumes of his work. (Check here, for example.) These appear to be collected essays, some of them originally collected in books in the 1930s-40s (?).

The picture is from this blog which sheds a little light on the subject, though it's mostly in Chinese.

What interests me most about Ge is what we can learn about the history of the discourse of English in China from him. I don't mean to imply that if we can discern his ideology, methodology, etc of English education we can prove that for sure that's what China was all about in the 1930s, it could at least be one source of triangulation. (If triangulation is even a thing in what I will now audaciously refer to as "historical applied linguistics," a phrase I do not see used very often if at all.)

What little I know about his work is intriguing, though; at the very least, his work and its prominence suggest certain things like:

  •  an emphasis on vocabulary knowledge as a measure of English proficiency (his most famous work, after all, is a dictionary)
  • a deep connection to the "foreign" sources of English, in a kind of humanistic tradition; certainly this is related to the ti-yong thing
  • A deep emphasis on correctness, but also practicality
  • crucially, the use of English among Chinese speakers for personal/professional/cultural reasons (what those reasons are, I can't say without evidence, and more serious thinking; Lu Xun certainly thought that Chinese intellectuals were peculiar for speaking English to each other)

This just scratches the surface, of course. I need to get my hands on these books, and as soon as I can figure out how, I will order them shipped here to Canada posthaste.

Cut and pasted below is a letter purportedly from the venerable British lexicographer H.W. Fowler, a month before he died, to Ge (or as he was somewhat unsually known, "Hertz C.K. Ke"). I don't know much about its veracity, but it's often said of Ge that he wrote to Fowler to correct alleged mistakes in Fowler's work. The first two sentences seem to me to say so much about the state of English in the world, and in China, both in 1933 and now:

I find no difficulty in believing that you will attain, if you have not already attained, your ambition of writing English as no other Chinese can; for your letter is in faultless English, and, long as it is, nowhere betrays, as nearly all foreigners' letters do by some trifling lapse in idiom, that its writer is not an Englishman.

I often say this, and sometimes it is not true, but: more on this later.

24 Nov., 1933
Dear Sir,
I find no difficulty in believing that you will attain, if you have not already attained,your ambition of writing English as no other Chinese can; for your letter is in faultless English, and, long as it is, nowhere betrays, as nearly all foreigners' letters do by some trifling lapse in idiom, that its writer is not an Englishman. I receive many letters in English from foreigners, but do not remember ever having had occasion to say this before. If this statement can serve you in anyway, you are free to make use of it.
Your comments upon points in The King's English are all acute and pertinent, and I am greatly accepting the corrections of misprints and wrong references that are among them. The wrong reference are due to the change of paging for the third edition; I corrected many such, but some escaped me.
I have read all your criticisms with care, and find that I should be ready to defend what we wrote in all, or nearly all, cases; but I regret that, owing to pressure of work, old age (75), and failing eye-sight, I cannot comply with your request for explanations, or argument -- except for one or two general remarks. Many of your criticisms turn on the fact that advice given in M.E.U is not acted upon in K. E. Well, K. E was written some 20 years earlier, and M.E.U represents my later views and is to be taken as superseding the earlier book where the two books differ; It was hardly possible to bring K.E into conformity on points where what is laid down in M.E.U is merely advisory and suggests reforms that are still far from general acceptance. It is not to be expected that views should undergo no change in 20 years, but only that the later ones should be the result of careful consideration. But you remarks show the care with which you have read the two books, and I accept the compliment with much pleasure. 
Yours very truly.
H. W. Fowler

Friday, February 16, 2018

Biblical follow-up to Steiner

Lamentations 3:37-38

Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
Unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
That both good and ill go forth?

Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment, naive as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate. 

-- "Talk with George Steiner," 1982