I am a linguist with strong anti-prescriptivist views. I think that linguists are not for telling people how to speak, but should only describe it. This post is about how I negotiate these views at the time of Christmas holidays.
Before I tell you what the point of the post is, I would like lay down my views. I have no doubt that it is often in people’s best interest to follow the dominant rules of speaking (and writing) in a society. It means that it is in my best interest to speak grammatically – indeed, the way I speak is often taken to reflect my level of intelligence or education. It is in my interest to speak English in the first place – not having English, like it or not, would disenfranchise me in many way in the society in which I live.
However, as a linguist, I can tell you about all those things, but it is not for me to say that speaking with the so-called received pronunciation is inherently better than speaking with the Black Country accent. It is not for me to tell you that saying ‘there are five cars’ is somehow superior to the ‘there’s five cars’ version of the sentence. Linguistics, in my view, has no authority to tell you how to speak.
I say this even though I was brought up and taught in a highly prescriptivist tradition. Not only were Polish children taught that any semblance of regional accent was inferior to ‘literary Polish’, but were actively discouraged from using dialects. I still remember the controversies around the language of President Wałęsa whose language was quite far from the coveted ‘norm’. That in itself was considered by many to mean that he was unsuitable for the office of president.
As it happens, these pronouncements of verbal hygiene (to use Debbie Cameron’s phrase again) were enshrined in Polish law (here is the link to Wikipedia’s account of the law; in Polish). And so, the law not only states that Polish is Poland’s official language, but also that it should be protected, requires its use in all sorts of public and semi-public contexts, creates a body that is tasked with telling Poland how to speak and write. Incidentally, you can also be fined for swearing in public.
Despite the fact that the law was proposed and promoted by my first mentor, Walery Pisarek, I have always been opposed to it. I think that it is an ideological imposition on us, Poles, that goes way too far. And here comes the ‘but is it?’.
I am spending this year’s Christmas holidays in Poland. I’ve been here for a few days and I’ve been more than irritated. Whenever I switch on the radio, not only am I bombarded by an avalanche of Christmas songs (that’s fairly expected, though I must admit that it is a bit much occasionally), but most of them are in….English. And if they’re in Polish, they’re translations of English/American songs.. Bloody hell, Jingle bells in Polish sounds just silly, as does Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. But that’s not the end of it.
As I was engaging in escaping from on one radio station to another in the futile attempt to escape Christmas songs, this morning one of the presenters wished his listeners Merry Christmas in….English. Well, in Ponglish, really. So I was listening to this ‘Merree Crismas’ and I started to despair.
When I was leaving the UK, I was delighted to be able to escape hearing Slade’s famous Xmas song twice every hour. Except now that I am in Poland, everywhere I go, I hear the incessant stream of English/American Christmas songs. And I can’t stand it.
Now, I understand why this is. Polish Christmas songs tend to be quite religious and it would probably be inappropriate to play them in a shopping mall. The songs in English can be played with impunity. Mostly, people don’t understand them, but they do know them. And so the festive mood helps them choose yet another present in yet another shop.
I started wondering what the source of my irritation was. After all, I continue to be against linguistic prescription. On balance, I also think it’s desirable for people to speak another language and I don’t mind at all if people, at their homes, listen to all the bloody bells that jingle all the bloody time. So, what’s my problem?
First, I’ll tell you what I think my problem is not. Yes, of course, I agree that language is a very important part of the culture, but I always fear that such arguments come too close to fairly nationalist narratives about the wonders of being a Pole. And given that since Romanticism in the 19th century, Poland has been awash with Messianic myths (we will save the world in so many ways, after all we are great), I am wary of such arguments. I also don’t want to go into today’s politics, but these narratives gain more and more traction today.
And so, after some reflection, I think my problem is somewhat complex and consists of the following parts.
1. I do think it would be shame to lose quite a wonderful set of songs in Polish which sometimes are really good poetry and lovely music. I would hate to see them permanently replaced with a Hollywood version of Christmas (regardless of whether it is a religious or purely commercial occasion for you).
2. Given that Polish shopping malls do not play Christmas songs in French, Hungarian or even Russian, Xmas songs in English are not about the diversity of cultural experience, but, rather, about linguistic (and cultural) imperialism. Basically, I am sick and tired of the assumption that if something is in English, it is inherently better than something which is in Polish.
There are all sorts aspects to this and some time ago, I wrote about the superiority of data in English (reflecting the human universal) over Polish data (reflecting only Polish shit). But it goes way beyond. Somehow the ‘merree crismas’ is much better than ‘Wesołych świąt’. It’s cool, international, sophisticated. Its Polish equivalent is necessarily parochial, provincial, the colour of Crismas disappears as the greyness of this year’s Polish snowless winter takes over.
3. I am also irritated by the assumption that the person who is able to wish you a merree crismas will be perceived as in James Bond’s perfectly cut dinner jacket (you know, there are dinner jackets and dinner jackets, ‘merree crismas’ always puts in the latter). When you do ‘Wesołych świąt’, you just grab your black funeral necktie, as you don’t even know what a bloody tuxedo is.
4. I also quite like the idea of listening to something different than English. 10 years ago, you could still hear an Italian, French or Spanish song on Polish commercial radios fairly frequently (no, nothing as ‘obscure’ as Dutch), now it’s a rare treat (judging by my experience, not research).
Yes, English is today’s lingua franca, I have written (and published) in English for almost 3 decades now. But sometimes, I wish I published more in Polish. Alas, it doesn’t count. Incidentally, I am not certain I could do it anymore. If I remember correctly, my doctoral dissertation (on how people boast) remains the last text in Polish I wrote and published (the thesis was published as a book in 1992). I have probably lost Polish academese altogether now and I am not convinced it’s a good thing at all.
And so, I am writing all this to make an obvious point. There a world outside English. There is a world with different sounds, there is a world with different written traditions, there is a world with different Christmas/winter songs. When I go outside the UK, I would like to be reminded of it, also in shopping malls. In fact, we (and I do mean we all) will benefit, if I and we all do.