Universiteit Leiden

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Schultink lecture

  • Shana Poplack (University of Ottawa)
Wednesday 28 June 2017
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Telling tales in and out of school: prescriptive dictates meet community norms in vernacular entrenchment and spread

The prime mandate of the educational enterprise is to curb, if not reverse, community-based linguistic variation and change. Yet spoken vernaculars, even of the highly educated, are replete with non-standard forms. In Quebec French, many are involved in vigorous change in progress, so that for urban youth of today, stigmatized variants are basically the norm in various areas of the grammar.Why have these rogue forms persisted in the face of centuries of prescriptive stigma? And why have their unacknowledged contexts of use spread to the detriment of those prescribed in grammars? The tendency is to blame the official conduits of standard language – teachers and schools. But this underestimates the power of the speech community to propagate and enforce vernacular norms. In this Schultink lecture I explore these issues by assessing the competing roles of community and school in abetting language change and preserving ratified forms. Illustrating with large-scale quantitative analyses of five morphosyntactic variables which differ in terms of stigma, salience, prescriptive transparency and social meaning, I compare actual language use of French teachers and their students in school and out, as well as with the community norm on the one hand, and the prescribed norm on the other. Results show that teachers sometimes hew to prescriptive rules, but students always align themselves with the community, regardless of variable, variant, teacher model, or degree of prescriptive stigma. These findings confirm the primacy of the peer group in setting and reinforcing linguistic norms. They also raise the questions of what constitutes standard language, whether anyone actually speaks it, and whether it is possible (or useful!) to continue transmitting it from above in the face of longstanding community norms and inexorable language change.

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