Sunday, October 12, 2008

It's a Hair Past a Freckle

Generally we divide users of the English language into two categories: those for whom English is their native tongue and those for whom English is a second language. For native users there are then further divisions.

First, there is a country division. The English of the US is not the same English as that of England, nor of any other English-speaking country. The country differences can be ones of grammar, usage, vocabulary and pronunciation. Some consider these country differences as being merely dialects of English; others believe that the differences are greater than what would be acceptable for being a dialect.

Second, there can be within one country many dialects of English. A dialect is defined as " a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially; a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, esp. when considered as substandard. Thus, a special variety of a language: The literary dialect is usually taken as the standard language." Travelers coming from one part of the US to another part frequently have trouble understanding the "natives." This is because of dialect differences.

Next, there can be specialized dialects of English: these we call jargon, cant or argot. What makes a dialect a jargon, cant or argot? Their use is limited and specialized. They are not for "Public" usage. They are intended to "hide meaning" from those not in the group that speaks the jargon, cant or argot.

Over yom tov one of my guests was from California. I love her for many reasons, but one is that her English is my English. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon. West Coast English is basically the same as regards pronunciation and grammar. While there are some idioms that are native to California and separate ones native to the Pacific Northwest, for the most part we share the same idiom pool.

We were sitting on the couches in the afternoon when one of my daughters asked her friend, this woman from California, what time it was. She was not wearing a wristwatch but looked at her wrist anyway and announced: "it's a hair past a freckle." I didn't even blink at this; I understood immediately that 1)she had no watch on and 2)did not know what time it actually was. There was silence in the room, and then all the others said "What?!" "What kind of a strange thing did you just say?" "Man, Californians are really strange!" The young woman and I merely smiled. As we were outnumbered, we chose not to get into a "my dialect is better than your dialect" brangle.

I bring this up now because I have in previous posts complained about the state of English vis a vis many frum groups. Of course there are going to be differences among the various dialects of English here in the US; that is by definition of dialect. "A hair past a freckle" is just one example of how the dialect of one geographic area can differ from another. However, Yeshivish and Yinglish are not true dialects. They are jargon, cant or argot--take your pick among the synonyms. They are not a standard form of English. They are "devised for private communication and identification." Unfortunately, for many frum users of English, Yinglish and Yeshivish are not IN ADDITION TO standard English but have replaced standard English. These users are violating one of the first rules of jargon, cant and argot: these are "secretive" languages, to be used only by those in the select group that uses the jargon, cant or argot, and only with each other. If the males in a yeshiva setting wish to have their "secret" language, hey, nobody is stopping them. (And to be fair, there are females who also are proponents of Yinglish and Yeshivish.) But when they take their jargon, cant or argot out into the general world they can't claim to be speaking standard English.

I do not claim to be a 100% perfect user of standard American English. I will claim, however, by virtue of education and experience, a level of expertise above the ordinary. And no, I am not being "anti-frum" (as was claimed by one hapless student) when I refuse to accept "He was staying over by my grandmother's house last week" as acceptable English for a high school or college student. Nor am I happy with "We learn out from this." Frum individuals are going to go out into the general working world. They are going to have to deal with people from a wide range of English speaking habits. What unites all these speakers is an understanding of standard English. Frum people who are not taught standard English, and who do not practice it religiously, are putting themselves at a disadvantage out in the "real world."

Let me end this with some quotes from the musical "My Fair Lady." Professor Henry Higgins has no tolerance for those who deviate from standard English. He says to Eliza Doolittle, "Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech, that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon." Harshly put, perhaps, but accurate nonetheless. He also pontificates further in his solo "Why Can't the English Learn to Speak":

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue...
This is what the British population
Calls an elementary education...
It's 'ow' and 'garn' that keep her in her place,
Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
[To Pickering] If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
Why you might be selling flowers too...

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian,
the Greeks are taught their Greek
In France every Frenchman knows his language from 'A' to 'Zed' -
The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
The Hebrews learn it backwards which is absolutely frightening.
Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.
Oh, why can't the English -Why can't the English learn to speak?

Change that to some frum Americans and the question still stands.


Anonymous said...

I generally agree with you, but "a hair past a freckle" is not limited only to the west coast. I was born on the east coast to parents who lived the majority of their lives on the east coast (born and raised, for the most part schooled - except for grad school for my father, and then pretty much married and raised their kids for more than 30 years on the east coast, save the first year of marriage in the midwest), and my mother used to say "a hair past a freckle" to me when I was a little girl. Although now that I think about it, she used to say "half past a freckle," not "a hair past a freckle." But, it's the same idea.

And while I'm guilty of saying something like "she ate lunch by me" to mean she ate lunch at my house (yes, I am a product of the yeshiva system) and other idioms and jargon that clearly are not standard English, I am careful not to speak that way when I am around non-Jews. It was a conscious effort on my part, because it is hard to get out of that mode of speaking if 99% of the people with whom one interacts speak that way. Luckily, my parents did not speak that way, and once I went to college (at a secular university) and graduate school (again, at a secular university), I made it a point to make sure I was understandable to 100% of the population, and not just to my Jewish bubble of friends.

Blogher said...

I'm from the midwest, and we always said, "It's two hairs past a freckle."

I cringe whenever I hear someone say "He stayed by me" or "I ate by her." It sounds terrible, like the person just got off the boat, even if they were born and bred in the United States.

JLan said...

Definitely agree with this post, although I think that you're off on "a hair past a freckle"- I'm from VA, my mother is from Chicago, my father is from Long Island, and I've been familiar with that phrase for quite a while.

Incidentally, while I love that song, they're sacrificing a bit of useage accuracy for rhyme scheme. Hanged is the proper form for execution of an individual, while hung is appropriate for all other circumstances (and no, this is not an Americanism, since "hanged, drawn, and quartered" has been around for centuries).

Frumgirl1 said...

Here's another one:

Only New Yorkers stand "on line." Everywhere else in America you stand "in line."

This is not a frum thing, it's a New York thing, but it's amusing.

A Living Nadneyda said...

ProfK and the others - I'm with you, in favor of insisting that students use standard written English. Jargon, Yinglish and all the others are to be reserved for casual conversations at home and with friends, or for informal emails. Blog comments and the like fall somewhere in between.

Having grown up in sunny California, I sometimes tend towards a version of Valley Speak-laced Californese, but only among friends. As for all the other stuff, like, gag me with a spoon. Totally and fer shure.