English varieties (was: Word Order)

Colin Fine colin at kindness.demon.co.uk
Wed Apr 6 17:34:58 EDT 2005

deborah wrote:

>On Wed, 6 Apr 2005, Colin Fine wrote:
>|Like several other posters, I also was brought up to speak a standard
>|(read 'middle-class') variety, and have 'It is I' and 'whom' in my
>|idiolect. But I nevertheless hold that they are part of a 'learned'
>|language that is acquired naturally by nobody.
>Okay, I gotta ask -- and I ask not to be provocative but because I'm
>genuinely confused -- how are these statements not contradictory?
>Unless you mean that you grew up saying "who" but had your hand slapped
>until you learned "whom".  Which was not the case for me; who/whom, like
>the remaining English subjunctive on conditionals, is just part of the
>language I learned to speak.  The rule came later, which is why I had
>such a hard time learning French; the teachers assumed that since I
>could use objects and subjects correctly in English I knew what they
>were, but I'd merely learned them as my natural language.
No, I'm not saying I had my hand slapped, but I certainly had parents 
who made it
very clear what was 'correct'.
I do not claim to remember the process of learning to speak, but I 
always knew that there
was a tension between what was 'correct' and the way people ordinarily 
spoke. Since I
had imbibed all my parents' class prejudices it was naturally important 
to me to speak
Language - all language - is governed by rules, even though most people 
are not consciously
aware of the rules they are applying and could not formulate them. Since 
English distinguishes
between 'I' and 'me' (and a few other like pairs) there must be rules 
that govern the choice
between them.
What Emonds argues is that the rule taught and mostly applied in 
prescriptive grammar ("use 'I'
for the subject and 'me' otherwise") is not a rule of English, in the 
sense that there is not enough
material in English for a learning child to deduce the concepts (subject 
and object) that that rule
requires. I am not saying that the concepts don't exist in the English 
child's language machine, but that
they will not correspond to the same categories in Latin.

Now I realise I have been making a mistake in this discussion, in 
insisting that 'It is I' cannot be part of
a child's natural language. This is wrong, and I apologise to Philip and 
anybody else I have contradicted on this.

But, I will still claim that the child that learns 'It is I' will not 
have learned the rule that the prescriptive grammarians
would have us apply: that child will have constructed a different rule 
to account for observation - perhaps just that
this is an irregularity and this one phrase requires.
The evidence for this argument (though in respect of other uses of 'I', 
not this one) is in the hypercorrections I
referred to before, such as 'between you and I', and 'from my wife and 
I'. In the traditional view, these are as
wrong as 'him and me went', and for the same reason: the pronouns are in 
the wrong case. They are also, I
suggest, unnatural in the same way as 'It is I' - they are learned 
forms. So why do people say something that is
neither natural to them, nor according to the rule? Clearly because they 
do not fully understand the rule.

But children don't need to understand the dozens of rules they apply 
every day in speaking and listening. Once they have learned to use even 
a complicated construction like 'What did you go into the garden for?' 
they rarely get it wrong.
Which suggests that there are (at least) two radically different kinds 
of rule: the ones that everybody has unconsciously and hardly ever gets 
wrong; and the ones that some people get wrong a lot of the time.


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