Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
University of Ottawa
November 1, 2012
“Language is one of the most visible and also the most palatable targets for discrimination.” — Shana Poplack
Sociolinguistics is the study of language in its social context; the way people speak in their normal, everyday lives.
I’m a sociolinguist, so I’m interested in hot topics in society.
For example, we saw a headline in the Montreal Gazette not long ago about how Quebec-English is becoming incomprehensible to everybody in the world, because all these French words like “dépanneur” are mixed into it. We saw another headline in Le Droit that said the reason French kids can’t speak French well is because their teachers don’t speak it well enough.
Well, each of these catapulted us into a long-term, very detailed research project, both of which were generously funded by SSHRC, to test these allegations scientifically.
Language changes all the time. We don’t know in which direction it changes, but sometimes not only are the newer forms often considered to be very bad—this is the normal way that people react to language change—but some of the holdovers are also very often stigmatized, especially if they’re associated with social groups that are otherwise disadvantaged, as well.
Well, most people don’t realize this, but language is one of the most visible and also the most palatable targets for discrimination. We can’t say, “I’m not going to hire you because you belong to X ethnic group, or racial group,” but we can say, “I can’t hire you because you don’t speak English properly,” for example.
I think there are certain forms that become associated with certain sectors of society.
« Honest to God, y m’a amenée direct à la maison, jusqu’à sa maison à l’monsieur! »
Take, for example, the phrase « Va t’assir! » (Go sit down). « Va t’assir! » is a variation of « Va t’asseoir! » The two phrases have co-existed for centuries. There are some people who hate the phrase « Va t’assir! ». Why? Because they associate this phrase with certain sectors of the society that are viewed with disdain for other reasons.
I think the greatest accomplishment of this work is that it has helped debunk some very long-standing stereotypes about mixed languages, minority languages, and non-standard speech more generally.
Maybe the best example is the example of language mixing: starting a sentence in one language and finishing it in another. This is something that exists in bilingual communities everywhere in the world. It is an anathema to everybody who has observed it because people think that both languages are being destroyed in the process, and our research has shown that as a matter of fact, doing this requires untold amounts of linguistic skills, and in fact this is actually not a defect, but a sign of advanced bilingual proficiency.
This award is obviously a huge honour. It is a ratification of my research, which has often been very controversial. I’m taking this award as a ratification of the field of linguistics as a whole—a field that most people do not even know about—and the field of sociolinguistics in particular, and our efforts at trying to rectify at least some social ills through the study of language.