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Apostolos Koutropoulos APLING 623

Midterm Paper April 3, 2010

Language Philosophy

“Language depends upon context. Figure out the


context and you can figure out the language
usage.”
- Apostolos Koutropoulos (January 26, 2010)

At the beginning of the semester, when I wrote the above description of my

Philosophy of Language, I was trying to condense a whole semester of APLING 603 into

one succinct definition of what I think language is. Language, as we’ve found out in 603

and in this course, is a result of many power-based relations such as religion, money,

gender, race, ethnicity and how those interact and react with language and culture. By

providing the definition above I attempted to boil it all down to one manageable chunk.

In essence I took a descriptive linguistics approach. In doing this I also lost a lot of the

essence of what language is because I am concerning myself with the aftereffects that

different powers have had on language which itself requires a context in order to analyze!

This is like trying to describe clay once it’s become pottery – you are divorced

from the reality of what clay is. It is possible to go backward and try to uncover the

building blocks of a specific piece of potter pottery (i.e. clay that makes it up) but you

would need to know some of the physical properties of clay beforehand, you would need

to know about the process of making pottery, and what that process does to the clay. In

other words, you would need to either already be familiar with the history of a lump of

clay as it journeys through to become pottery, or you would need to use your deductive

powers to put many seemingly unrelated events together and make sense of them in the

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total context. In this sense language and language analysis are like clay and pottery.

In its original form clay is malleable; there are many things that make it up. The

same is true of language; many languages (including varieties) make up this heap that we

call language. In the end you may have only one socially acceptable mainstream language

– like Standard English in the United States, and you may not know how it got to where it

is from its original state (all of the varieties that came to these shores since the

Mayflower). You may think it’s pretty and that’s how all clay should end up, but you

don’t know why. If you come across another language (or pottery) you might pass harsh

judgment on it because it’s not aesthetic pleasing enough, or you praise it because you

may really like it because you beautiful – however you can’t really explain why your

reasoning either way.

Going back to my original definition of language is context, I would say that all

language has context, even the “decontextualized” language of academe that we see in

described in Gee and Bartolomé. As Gee and Bartolomé rightly point out, “no one has

satisfactorily figured out what ‘decontextualized’ actually means.” (Gee, 1989) The term

itself “obfuscates the fact that de-contextualized language actually refers to language that

utilizes the mainstream or dominant culture’s preferred ways of contextualizing,”

(Bartolomé, 1998) in other words it’s “no more than a fancy term for the sorts of

language and thought that schools reward.” (Gee, 1989)

As we see in Macedo, et al. “questions about what or whose knowledge is being

transmitted in schools, who selects this knowledge and why, what the reasons are that it is

organized the way it is, and why are seldom raised.” (2003) Schools replicate “replicate

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the status quo of the social hierarchy,” (Gee, 1989) as such schools are essentially

microcosms of the larger world around them, replicating the context of language within

the institutional walls. It seems to me that this is meant to create an uncritical acceptance

of “knowledge” passed down. Like proverbs, this knowledge becomes “so familiar that

they win uncritical acceptance of the audience” (Bizzell, 1992) hence obfuscating any

context that would have given the student the necessary information to figure out the

hows and whys of language.

The term used above, decontextualized, is also very dangerous for what it

represents. I’ve touched upon it with Macedo et al. (2003) in that people don’t question

where knowledge comes from and what it represents. When people do question the

knowledge they have received, they do so in highly specialized environments. This

specialization, vis-à-vis knowledge fragmentation, “produces an intellectual

mechanization that, in the end, serves the same function as the fragmentation of skills in

the literacy for the poor,” “they prevent the development of critical thinking that enable

on to ‘read the world’ critically and to understand the reasons and linkages between the

facts.” (Macedo, 1993) In other words, be it mechanical learning, or critical thinking in

one hyper-focused discipline, the end result is the same: lack of real understanding of the

total context in what you are undertaking.

Uncritical minds would justify this, as we saw in Bizzell (1992), by saying “everyone

entitled to their [sic] opinion,” but they don’t question where that opinion came from, and

what the underlying context of that “opinion” is. When there are critical minds, like the

twelve year old student from Boston Latin that refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance

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which the student considered “a hypocritical exhortation of patriotism,” (Macedo, 1993)

they face disciplinary actions for daring making those links, and understanding the

contexts (and doing something about it) that threatens the status quo reproduced by the

school.

Another example of where context is important is seen in the chapter on

disadvantage in Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Wardhaugh, 1997). Wardhaugh writes

that linguists agree that no variety is inherently better than any other one – except for

pidgins that is, which are viewed as a restricted variety. Context in this aspect is really

important because Pidgins do serve a purpose; and they are not more or no less important

than “fully developed languages,” after all if there is no need to have specific grammar

conventions and vocabulary in a language, then why go into the trouble of creating

overhead that is not needed in that language. If meaning is conveyed, then the mission of

the language is accomplished.

I think that in this same chapter we also see the perils of fragmented knowledge, vis-

à-vis specialization. We see that those same linguists that believe that pidgins are a

restricted variety (thus less than “real” languages) agree with Labov “that it is not the

range of devices that is found in a particular variety of language that is important, so

much as the way in which speakers actually use whatever devices exist,” that it “would

be surely false to claim that Kind Alfred was considerably less ‘smart’ that your next

door neighbor” as consequence of speaking Old English, since Old English lacked

devices available in Modern English. (Wardhaugh, 1997) If those linguists stopped to

think of the context within which pidgins arise, they would see that pidgins are no less of

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a language than “full” languages like English, French and German.

Another element of context can be seen in the language this paper is in. When this

country was founded there were (and still are) a great number of languages spoken,

however this paper written, and this course is conducted in, what we call Standard

English (SE). When new immigrants come into this country, or when established groups

use their own language, many cry out “speak American” or “learn English, you’re in

America.” Even when the language spoken is a variety of English it’s still looked down

upon. When attempts to convince people to surrender their native language and speak

only English fail, we see silly examples of people attempting to legislate English-Only

(Padilla, et al., 1991; Class Video Week 2) In order to understand how we’ve come to

this dislike and distrust of the other we need to look at the sociohistorical, cultural,

economic and linguistic events and power relations that brought us to this point in time.

Instead of blindly shouting “speak American” we ought to think critically about the

context in which our language was brought up in and is used.

Wardhaugh (1997) tells us that one proposal made to help children succeed in school

is to eradicate AAVE and to replace it with SE. We also see this echoed in other’s

writings when they report that by mastering English, non-English speaking students will

be able to participate equally in mainstream society. Of course this is not true because as

Wardhaugh points out the problem is a problem of racism, not a problem of linguistics.

The problem here is that the wool is tied over people’s eyes without them realizing it.

English is not the language of the liberator, but rather the language of the oppressor. “it is

the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native

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communities we will never hear,” it “is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to

you.” (hooks, 1994)

Finally, coming back to language is context, we see in Macedo, et al. that we can’t

ignore two facts: “The meaning carried by language can never be analyzed in an isolated

fashion,” and “language cannot exist apart from its speakers.” (2003) This brings us back

to context. A language, a text on a piece of paper or sound recording is completely

meaningless if you don’t know what the context is. I can go up to a fellow Greek-

American and say έφαγα πακέτο (literal translation: “I ate a packet”) but chances are that

this will mean nothing to him, unless they’ve got the requisite background knowledge.

This phrase will lack not just the context within a conversation, but also the context of

what the phrase actually means.

This phrase also exists within a certain historical context. When I was growing up this

phrase did not exist, because we didn’t really have American-style fast food

establishments. With the creation of such establishments came new lingo used to

describe items and processes in those places. This in turn was appropriated by the youth

that was frequenting those establishments to create their own lingo, which in turn came

into the mainstream in Greece. A Greek-American who hasn’t had exposure to that

context would never be able to understand what I just told him.

Looking back at my original philosophy of language statement, I have to say that it’s

a little sterile. It’s the type of definition that linguists who treat language with rubber

gloves in a lab environment may come up with. This type of statement also requires

context in order to be analyzed and to glean the full meaning. Individuals within the

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context of critical thinking sociolinguistics who has been trained within the context of

analysis could take statements like these and come to a similar conclusion as the original

framer of the statement. Without this common context language is reduced to a

meaningless nothing.

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