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Archive for January, 2009

Imperfect Learning

Unlike the genetic code, language is a learned code, and in this arena of human activity, as in all other human endeavor, errare humanum est. Error, moreover, is exclusively within the human realm, having no direct counterpart in nature despite having a natural history. Part of that history, when it comes to language, as with all social codes, is imperfect learning.
Children routinely make mistakes when learning their native language, and the degree to which their mistakes are rooted out by parents and other adults (and older children) in part determines the lineaments of linguistic change. Adult native speakers with the requisite amount of education can be reckoned to have a more or less complete command of their language, the range of completeness varying with factors such as book learning or technical knowledge, by which syntax–– and particularly vocabulary–– can continue to be expanded over the span of one’s entire life.
But even adult speakers make mistakes that are the product of imperfect learning. This is evident to anyone who makes a special point of observing how people speak (and write).
The opportunity to observe imperfect learning has been considerably expanded by modern media. One hears many voices on the radio using English either as a native language or a lingua franca, and one need not listen long before hearing a mistake.
Frank Deford, whose commentaries on sports are heard weekly on National Public Radio, is described as a writer with many books and essays to his credit. Nevertheless, in commenting on college football (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) he uttered the solecism “strange duck” instead of “odd duck;” (odd is apt here not simply because it is the traditional epithet but because of the repeated [d] that led to these two words being juxtaposed in the set phrase odd duck). One cannot blithely ascribe this error to a writer’s penchant for creative idiosyncrasy: it’s a mistake tout court.
Foreigners who resort to English as a lingua franca, no matter how fluent, are especially prone to mistakes that arise from imperfect learning. Thus the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, whose thick accent belies a near-perfect command of English syntax and vocabulary, when interviewed on National Public Radio (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) used the solecism “uprise” (obviously but nonetheless erroneously back-formed from the noun uprising) as if it were a verb of English. Such instances of imperfect learning can even encompass the most hackneyed items: Mr. Oz also changed at the end of the day to “in the end of the day.” Interestingly, he closed his side of the interview by demonstrating a tacit solidarity with contemporary American English grammar by uttering the erroneous “Thanks for having me,” i. e. omitting the postposition on––a linguistic phenomenon that has reached near ubiquity in the cloyingly unctuous etiquette of radio interviewees.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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