An important premise of Citizen Sociolinguistics is that people have significant awareness of language and how they use it. People demonstrate this on the Internet by posting detailed definitions on Urban Dictionary (See previous post on UD.), making lengthy side-comments on YouTube about their own “accent” during Accent Challenge videos (See previous post on Konglish.), or just in conversation, talking about new words they’ve learned while traveling or meeting new people (See previous post on “Weg.”).

All this Internet and face-to-face banter about and with language, suggests to me that people have become increasingly liberal in their attitudes about language and more aware about how language can be used flexibly. But “seems” isn’t always “so.” Could it be that these super-aware language users are just a minute sliver of people representing the unique and tiny world I live in? Or, am I deluding myself about their “super-awareness”?

I decided to test the waters of language awareness by sending out a brief “Language Awareness Survey” to my Facebook friends. It consists of six T/F questions, extracted from an ancient revolutionary textbook called Language and Reality, written by Neil Postman in 1966. Here is my much-abridged version of his quiz:

Directions: Answer True (T) or False (F) for each of the statements which follow.

“T”= So far as I know, this statement is more true than false.

“F”= So far as I know, this statement is more false than true.

  1. ________ The English language has only six major vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, u, and y.
  2. ________ Correct grammar is grammar that is logical.
  3. ________ Generally, educated people do not use a dialect when speaking.
  4. ________ In English, the sentence, “I didn’t do nothing” means “I did do something.”
  5. ________ Regardless of how many people use the word “irregardless,” it is still not a word in English.
  6. ________ The more meanings a word has, the less useful it is.

Survey Monkey nicely tabulated the responses from the first 100 Facebook responders before asking for money (apologies to those friends who replied later whose responses I couldn’t use or even see!).

Given that Facebook responders are officially designated my “friends,” I assumed we would all have pretty much the same (“correct”) responses to these questions. My own humble responses would be False, False, False, False, False and, False!

A very smart Facebook responder must have had the same assumption (and shared my answers) because he commented,

“Advice on survey construction, don’t frame all or most questions so they have the same answer or same negation structure.”

Not only did I construct the survey poorly, but, as the results below illustrate, nobody paid much heed to this huge hint as to the “correct” answers when responding:

Question True False
1.     The English language has only six major vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, u, and y. 30 68
2.     Correct grammar is grammar that is logical. 19 79
3.     Generally, educated people do not use a dialect when speaking. 7 93
4.     In English, the sentence, “I didn’t do nothing” means “I did do something.” 46 53
5.     Regardless of how many people use the word “irregardless,”it is still not a word in English. 56 40
6.     The more meanings a word has, the less useful it is. 9 85

 

My first impression was shock and delight! My Facebook friends and I have more divergent views about language than I would have predicted. But I do have some possible (and potentially exciting) explanations, which I will delve into in my next post. In the meantime, send your comments. Do these results surprise you too? Why do you think the responses were so wide-ranging? If you would (or did) post answers other than F, F, F, F, F, F, why?

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9 thoughts on “Language Awareness: Who Has It?

  1. I find this really interesting! And while I tended toward false generally, I actually really struggled with #4 because it could be ONE meaning of the sentence, just not the exclusive meaning of the sentence. Honestly, I don’t remember how I answered that one because I thought of contexts where it could be true, but also contexts where it could be false. So it wasn’t true or false, for me, it was both. Just a bit of my explanation for that one specifically. But intriguing to see the results (thanks for sharing!).

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    1. I didn’t even think of #4 as actually meaning “I did do something”. However, now that Liz posted this reply, it made me think about the possible contexts and linguistic or paralinguistic cues that could make both readings possible. “I didn’t do nothing” (rising intonation on ‘nothing’)- e.g., denying the accusation that one sat about doing nothing all day. If one reads this with a AAVE pronunciation, one would recognize the meaning of this construction in that variety of English as a negative construction. I had read it as the latter.

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      1. Exactly, I feel like a lot of research/thinking/analyzing (and nurturing small humans, I have found) has no tangible outcome but is actively doing something. I’ve definitely used the phrase “I didn’t do nothing; I finally figured X out!” when I came home from a writing session with nothing written, for example. I was just hoping to clarify why those results in particular are so split.

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  2. Interesting survey, Betsy! Since my answers would have been slightly divergent, I thought I’d respond to your request for comments.

    1. The idea that there are 6 vowels is so drummed into us in “grammar” school that, in my initial perusal of your question, I failed to notice that you were talking about the number of vowel *sounds* as opposed to vowels. A voice did whisper in my ear, “But what about diphthongs?” as I mentally marked the statement as true. Of course, even putting diphthongs aside, every vowel has at least two sounds of its own, so I see clearly now that the statement is false.

    2. I would have, like you, said this was a false statement. The study of any other European foreign language will often make clear just how lacking in logic English is, which has far fewer rules than something like German. On the other hand, English indeed has a *grammar* and that grammar, by definition, has rules governing structure. One likes to think that where there are rules, there is a logic behind them, and often with English grammatical rules there is – they’re just applied inconsistently! I think that’s where folks who answered “true” could be coming from.

    3. My knee-jerk response to this was to say, “True!” It’s just knee-jerk, tho, based on the following: “educated” = “good” grammar, and “good” = “universal,” or proper. Dialect is particular, often “peculiar” in its departure from the grammatical rules. Educated people, according to this logic, would generally speak a “pure,” dialect-free English. As if purity existed.

    4. “I didn’t do nothing.” Okay, we know what it means in the current vernacular. But *technically* (i.e., according to one of the very few rules that native English speakers with a 6th grade education *do* – or used to – adhere to), a statement containing a double negative *logically* signifies its positive restatement. Right? RIGHT? Please don’t take away my last true rule!

    5. I’d like to say this statement was true; I’d probably go on official record in support of its truth. Because, really, why do we let people just *make up* words? (I’m channeling George Will…) But of course, practically-speaking, at some point the previously non-existent words, after first creeping, stride proudly into common currency, and thus into the dictionary. What that point is, I cannot say. With “irregardless,” I fear, we’re long past that terrible moment…

    6. Because I love words, with all their meanings and nuances, I would never agree with this statement. But from the point of view of a non-native English speaker, it’s pretty unhelpful to hear someone utter a homonym (and, for that matter, a homograph; or encounter a homograph while reading). If the speaker’s intended meaning is not clearly conveyed because of the word, someone might conclude that the word is – if not useless, then – ineffective, of limited use.

    P.S. Re #4, I just looked up the double-negative rule, only to find that it’s a relatively recent rule in the history of the English language. I guess I should have known, since some other western languages once had – and sometimes still have – double-negatives. There is no truth!

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  3. I’m a little surprised, too! I like hearing the differing opinions on #4. I hadn’t considered the importance of intonation, or (merely) just looking at a context for logical construction. In my field (math ed), logical constructions are clearly very important.

    I also am surprised that more folks didn’t dislike “irregardless.” This was the only one to which I replied “True,” even though I feel that I have a “loose” philosophy of language.

    And if the survey included questions on creative spelling, I will admit that I might have been less liberal. I am also less likely to be liberal when considering (professional or nearly professional) academic, (certain types of) formal expository, or career-related writing.

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