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Monday, December 08, 2003

From the American Dialect Society mailing list:

Subject: Re: "at" at the end of a where phrase
From: Scott Sadowsky
Date: Mon, 8 Dec 2003 01:06:03 -0500

On 12/7/2003 10:41 PM, Geoffrey S. Nathan wrote the following:

>>I will probably regret this comment, since it is somewhat out of the
>>mainstream, but I am increasingly convinced that the association of
>>'correct' grammar with those in 'power' is itself an item of faith by
>>those of a progressive social bent.

I'll let the English-based linguists who hang out here address the specific
cases you cite. For my part, let me give you some evidence from the
Spanish-speaking world.

Ask any Chilean about how they speak Spanish, and they'll go off on a
tirade about how horribly they and their countrymen speak the
language. And these rants are inclusive -- their criticism is also
self-criticism. Ask them where "good" Spanish is spoken and they'll tell
you Peru and, in second place, Colombia. If you ask them specifically
about how Argentinians speak the language, you'll probably be told that
they speak it pretty well, but that they're not exactly models to be
imitated (national rivalries play a strong part in this judgement).

Ask Bolivians where "good" Spanish is spoken and the answer will almost
certainly be Peru. Lima, to be specific. Central Americans will cite
either Mexico (Mexico City) or Colombia (especially Bogota if they're
familiar with the different dialects) as being where "good" Spanish is spoken.

Argentinians from Buenos Aires are quite content with their own use of
Spanish, having gone so far as to create a Lunfardo language academy,
Lunfardo being the underclass and lower-class sociolect immortalized in
thousands of tango lyrics. But ask provincial Argentinians about how they
speak and they'll tell you the residents of Buenos Aires are the folks who
really know how to speak right.

I've also been told, anecdotally, that Venezuelans will tend to admit
--teeth-grittingly, due to national rivalries-- that Colombians speak
Spanish better than they do, especially the residents of Bogota.

So, what's behind this? What's the pattern here? Why do Lima, Bogota,
Mexico City and --to a much lesser degree-- Buenos Aires keep popping up as
bastions of "good" Spanish?

Pull out your pre-1810 historical maps you'll see that these cities were
the capitals of the viceroyalties the Spanish established in their colonies
in the Americas. They were the centers of civil, judicial, religious and
economic power, as well being the centers of education.

And two centuries after they were abolished, they continue to be the
centers of "good" Spanish in the mind of the vast majority of
speakers. (Spain itself, by the way, is virtually never cited as such a
place, most likely due to its role as the villain in this story).

Buenos Aires' status as a place where "pretty good" --but not "good"--
Spanish is spoken can be explained by the fact that the viceroyalty of
which it was the capital was the last one of the four to be established.

Argentina is a fascinating case in this regard. A whole series of
linguistic changes occurred in the century after Buenos Aires was made
capital of a viceroyalty, as the lower classes increasingly imitated the
middle classes who were following lead of the local ruling class which was
busy imitating the Spanish elite. To cite just one example, there was a
strong and very well-documented lambdacist tendency (a low prestige
feature) in Argentinian Spanish that is now utterly extinct.

So no, there is really no faith at play here at all.

>>In my experience the strongest defenders of 'correct' grammar are
>>primarily school teachers and print journalists, hardly those who
>>constitute bastions of political and social power.

Ah, but they are defending their privileged positions as gatekeepers to
nothing less than "correct English". It is a piddling bit of turf they
have to defend, but it's all they have, and as you've noted they are very
fierce in their defense of it. After all, it's about the only power
they've got.

BTW, in the debate that's arisen on this matter there's a very strong
tendency to interpret "power" as being only the very top level of power,
and that's just not the case. A McDonald's shift manager only has slightly
more power than a homeless person, but if you're a line cook on his shift
his power is considerable -- he could ruin your life for a couple months by
firing you and making you unable to pay the bills.

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