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Linguistic Continuum from Vernacular to Standard Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jun 4th, 2020

The article in question dwells upon the continuum from dialects to the standard language. Chambers (2009, 19) emphasizes that the transition from vernacular to standard is determined by interaction of “structure-dependent grammatical devices and articulated phonological contrasts”. It is stressed that these two elements bear cognitive cost.

There are numerous examples of the difference between grammatical and phonological codes. Thus, they can be found in the Middle and Old English. An explanation for the difference between dialects and the standard language can be found in the social terrain. Thus, dominating social groups want to distinguish themselves and try to have their linguistic codes to show their superiority.

Chambers (2009) focuses on different layers of subject-verb agreement to analyze the transfer from dialects to standard. Thus, subject-verb nonagreement can be found in African-American dialect where the verb “is” becomes invariant while in standard English it is the singular form only. Subject-verb nonagreement with ‘there’ as the subject is also quite common and it can be explained by the need of “a look-ahead mechanism” (Chambers 2009, 22). Thus, ‘there’ is not seen as a subject since the “displaced logical subject” follows the copula and, hence, the speaker is tempted to use the copula which agrees with it instead of “expletive” subject (Chambers 2009, 22). The look-ahead mechanism is seen as something limiting human cognition.

Thus, speakers tend to fail to use it in their every-day life and the cases of nonagreement in spoken English are common. Chambers (2009) notes that this is a universal feature and can be found in all languages. It is also stressed that the expletive subject obtains featureless forms like ‘there’ or the third person singular form. This happens in many languages (for example, in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and so on). At the same time, people tend to skip the look-ahead mechanism and do not pay attention to the expletive subject focusing on the logical subject in dialects. Of course, this leads to nonagreement of subject and verb.

The author also notes that standard languages tend to compromise when look-ahead mechanism is required. For instance, in Standard English, compound subject is an illustration of this trend as only the first conjunct agrees with the verb. In sentences starting with ‘there’, the compound subject can consist of morphologically different words, but there is no need in agreeing all of them as the left conjunct is enough.

Therefore, the verb agrees with the first conjunct, which diminishes the need in the look-ahead mechanism. Hence, the look-ahead mechanism is limited to make it more manageable for the speaker as only first (left) conjunct agrees with the verb. Examples of such compromises can be found in other languages, for example, in Spanish, Greek, Irish, Biblical Hebrew and Arabic.

Apart from compromising, ignoring the look-ahead mechanism is also possible. Thus, numerous verbs do not change their morphological form. The vast majority of Standard English verbs (in past and future tenses), Welsh and Irish verbs have the same forms for plural and singular. In that way, they avoid the look-ahead mechanism. People do not need to choose the necessary form of the verb for this or that subject as there is only one form. The look-ahead mechanism is not required in that case and cognitive load is minimized, which makes the language structure more manageable.

Remarkably, the author notes that the look-ahead mechanism provides insights into the development of dialects as speakers of standard languages rarely mix irregular forms, but the cases of mistakes in subject-verb agreement are common among them. Hence, it is clear that dialects will try to avoid the look-ahead mechanisms to limit cognitive load. In other words, people employ short-term memory effectively and this use if manifested in dealing with the look-ahead mechanism.

The author also claims that the development of languages does not depend on the structure of the language exclusively but it is closely connected with cognitive limitations and human cognitive features. Languages tend to ignore the look-ahead mechanism to make language structures more manageable. Therefore, it is possible to explain some changes in dialects and their transformation into standard languages with the help of cognitive features of people. People try to minimize cognitive load in languages and skip the look-ahead mechanisms which are especially manifested in subject-verb agreement.

The author concludes that variation becomes “an inevitable aspect of grammar” (Chambers 2009, 31). The author stresses that even though particular rules are set, cognitive limits affect the development of dialects as well as standard languages. Thus, some rules are compromised or even ignored to make language structure manageable. Clearly, numerous factors affect development of the language but structural or social factors become less significant compared to those associated with cognitive features. Chambers unveils this aspect of the development of the language and stresses that it is universal. The author focuses on subject-verb agreement, though it is possible to address other aspects of the language to find examples of the influence of cognitive features.

Reference List

Chambers, J.K. 2009. “Cognition and the Linguistic Continuum from Vernacular to Standard.” In Vernacular Universals and Language Contacts: Evidence from Varieties of English and Beyond, edited by Markku Filppula, Juhani Klemola, and Heli Paulasto, 19–33. New York, NY: Routledge. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Linguistic Continuum from Vernacular to Standard." June 4, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/linguistic-continuum-from-vernacular-to-standard/.


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