Some sociolinguistic observations about myself and Georgians

My first observation is not strictly linguistic but I think at least provides a nice context for this and other sets of observations. The observation is that, as one of my new friends put it, they let young people do important things here. Nino, the TLG program director, is only 30. Her staff is also young. The NGO representatives that spoke to us last night were mostly younger than I am (I’m 28 and will be 29 on the third of November). So most of the Georgians that I have encountered in the context of the TLG program have been very young. Even the Minister of Education seemed quite young.

Anyway, on to language. One thing I have noticed is that several of the Georgian speakers make extensive use of the word “somehow.” I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what the context is in which this “somehow” is used. My first guess, I think, would be as a hedge – for non-linguists, I basically mean a word that you stick in an utterance to indicate a lack of certainty or a vocalized acceptance of the possibility that the utterance might not end up being true. I personally make extensive use of hedges – I use terms such as “I think,” “maybe,” “like,” and others to avoid being overassertive, because I am otherwise a very assertive and I try not to come off as domineering or arrogant (and I often fail). My second guess would be that they use “somehow” as a sort of verbal pause, perhaps to cover up what would otherwise be noticeable searching or planning for a word or phrase to use. It could be either, both, or neither, but I’ll be on the lookout for the term anyway to try to see if I can get a better picture of when and why it’s used.

Georgian speakers also seem to favor the progressive versions of verb tenses when speaking English. I hear a lot of constructions like “maybe you will be finding out” rather than “maybe you will find out.” I’ll try to note a specific example or two if I can. On the other hand, Georgians tend to use “will” preferentially over “is going to” when talking about the future, and also seem to use “will” a lot in general – for instance as a substitute for “would”: “Every day he would go to the store” becomes “Every day he will go to the store” even when describing the past. These are just the preliminary, casual observations of marked speech patterns – I’m sure I’ll have a more systematic, less anecdotal approach when I am actually teaching ELLs (English Language Learners) and correcting their grammatical and usage errors.

Until then, I also have an observation about myself. It’s related to what I said above about hedges. I tend to speak very quickly, although I can slow myself down if I have to by dropping into what has been described as a midwestern-US accent. I have actually been told on this trip that I have “no” accent, which coming from an American generally means that I have the “neutral” accent adopted by anchorpersons and other TV and radio personalities, which I believe either is, or is derived from, a midwestern-US accent.

Anyway, I tend to speak very quickly, and use a lot of hedges and softeners, and I have now apparently developed a tendency to rephrase and repeat everything I say – none of which are good habits when speaking to people whose English is not very developed. I feel that I used to speak more directly and succinctly, and I suspect that I developed my current conversational habits as a way of coping with specific kinds of people and situations that arise in an American workplace environment. Speak quickly to project an air of efficiency, but use hedges and softeners to not appear to be challenging the management or bossing around colleagues, and make sure to say everything in two ways to avoid being misheard or misinterpreted. I don’t know, I could be wrong – and there I am hedging again – but anyway, I’m going to have to drop those habits to make myself understood when speaking English to native Georgians.

One final thing about Georgian. In Georgian there is one word that means he, she, and it. Thus a common mistake Georgians make is refering to a girl as he or a person as it. One advantage of this is that Georgians never have to decide how to refer to a person whose gender is unknown. Consider this example in English:

“What should I do if a customer comes in?”
“Tell ____ I’ll be right back.”

Now, in this case, some would have you believe that the correct answer is “him or her.” “Tell him or her that I’ll be right back.” Sounds oddly formal – in other words, it’s marked as being hypercorrect. Something an English teacher might say. Personally, I would use “them.” I’d also probably shorten it – “tell’em I’ll be right back.” Some are in favor of the gender-neutral “he,” and while that may even be most common in modern speech, I don’t think it sounds right here – “Tell him I’ll be right back” sounds oddly specific, and seems to imply that the speaker has actual knowledge of the customer, although perhaps I’m just too primed to hear gender-specific language at this point.

Anyway, what’s really interesting for me is what to do when this comes up. I imagine the Georgian textbook has some kind of statement about which pronoun to use for a person of unknown gender. I imagine at some point, someone will ask, or someone will just make a decision and use one pronoun or another. Maybe the Georgian English teacher will ask me, or have an opinion.

My preference, I think, would be to teach the controversy, as they say. I’m supposed to be preparing these students to interact in the English-speaking world, which consists mainly of contexts that are not formal or academic writing, in which “he or she” will be marked. Earlier today I heard a Georgian woman use “it,” perhaps assuming that “it,” being gender-neutral, was a natural choice for a referent of indeterminate gender; I can’t send these Georgians out into the world calling people “it.” So I think they need to be prepared to understand “he or she,” “one,” gender-nuetral “he,” gender-nuetral “she,” and singular “they” when those things come up. That understanding should include why they are chosen and in what contexts they are appropriate. I wonder how much leeway I’ll have with that since singular “they” is my personal favorite even though it is widely considered ungrammatical by English teachers, copyeditors, and peevologists.

This is like the creationism vs. evolution debate of the English language field. “He or she” is creationism, gender-neutral “he” is intelligent design, singular “they” is evolution, and gender-neutral “she” is like some out-there philosophy based on Berkeley and Hume that claims that until we can prove that we actually exist, it is meaningless to speculate on our origins. And “one” is Scientology.

And on that note… Georgian folk dance!

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2 Responses to Some sociolinguistic observations about myself and Georgians

  1. Andrew says:

    The more I read about gender theory the more aware I am of the way English forces the speaker to specify gender. I have yet to find a good way to be gender neutral in conversational speech. When I was a copy editor, not specifying the gender was always just lazy reporting unless you are reporting on a person whose gender does not neatly fit into masculine or feminine. I am still trying to figure out a way of using conversational English without making assumptions about gender. It is difficult.

    Are you planning on teaching what is correct in conversation or what is grammatically correct?

    • panoptical says:

      The curriculum in Georgia is aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which means that the goal is for the language learner to be proficient in certain communicative tasks. Given the sheer amount of written and spoken English that is widely used but considered “ungrammatical” for whatever reason, I think that only teaching language learners “grammatical” English would rob them of the ability to understand and participate in the kind of everyday conversation that they would have when communicating with native English speakers.

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