Q & A with: Lise Fontaine

February 5, 2019


What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?

In my view, the most important concept that everyone, including web users, should know about is the concept of grammar. I think most people know about grammar as a term, but this is generally only in an educational context, a subject area at school and one that most people found unpleasant. As a concept though, we can think of grammar as a resource for making meaning. For me, grammar is simply meaningful patterns. For English, this seems particularly relevant – for example, The dog bit the postman means something different to The postman bit the dog. We can understand each other because we are able to recognise the patterns and the meanings that they encode. Different linguistic frameworks talk about this differently, for example systemic functional grammar and construction grammar, but they both fundamentally consider linguistic units as patterns which express or encode meaning, what is often referred to as a form-meaning pairing. Work on register or text types has shown that there isn’t really a single grammar of a language but different versions of it, depending on the purpose being served in using language. For example, the grammar of writing an essay is quite different to emailing someone about a job and different still to posting on someone’s Facebook wall. For the contexts of use that we engage with very frequently, such as text messaging, tweeting, chatting with friends, etc. we seem to easily pick up the grammar of those registers. Less familiar ones, such as writing a successful cover letter for a job or university essay, is more difficult because the grammar is so different; the grammatical choices are different. The role of grammar, i.e. meaningful patterning, is pervasive; it is not solely the property of language. We also talk about visual grammar and the way in which linguistic and non-linguistic grammars come together in terms of multimodality, texts which combine modes of expression. My feeling is that there needs to be greater awareness of the important place that grammar has in all our lives, in how we communicate, and we need to move away from the idea that grammar is fixed, that there is a right/wrong approach to grammar.

What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?

Concerning the English language very generally, there is, in my opinion, a great misconception concerning the notion that there is such a thing as ‘correct’ English, or a ‘good version’ of English against which all uses of English are measured. English holds a special status as a global language and this means that it is used in various ways around the world. The history of English shows the various influences on the language, its development over time and throughout the world. The Oxford Companion to the English Language includes an impressive amount of information on this and I say that very modestly because the majority of the contributions to this area were made by Tom McArthur in the first edition. It is clear through the development of English, and its spread, that English takes on different shapes or dialects in different regions of the world. In some cases, there are significant differences in the varieties of English being used in any given area, for example everyday English spoken in YorkshireNewfoundlandGlasgow, or New York may be quite different from what we might read in a newspaper like the Financial Times. Each ‘version’ of English, whether the variation is due to dialect or register, is valid and appropriate. Increasingly, research is showing that valuing children’s home variety of whatever language they speak has an important and positive impact on their learning generally but specifically on their literacy development. Recently on Twitter, a colleague tweeted the following: ‘English teacher friend just told me she no longer “corrects” her AAVE-speaking HS students & now see the value in their code-switching due to me “opening her eyes” on this subject.’ (13/09/2018). Varieties of English such as African-American English (or African-American Vernacular English, AAVE) have traditionally been judged as sub-standard and something to be corrected. This is a terrible misconception of English that really must be challenged. I think if we considered all speakers of English around the world, we would find that the vast majority of them are multilingual. In places where we find English along with many other languages we find multiculturalism, and, in some cases, superdiversity, such as in Birmingham, which is one of the UK’s most diverse cities. We might also find, as for example in Jamaica, diglossia, where one language, e.g. Jamaican Creole, is used in everyday conversations and another language, e.g. standard English, is used in official written documents. In every language context involving English there will be variants of English. These variants may be due to multilingualism or due to different contexts of use within a monolingual environment. We might say that which version is given a privileged status is more of a political question than a linguistic one. No single speaker, no single speech community owns English and it is a misconception to think of English as a single language; it is not.

Which figure in your subject’s history would you most like to invite to a dinner party? What would you ask him/her?

It is very difficult to select only one person in the history of the English language as a subject of study. I think most linguists would want to sit down to have a chat with Saussure. Not only is he considered the father of linguistics, but also because most of what we have of Saussure’s work is from notes and unpublished manuscripts, so we are left wanting to ask questions and learn more from him directly. However, I’m not going to pick Saussure for my dinner party. I’m going to pick instead someone who is not really prominent at all in the history of the English language:Lady Charlotte Guest (1812–1895). I think maybe I’m cheating a bit here because she is such an unusual choice. The reason for this choice is that women in general are missing from the history of linguistics and English language studies. This thankfully has changed and we find many more prominent women making significant contributions, for example Susan Hunston, Anna Wierzbicka, Anne Charity Hudley, Joan Bybee, Sue AtkinsRuqaiya HasanDeborah Schiffrin, and many, many others.

Lady Guest would be described as an accomplished linguist by today’s standards and indeed the Wikipedia page about her does say as much. In my view, Lady Guest is a remarkable person and deserves some recognition of her achievements. She contributed to the English language subject area through translation, education, and literature. She was multilingual and learned seven additional languages (Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian) before she moved to Wales in 1833. Most English people who moved to Wales did not learn the language (this remains unfortunately true today), but Lady Guest did and in my mind that makes her quite exceptional. I would want to ask her about her motivations in learning so many languages and in learning Welsh in particular. I would like to ask her about her methods for language learning and whether this influenced her approach to education. .

In the 1800s there were very few ‘linguists’ even though there were many interested in philology. Linguistics was not an established subject discipline, nor was English language and certainly women were not encouraged to pursue an academic career at this time. So there are very few other ‘linguists’ that she could have come into contact with other than possibly through language learning and translation. She would have been a contemporary, to some extent, of Grimm (1785–1863) and Sweet (1845–1912) but very unlikely, I think, to have known about their work. One question I would have for her would relate to the early work both scholars were involved with in terms of comparative linguistics and ask her about what she would contribute to the development of this area of language study, given how many languages she knew. I’d also be very curious about whether she shared Sweet’s approach to language teaching.

Perhaps her greatest tangible contribution has been her work in translating the four branches of the Mabinogi (a collection of the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, originally in Welsh). Her translation became a highly influential standard throughout Europe and remains so today. In view of the comparative approaches of her contemporaries, I would want to ask her about what she learned about the English language as she worked on such a mammoth literary translation. How I would love to have access to her notes from the translation process. I would have many questions to ask her about this.

Like many other women who had great skill and knowledge but who were not represented and acknowledged as historical figures, I would want to ask her about what she thinks we might have gained if women had been allowed to pursue philology or linguistics and specifically what she felt she might have wanted to contribute personally. We know very little about her views of linguistics or on the English language and yet she must have discovered many things and/or had ideas that she would have liked to see developed. I’d like to think that I would learn a lot from having a dinner conversation with her. It also doesn’t hurt that she was well-known for throwing great dinner parties in Merthyr Tydfil and so maybe I’d rather she invited me to hers instead!