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Standardization of a Language

Linguistics and Dialects of American Sign Language

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Standardization Process and Requirements

            Johnston (2003) quotes Milroy and Milroy in his article, Language Standardization and Signed Language Dictionaries, as defining the standardization of a language as “the suppression of optional variability in a language (432).”  The process of standardization is an involved process that language communities undergo and operates on the phonology, lexicon, and syntax of a language.  Language standardization describes more of a process than a product (Johnston, 2003).

            The various stages in the process are the selection, diffusion, maintenance, codification, and prescription of a standard form of a language (Johnston, 2003).  Knowledge of the process of standardization is important.  Without distinctions, one can easily feel that a standardized form of a language can be imposed on a community with success and ease without having the initial conditions present to feed and sustain it.  While a standard language is linked to decisions from the rich and powerful, a practical and functional side exists as to why standardization can be seen within society (Johnston, 2003).

            Literacy is responsible for permitting the diffusion of a standard through correspondence, legal papers, documents, and dictionaries (Johnston, 2003).  The written format is one means of communication that favors a selection of pronunciation, lexicon, and syntax within a language that is presented on paper.  Literate individuals learn to represent words in only one format.  Their knowledge is devoid of how the person creating the text speaks them.  Writers learn to substitute the varieties of a language for the newer accepted standard version of a language.  Religious and legal associations are often held responsible for the written format of a language.  This written format was once based on the emerging standard and becomes the very measurement of correctness of the language as a whole (Johnston, 2003).

            Literacy allows codification to occur. Codification shows the conventions of orthography and sentence structure that have existed and continue to emerge.  In this stage of the process, the first dictionaries and grammar of a standard form of language is produced, but they only deal with the “difficult” words, phrases, or grammatical structures and so are not considered comprehensive or exhaustive (Johnston, 2003).

            As the process of standardization becomes advanced, the nonstandard or vernacular users are stigmatized and often discriminated (Johnston, 2003).  “Dialect” and “accent” define and describe varieties of a language that deviate from this prescribed standard.  Dictionaries and grammars developed in this stage claim to be exhaustive and comprehensive, and users of the language regard them as an authority of defining correctness in language.  It is in this step of the standardization process that it reaches its most complete form in society and near universal literacy (Johnston, 2003).  All other formats are devalued as deviation, sloppy production, or performance errors according to Johnston.

            Writing is not only a catalyst in the process of standardization, but also the product of the language standardization process.  According to Johnston, an individual could reason that the standardized version is somewhat of a ‘chimera.’  The truth is, accents and dialects are prevalent in everyday speech, and variations in pronunciation, lexicon, and grammar from this standard occur everywhere.  Speakers of the “standard variation” do not actually speak the idealized standard written format of the language. Even with this knowledge, nonstandard varieties continue to be devalued, and deviation of the written language lacks tolerance (Johnston, 2003).

Dictionaries and their Role in Standardization

            Lucas in his article, “The role of variation in lexicography,” quoted Landau as defining a dictionary as “a text that describes the meaning of words, often illustrates how they are used in context, and usually indicates how they are pronounced (Lucas, 2003, 322).  The term “dictionary” often suggests authority, scholarship, and precision that language users look to for answers concerning the appropriate usage and standard norms of a language (Lucas, 2003).   

Dictionaries are a format of making a language legitimate (Lucas, 2003).  Lucas presents an example where the Deaf president of the research group on Italian Sign Language in Rome thanked the printer for choosing a heavy paper for the 2,500 entries because it gave the appearance of being bulky (Lucas, 2003).  The reason for this gratitude was that when it stood on the shelf with the other recognized and standardized languages, people saw its size and did not question whether it was a real language. The significance of this was that prior to the production of such a dictionary, it was not considered a legitimate language (Lucas, 2003).

            While many American Sign Language books exist to represent and display the lexicon of signs for the Deaf community of America.  Members of the Deaf community have shown resistance to these books as not being descriptive of what occurs in their language (Lucas, 2003).  Many members of the Deaf community have felt that these dictionaries inaccurately represent their language and do not show all the variations that exist within their language.  Lucas and Johnston have different opinions about the ability to represent the many variations in a sign language dictionary.

Date Created: May 15, 2006 Time: 10:52 pm
Date Modified: June 8, 2006