Problems and Principles

Abercrombie, David 1956. Problems and Principles: Studies in the teaching of English as a second language. London: Longmans.

These chapters originally appeared during the years 1948-54 in English Language Teoching, published by the British Council, and I am grateful to the Editorial Board for permission to reprint them here. They are reproduced with some slight revision. An abridged version of Ch. IV was published in Education To-day in 1953, and it was also reprinted in full in The Speech Teacher (U.S.A.) in 1955. (Abercrombie 1956: iii)
Apparently the first chapter appeared in ELT Journal in 1948 under the title "The Social Basis of Language".
General linguistics is partly concerned with the problem of what language does; that is, with the functions of any and every language. It is also concerned with what languages are, how they may best be analysed, described, compared, and classified; in other words, with the form of different languages. (Abercrombie 1956: 1)
Abercrombie is a functionalist. If it is true that the lectures in this book were first published between 1948 and 1954, then this does indeed predate Jakobson's scheme of linguistic functions.
First, language makes it possible for individuals to live in a society. It is characteristic of, indeed fundamental to, the modern point of view in linguistics to regard language as a social activity rather than as a means of individual self-expression. 'Speech is the instrument of society,' as Ben Johnson said; there is a very close connection between the two facts that man is a speaking animal, and that he is the social animal par excellence. The definition of language as 'a means of communicating thoughts' is nowadays commonly held to be, as a partial truth, more misleading than illuminating; a more fruitful definition is that language is a means of social control. (Abercrombie 1956: 1-2)
We do tend nowadays to conflate communication and social control. The connection between language and sociability is also at the heart of Ruesch's social techniques.
There are other uses of language which are not concerned with the communication of thoughts. The conversations which English people hold about the weather, for example, do not as a rule leave the participants any the wiser; only on rare occasions can information be said to have been exchanged. As far as communicating thoughts is concerned, they get nowhere; are they then quite pointless? No; a little reflection will show that this kind of language also has great social value. (Abercrombie 1956: 2)
What is phatic communion? "Quite pointless" is also characteristic of Jakobson's interpretation of phatic communion. In other treatments the point is to form an atmosphere of sociability, to communicate about relationship, etc. Notice also that Malinowski's "social function" has become "social value".
Most peoples have a feeling that a silent man is a dangerous man. Even if there is nothing to say, one must talk, and conversation puts people at their ease and in harmony with one another. This sociable use of language has been given the name phatic communion. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski invented the term, 'actuated' as he said, 'by the demon of terminological invention'; and although he was half in joke, the name has stuck. (Abercrombie 1956: 2-3)
This is the so-called Phatic Maxim (Keepi Talking!). I was not aware that Malinowski meant it humorously when he coined the term, but then again his writing is ambiguous enough to allow for a variety of interpretations.
The actual sense of the words used in phatic communion matters little; it is facial expression and intonation that are probably the important things. It is said that Dorothy Parker, alone and rather bored at a party, was asked 'How are you? What have you been doing?' by a succession of distant acquaintances. To each she replied, 'I've just killed my husband with an axe, and I feel fine.' Her intonation and expression were appropriate to party small-talk, and with a smile and a nod each acquaintance, unastonished, drifted on. (Abercrombie 1956: 3)
The nonverbal communication component of phatic communion is often neglected. I have a feeling that Abercrombie - as an early pioneer in paralanguage - does not neglect it. This brings him closer to Ruesch and Bateson with regard to metacommunication (this is the breaking point where facial expressions and intonation are relegated from simple "noise" to a relevant component of communication). Also, DP1. I am going to count the use of Dorothy Parker in this book. If Abercrombie uses the same illustration that Jakobson does then my hypothesis about influence has been valid.
A knowledge of the spoken form of any language must include knowledge of its conventions of phatic communion. Conversation is impossible unless one is equipped with meaningless phrases for use when there is nothing to say, and the teacher dealing with advanced students will take care to give them command of the necessary formulas and the rules governing their use. (Abercrombie 1956: 4)
I wouldn't say meaningless. There is definitely a semantic component (which becomes apparent in interlingual comparison of greetings, for example). But the suggestion that language teachers should provide phatic utterances for pupirs is in line with a whole host of later research on this front.
Grace de Laguna, in her excellent book Speech: Its Function and Development (1927), said, 'men do not speak simply to relieve their feelings or to air their views, but to awaken a response in their fellows and to influence their attitudes and acts.' The profoundly social character of language should constantly be borne in mind by the language teacher. (Abercrombie 1956: 4)
In other words, speech is not only expressive, but emotive and conative. A comparison with the functions of Ogden and Richards would be something to consider. Especially considering the fact that influencing of the other's attitude is often neglected when dealing with Jakobson's emotive function (it is exactly why he named it Emotive, after Anton Marty, rather than emotional or expressive). Also, de Laguna's book negates Berardo's suggestion that Jakobson brought the concept of function to American linguistics.
An utterance consists of symbols referring to whatever is being talked about; but it is also at the same time an index to various things about the speaker, particularly his personality. These two systems of signs are quite independent of each other. (Abercrombie 1956: 4)
As I thought, when Laver (1972: 11-12) talks about indexical information, he refers to a later work by Abercrombie.
Almost everyone, when meeting a stranger, bases an immediate judgment on the way he or she talks; and we can often infer from their speech, when meeting people known to us, whether they are in a bad temper, or feeling well-disposed. (Abercrombie 1956: 5)
More on metacommunication. This is also present in Malinowski's treatment of phatic communion. Speaing alleviates tension because it enables us to determine whether he is one of our own or a stranger, based on the language or the style or dialect of language spoken. Indeed, aside from indexical information there is nary a term for this kind of metacommunication (in fact, this term would have to be stretched to fit it, since in Ruesch and Bateson's conception it only covers code and relationship; similar issue plagues my notion that all of Jakobson's later functions - including poetic - are essentially metacommunicative).
It is not always easy to say how present to consciousness these interpretations are. Sometimes it is only on careful reflection that an attitude taken up towards someone can be traced to his voice and pronounciation; at other times we are fully conscious of the effects of someone's voice on us. (Abercrombie 1956: 5)
If I ever do take up a semiotic elaboration of Clay's The Alternative, this is exactly the kind of stuff that indistinctness can apply on.
Wrong judgments are particularly apt to be made on foreigners. It is likely, for example, that English assertions concerning the excitability of Frenchmen are founded on the fact that certain features of the speech of normal Frenchmen are closely similar to features of excitable Englishmen's speech. Americans, again, often accuse Englishment of superciliousness: normal English intonation closely resembles the intonation adopted by supercilious Americans. (Abercrombie 1956: 5)
Supercilious - behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others. The latest trend is to view the British as more intelligent. In other words, it's the same perception of superiority, but as-if given into, thinking that they really are superior in some way (not only intellectually, but, for example, better mannered).
Possibly something similar lies behind the conviction in some countries that the presence of foreign words in the language is a menace to the national consciousness. Such a feeling has never, fortunately, been effective in this country, but elsewhere it has on more than one occasion given rise to legislation. (Abercrombie 1956: 6)
Similar tendency is growing in Estonia. This mostly due to American cultural influence and youth using a lot of English jargon and slang. I, too, sometimes give into this. I was recently somewhat annoyed that a poster advertising a real estate agency had the phrase "üks visioon", where "üks nägemus" would have sufficed.
Thirdly, forms of speech delimit social groupings, or classes, within a language community. When people congregate in a group they tend to behave in a similar way, and this similarity in behaviour, in so far as it is different from the behaviour of others, then becomes one of the factors which characterise, and so preserve, the group. Speech behaviour is deeply affected in this way: 'one may wonder', write Edward Sapir, 'if there is any set of social habits that is more cohesive or more disrupting than language habits.' (Abercrombie 1956: 6)
This is Morrisian communization (as opposed to differentiation), and related to de Saussure's force unifiante (as opposed to force particulariste).
The fact is that tu is regularly used, not as a sign of personal familiarity, but between members of certain social groups, political parties, and so on; and may often be used, therefore, between complete strangers. (Abercrombie 1956: 7)
This, on the other hand, is closer to Ruesch's version of communization - i.e. communion based on common experience or group membership.
One powerful impulse to the creation of slang is boredom with outworn locutions, and the desire to be expressive and vivid; which is why it is nearly always picturesque and sometimes in doubtful taste. But its real explanation lies in the fact that it is always the property of a group; its use proclaims membership of that group and distinction from other groups. (Abercrombie 1956: 7)
In this sense it likens to Tynyanov's literary evolution, i.e. how outworn styles or genres are replaced by newer, perhaps more expressive and vivid, ones.
Language not only brings human beings into relationship with each other, it also brings them into relationship with the external world. Language mediates between man and his environment. (Abercrombie 1956: 9)
In terms of systems theory: Language is not only an integrative system but a constitutive system. Now all that is needed is the field system aspect: Language mediates between man and all other forms of systems (cultural, literary, artistic, etc.).
The naïve, or common-sense, view is that language reflects the world and our thinking about it; that to the categories of language correspond categories of the real world. Modern linguistics, however, inclines to the view that language is not a passive reflection of, but rather an active practical approach to, the world - a sorting out of it for the purpose of acting on it. Experience is dissected, split up, along lines laid down by language, not necessarily along lines laid down by nature. (Abercrombie 1956: 9)
Le Sapir de Whorf hypo thesis.
Language enables man to live in society, but the kind of society in which he lives will profoundly effect his language. Lexical structure and social structure are intimately connected, and it is here that the most serious difficulties for the language learner are probably to be found. A language is not only part of the cultural achievement of a people, it also transmits the rest of their culture system. (Abercrombie 1956: 11)
Here we have something similar to Ruesch's discussion of the relation between verbs and actions. And also the field system - language mediates the rest of the cultural field.
Many writers, and most notably Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning, have drawn the distinction between the referential or scientific and the emotive or lyrical uses of languages. The first is not, of course, confined to science, nor the second to poetry. Even though certain words are commoner in one than the other, the difference between them does not depend on vocabulary; the use of scientific terminology is no guarantee of a scientific use of language. (Abercrombie 1956: 15)
Could it be that Ogden and Richards influenced the aesthetic and/or poetic function?
The terms active and passive are, of course, relative; they do not imply that reading, and listening to speech, are effortless. They may entail the expenditure of a great deal of energy, and certainly will when a new language is being learnt. 'Expressive' and 'receptive' are alternative, and perhaps preferable, terms. (Abercrombie 1956: 17)
One could wonder if addresser and addressee, or sender and receiver, by some chance could have given way to expressor and receptor. These are only marginally weirder than communicator and communicant, or ego and alter.
When a language, whether mother tongue or foreign, is fully known, some parts of it will remain relatively passive. Some words are 'known' in the sense that they are under full control and regularly used for self-expression, others are 'known' in the sense that they are recognised and understood (perhaps with the context to remind) when met in reading or listening, but seldom or never uttered or written. This distinction between active and passive vocabulary is pedagogically a useful one, for it is too often believed that learning a word necessarily means adding it to the active vocabulary. (Abercrombie 1956: 17-18)
Just a few days, in I.A.'s lecture, I attempted to make the case that "code" is a cover-all term which, in accordance with Jakobson's cryptographic model, appears homogeneous on the surface but in actuality is quite heterogeneous. That is, despite us speaking the same language, my code is different from your code. Activity and passivity perhaps better make my point.
Parrot-fashion teaching is apt to result from regarding reasoned explanation as 'unnatural'; there is bound to be, in any course, a good deal of mechanical, repetitive, boring work, but it should be set off by whatever appears to the intelligence and powers of analysis of the learner are suited to his age. (Abercrombie 1956: 25)
Exactly why I think I should proceed with Bergheimer Musikanten Geschichten.
The greatest incentive which the learner can have is the feeling that he is doing something with the language - reading a book, playing a game - which is worth doing for its own sake. It is most important, therefore, that he should acquire as soon as possible a body of knowledge of the language which can be used as language, as a medium of communication, and not as a mere material for exercise. It is a fallacy that simple vocabulary can handle only simple thoughts; matters of considerable complexity can be expressed in a small but well-chosen vocabulary consisting only of common words. (Abercrombie 1956: 25)
Yup. My method of improving my English has consisted mainly of re-writing passages in order to gather source material for my research.
Every phonetician must have had the experience, at some time or other, of meeting a person to whom the imitation of the most exotic sounds at first hearing presented no difficulty at all. At the other extreme are a more numerous minority who are hopelessly recalcitrant, and for whom any deviation from the native sound system is apparently impossible. These two extremes are said to differ from each other in the matter of 'ear'; but what exactly this ear consists of is mysterious enough. (Abercrombie 1956: 34)
This minority around here - i.e. Estonian speakers who speak English as if it were a bastardized form of Estonian - is quite large.
Is it really necessary for most language learners to acquire a perfect pronounciation? Intending secret agents and intending teachers have to, of course, but most other language learners need no more than a comfortably intelligible pronounciation (and by 'comfortably' intelligible, I mean a pronounciation which can be understood with little or no conscious effort on the part of the listener). I believe that pronounciation teaching should have, not a goal which must of necessity be normally an unrealized ideal, but a limited purpose which will be completely fulfilled: the attainment of intelligibility. (Abercrombie 1956: 37)
I believe in something like this in terms of writing. I admit that I often stumble over English syntax, and notice that some non-native researchers, when corresponding in English, sometimes fail to come across as intelligible. But there is a comfortable zone, and I'm sure that it has interlingual characteristics: Estonians tend to find less-than-perfect English with some implicit Estonianisms more palatable than perfect English. At least that's the impression I've formed over the years when reading the works of local colleagues.
Even if he has no particular intentions of spending his time with English people, RP [Received Pronounciation] might be thought the most suitable accent for a European learner, just as an accent of the United States is the obvious one for learners in Central and South America. (Abercrombie 1956: 54)
Claiming and dividing territory, eh?
IN NORMAL friendly conversation, it is most important to avoid silence. If somebody volunteers a piece of information or some exciting news, or puts forward an opinion, or exclaims with surprise at something, an answer is just as necessary as when a question is asked. The answer may be purely formal and may convey little or no information, but it keeps the conversation going, and prevents the discomfort of a pause. For someone who is still a learner of the language in which the conversation is being conducted, however, it is not easy to know what exactly ought to be said under these circumstances. (Abercrombie 1956: 57)
And we are back to phatics! Keeping the conversation going is at the core of Jakobson's penchant for prolongation.
The basis of this type of comment is simply the repetition of the verb and subject of the original sentence. The subject is repeated in the form of a pronoun, and the verb in the form of whatever anomalous finite was used in the original sentence, or, if no anomalous finite occurred there, in the appropriate form of the verb to do. Thus:
'This is a good book.''It is.'
'What nasty weather we're having.''We are.'
'Rain seems unlikely.''It does.'
The subject may come first, as in the preceding examples, or there may be verb-subject inversion:
'This is a good book.''Is it?'
'The shops close early today.''Do they?'
The negative not may be inserted in the comment:
'This is a good book.''It isn't.'
'I speak English very badly.''You don't.'
The intonation may be a falling one:
'This is a good book.''It is.'
'You can't drive without a lince.''Can't you?'
Or there may be a rising intonation:
'This is a good book.''It is.'
'The government will never allow it.''Won't they?'
It can be seen at once that a good many varieties are possible, and they must be classified and tabulated before it can be shown how they are used. (Abercrombie 1956: 58-59)
For some reason this looks exceedingly Malinowskian, specifically with regard to the constant focus on affirmation.
It should be noted, in passing, that the same sentence may sometimes be an expression of opinion, and at other times may convey information, depending on who is speaking and who is being addressed. 'This is a good book', when said during casual party conversation, is an expression of opinion; but when said by a professor to a student it probably conveys information. In some situations the person addressed may choose how he will take the sentence, and make his comment accordingly. (Abercrombie 1956: 62)
Relevance theory! Relevance theory!
HUMAN conversation consists of much more than a simple exchange of words and sentences, and although our vocial organs are enough for the mere production of speech sounds, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we need our entire bodies when we converse. There is a whole range of bodily behaviour which forms an essential 'background' to talking, whatever the language may be. It is surprising that this has up to now been the object of so little study, in spite of the continually increasing interest taken in spoken language over the last hundred years. Sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists have at times called attention to its importance, but only scattered, incidental remarks on the subject are to be found in the literature of linguistics. Nobody seems ever to have attempted a detailed, systematic, comprehensive survey which could be put to use by (among others) language teachers. (Abercrombie 1956: 70)
Well, at the time, Ray Birdwhistell was attempting a detailed, systematic study, but without an emphasis on language teaching. The chapter ends with the following footnote: "I had not, when this was written, succeeded in seeing a copy of Ray L. Birdwhistell's Introduction to Kinesics (University of Louisville, 1952); it gives a very complete notation for bodily movements." (Abercrombe 1956: 82ff)
It is hard to understand the remarkable neglect of gesture as a subject for comparative study, in spite of the obvious difficulties. Most writers on the subject have confined themselves either to rhetorical gesture, the kind that actors and orators employ, the kind that used to be known technically as 'action' (as in Hamlet's advice to the players: 'suit the action to the word'); or to the sign-languages of Red Indians and of deaf-mutes. (Abercrombie 1956: 71)
That's actually a good point, because historical studies also (like Aldrete 1999) focus on "rhetorical" or "oratorical" gesture.
There is here a fascinating, but almost untouched, subject, and one which should interest teachers of language as much as any other students of linguistics. It is a subject, incidentally, which is so far without a recognized name. I shall not attempt here to start on the comparative survey which is so much needed; all I wish to do is to indicate briefly what seem to be some of the reasons why gesture has been neglected, and to suggest some of the preliminary work necessary to a full-scale study. (Abercrombie 1956: 71)
I recall my linguistic supervisor retelling how she was approached by her supervisor at the time and just told, "study this". It is as if he had read this paragraph.
The contexts in which gesture is found also vary. It may be mainly an emotional running commentary on what is spoken, or it may be used to supply highly important items of meaning; it may be a continuous flow of movements, all merging into each other, or the speaker may have recourse to it only when at a loss for words. The English, when emotionally aroused, are likely to use more gestures; Egyptians, on the other hand, have been observed, when very excited, to use less. (Abercrombie 1956: 77)
What is metacommunication? By and large an emotional running commentary on what is spoken.
These independent gestures - a nod of the head, a shrug of the shoulders, stroko - stand in a different sort of relation to speech from the poko gesture. The latter is an example of dependent gesture. Its value in conversation is emotive rather than referential. (Abercrombie 1956: 78)
Emotive and referential function before Jakobson.


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