Native Speech Status

Native speakers of languages enjoy superior statuses to non-native speakers as providers of grammatical evidence in linguistics. This superiority is accorded to them as well in language documentation and language standardization, where the motivation for such a status distinction isn’t obvious.

Judgments by and the speech of native speakers of a language are the most commonly valued kinds of evidence in linguistics about the grammar of that language. In various domains of applied linguistics the assumption that native speakers of a language have a status superior to those of its other users also appears. Examples are language documentation and language standardization.

The recent Record-a-thon sponsored by the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project invited people around the world to record themselves speaking their native languages.

The Unicode Technical Committee recently invited native speakers of Danish to tell it whether they expect the character U+214D (⅍) to be sorted as if equivalent to the sequence “A/S”.

Such actions prompt a question about the appropriate status of non-native language use in these domains. Should non-native uses of languages be documented along with native uses? Should the expectations and wishes of non-native users of a language be respected, too, by committees that define language standards? These questions are significant in a world in which non-native speech and writing are common, particularly in internationally used languages, pidgins, creoles, and artificial languages.

The PanLex project on which I work accepts lexical translation evidence from native and non-native speakers alike. In fact, its typical source is a bilingual dictionary, which is most commonly compiled by a person who is a native speaker of one but not of the other of the two languages.

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