Linguistics to the Defense of the Speech Community
To most people, Canada's perennial language debate is political. To Dr. Shana Poplack, it's scientific.
Poplack is a sociolinguist—a scientist of language, its usage, and its historical development. She specializes in linguistic diversity in Canada, with a focus on how our official languages are evolving and how they combine in multilingual and multiethnic interactions.
As Canada Research Chair in Linguistics, Poplack will continue to explore the dynamics of language use, looking at when, how, and why dialects change. Is it due to internal evolution? Retention of archaic features? Is it the result of contact with other languages? Or is it simply due to changes in what purists would consider “correct”?
Making use of their extensive sociolinguistics laboratory, which contains digitized archives of millions of words used in everyday speech, Poplack and her research team have been working to characterize the elusive notion of “standard language”—a term linguists use to describe the form of language that is regarded as most “correct.” They have already analyzed the evolution of French over the last 150 years, the speech of Quebec anglophones who acquired English before and after Bill 101, and a unique database of “rules” culled from hundreds of French grammar books dating as far back as the 16th century.
They will continue their quest to understand and describe standard language, to clarify the competing roles of school and community in halting or enabling language change, and, eventually, to debunk the popular but unfounded idea that the speech of some groups (usually the disadvantaged) is inferior to that of others.