David Wallace Foster and Cabeza de Vaca
This is a prompt based on the movie Cabeza de Vaca and the essay by David Wallace Foster “AUTHORITY AND AMERICAN USAGE”.
What could these things have in common? That’s up to you—find a way that one makes you think of the other in a different light. Here are some suggestions to get you started—you can use one of these or find your own.
• Wallace divides language specialists into descriptivists and prescriptivists. The first group claims objectivity, and likens their work to applying the scientific method to observations of language. The second group, which DFW ultimately seems most sympathetic to theoretically, argues that there is no such thing as “unbiased observation” (634). Could a similar distinction be made between the way historical events are communicated?
• Wallace writes that a problem with descritivists is that “they confuse mere regularities with norms….A norm can be defined here simply as something that people have agreed on as the optimal way to do things for certain purposes” (636). Does this definition of norm have any bearing on the *contact* made between DdV and the indigenous tribes he encountered? What about on the way he related those encounters to people in Spain, afterwards?
• Wallace notes that the potentially ugly truth about grammar—that people judge each other based on it—has a deeper implication: “at least one component of all this interpersonal semantic judging involves acceptance…actual acceptance of someone’s bid to be regarded as a peer, a member of somebody else’s” community (641). What does the movie we watched have to say about this version of language as a path to acceptance?