What Is Foreign Anyway?

Goethe says somewhere that it is impossible to achieve anything of significance in a foreign language: that always sounded wrong to me. Writing poems is already translating, from one's mother tongue into another, whether it be French or German — it doesn't matter. No tongue is a mother tongue. Composition is recomposition. That's why I don't understand when one speaks about French or Russian poets and so forth. A poet may write in French, but he cannot be a French poet. That is absurd. I am not a Russian poet, and am always astonished when I am considered or defined as one. You become a poet (if you could even become one, if you would not always have been one!) so as not to be French, Russian etc. In order to be all. Put differently: you are a poet because you are not French. Nationality is self-segregation, self-containment. Orpheus obliterates nationality, or he broadens it so as to contain all (who are, or who have ever been) alive.  

Goethe sagt irgendwo, daß man nichts Bedeutendes in einer fremden Sprache leisten kann – und das klang mir immer falsch. Dichten ist schon übertragen, aus der Muttersprache – in eine andere, ob französisch oder deutsch, wird wohl gleich sein. Keine Sprache ist Muttersprache. Dichten ist Nachdichten. Darum versteh ich nicht, wenn man von französischen oder russischen etc. Dichtern redet. Ein Dichter kann französisch schreiben, er kann nicht ein französischer Dichter sein. Das ist lächerlich. Ich bin kein russischer Dichter und staune immer, wenn man mich für einen solchen hält und als solchen betrachtet. Darum wird man Dichter (wenn man es überhaupt werden könnte, wenn man es schon nicht allem voraus seie!) um nicht Franzose, Russe etc. zu sein, um alles zu sein. Oder: Man ist Dichter, weil man kein Franzose ist. Nationalität – Ab- und Eingeschlossenheit. Orpheus sprengt die Nationalität, oder dehnt sie so weit und breit, dass alle (gewesene und seiende) eingeschlossen sind

— Marina Tsvetaeva, from a letter to Rilke

Bullshitting in Tongues

A liturgical language, or a holy language, can be thus defined: a language which was first used for its intelligibility and accessibility, and went on to be prized for its unintelligibility and remoteness.

First it's: "Best use this language because it's the one that makes the most sense given the target audience. People should be addressed in a commonly understood idiom. How else will they be won over?"

Half a dozen centuries later: "This language must have been used because it was the only one which could reflect the transcendent truth of the text, unlike these common spoken idioms. No other language is equal to this godly one!"

I doubt the Lord could "move in ways" more mysterious than this.

If Muhammad or St. Methodius were to rise from the dead and learn what anti-vernacular inanities wound up piled onto languages that were initially used for their intelligibility, they just might bludgeon whoever resurrected them to see such shit. 

Phoenicia De-Phonated

Phoenicians, who gifted the world with alphabetic writing, also wrote a lot themselves. Phoenician literature - epic, sacred, lyrical - was almost certainly extensive. It has also been entirely lost, apart from some late fragments. They left many inscriptions on stone, and on metal and ivory objects (mostly brief and of a funerary nature) but for long documents of a literary nature, they used perishable material like leather and papyrus, instead of clay tablets or birchbark. (The fact that Ugaritic, Akkadian and Sumerian speakers used clay tablets to write their literatures is the only reason why they survive at all.)

So once Phoenician passed out of literary currency and gave way to other languages, the literature perished with the media, as there was no scholastic or religious tradition to preserve Phoenician literature through late antiquity and the Middle Ages, as was the case with Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Hebrew. Any scholarly apparatus that might have had a chance of transmitting Classical Phoenician literature was obliterated with the conquest of Carthage.

The failure of Phoenicians to write their epics, hymns etc. on clay tablets is really annoying, in view of the immense influence their literature appears to have had throughout the Mediterranean, particularly on Greek. The debt Greece owes to Near Eastern cultures is clearly substantial, and will in all likelihood never be fully understood. Damn papyrus.

Lesson here: make sure you store your data on durable media.

A Thing About Esperanto

"Translating Esperanto poetry is especially hard, and I have seldom seen adequate renderings of Esperanto poems in English (though moving in the other direction is a lot easier). One reason for this difficulty is surely the fact that the poet is attracted to Esperanto by precisely what cannot be readily expressed in his or her own language. "
— Humphrey Tonkin "Translating in Translation"

I think he definitely has a point here. I think there's also a conscious or semi-conscious motivation for many to do in Esperanto what one cannot do, or does not feel oneself licensed to do, in one's ethnic language(s).

One thing one can do in Esperanto that one cannot do — or at least is not permitted to do — as much in ethnic languages is the coining of new terms, employing derivational morphology in novel, but not entirely unprecedented, ways. I could say something in English like "he was animaling all over the street, like a mindblasted lunatic, before he footstilled and stood staring at the sun paganly with reverent near-godtouched gaze." There's nothing about it that is unintelligible. It makes use of derivational patterns, morphemes and lexical class-shifts that are productive in English, but simply happen not to have been applied to these particular lexemes in this fashion, or at least not very often. You can find poets who do this sort of thing in many languages.  For some more linguistically insecure audiences, though (e.g. many educated readers of Arabic) it might seem downright unacceptable, a purposeful act of violence against the language, perhaps an implication that the language as is just isn't good enough. In Esperanto, not only can you get away with this kind of thing in poetry, but it is, as it were, part of normal poetic idiom to do so. 

Stranger to Strangeness

I do not put much stock in autobiography as a mechanism for establishing interpretive credentials, though I recognize that that ploy has become common among people my age on the internet. But in this case, it may help to partially explain some things about why I think as I think, and why I do as I do, and why I despise what I despise.

It is a Hollywood cliché to trace all peculiarities of a person to some incident of their childhood. But the reason the principle of foreignization in translation is suspect to me has — I think — to do with the way in which I grew up, and with the reasons why I began translating poetry in the first place.

I grew up a "biracial" child, with a black father and a Russian-American mother. Unlike David Duke or Gayatri Spivak, the prospect of unregulated, successful mutual accommodation between people of extremely different backgrounds, different base premises, different religious beliefs, different skin-colors and different ethnic identities, was not something I had trouble imagining as a child. Nor is it something I have trouble imagining as an adult — however much I find myself told, in essence, that I ought not to be able to imagine it so easily (though I admit I did agonize for a while over the question "what am I?" till I realized the question itself was absurd.) Unlike personal boundaries, the boundaries of cultural integrity were, for my twelve-year-old self, mostly to be ignored. Or played with. Or deliberately destroyed. But for the breaking of such boundaries I would not have been born.

Though for as long as I can remember I have known English better than Russian, there were some things I did in Russian before I did them in English. Talking was one of them. My first words, I am told, were the Russian words for "bird" and "light." Another thing I did in Russian first was appreciate poetry, first in memorizing as a very small child, and then again beginning around the age of I believe 11, when I finally decided Russian was important to me. I thus grew up with Russian poetry, particularly that of the 19th century, the much-gilded and ostensibly Golden Age of Russian literature, and started paying attention to it at precisely the age when my literate consciousness was developing. It was as much a part of me as anything by the time I was 14 or so. There was however a gap between the language I used for most purposes and the language in which I most enjoyed poetry. Yet that gap did not alienate me — despite how strange it may seem that I learned to think poetically via a language other than the one I knew and know best. It is a gap which — though limited by the horizons of an early teenage boy — would be relatable to Early Persian poets weaned on Arabic, the attitude of early Latin poets toward the Greek literacy they were steeped in, and to 19th century Russian aristocrats who sometimes acquired literacy in French before Russian and often drew on French for their models and creative stimulus. It was, I think, that gap which spurred me to translation. I was aware that, otherwise, those who couldn't understand Russian couldn't enjoy what I was enjoying. I wanted the poetry I was reading and memorizing to exist in English as well, so that people like my father might be able to read it. And I had — as I continue to have — every confidence that it could.

The Russian texts were not foreign to me. Quite the opposite — nothing could have been more familiar. Familiar, that is, in every sense of the word — their language was one of two languages of home, of one of two halves of a single family. Nor, at that age, was I given to have any sense of English and Russian poetries, or literatures, as being somehow incommensurable. Their separateness was an incidental one to me. They were divided, to my mind, by nothing more than the fact that not everybody read both languages. The gap was not something I felt unbridgeable. That isn't to say that I wasn't aware that some words in English, or in Russian, didn't have exact equivalents in the other language. I was aware — enviously so — that the two had different rhythms, and that it was trivially easy to rhyme in Russian but much less so in English.

I did not have a sense that Russian and English were in conflict at the site of translation, let alone that there was some sort of conflict in my poetic sensibilities being formed in a language other than my primary language. (Note that I didn't end that last sentence with "native language." The idea of one particular language as "mother tongue" — with the premise that you have one "true" native language to which the others are in some way adventitious — is itself a refracted holdover from nationalist lunacies of the nineteenth century, and Herderian Romanticism's delusional equation of language with soul. Ask Nabokov, or Giovanni Pontano, or William Auld, or Fuzûlî.)

What I did have was a sense of adaptation, a mutual and mutually beneficial one at that. My father and mother adapted to one another out of love, and in defiance of those who liked worlds to remain separate but equal. I hadn't any reason to believe gaps, cultural or linguistic, were in principle unbridgeable. Only that there were people — many people — who didn't like such bridges existing. The Russian Orthodox church I attended as a child had two services, one in English and one in Church Slavonic, and at the latter when the sermon was given in Russian, interpretation was made available for those who didn't know the language (not infrequently with my mother doing the interpreting.) Russian itself was a language translated into, and not simply out of. Lermontov's Gornyie Veršynyi (Mountain Summits) and Na Severe Dikom Stoit Odinoko ("There stands in the wild north...") are among the most widely-quoted poems in Russian, and they are often memorized young children. And I knew that these were translations of German poems — they were labeled as such in the books where I found them. I knew — as my grandmother informed me — that the lyrics of the song Večerni Zvon (sung and appreciated even by old men hostile to American culture) were a translation of "Evening Bells", an English poem by Thomas Moore. I eventually learned, thanks I believe to a footnote by Gleb Struve somewhere, that Bože Tsarya Khrani (God Preserve the Tsar) the national anthem of pre-revolutionary Russia, was in fact Zhukovski's free adaptation of the English "God Save The King." If national anthems could be translated, and in translation be shared, by Empires...then what on this green earth couldn't be? If English — as I perceived it back then — was not quite so translationally permeated, this was something to be worked through, in much the same way, and the same spirit, as one might go seeking more information in order to better understand a person that seemed incomprehensible.

The first book of literary translations I ever happened upon was Pushkin Threefold by Walter Arndt, which — for all its shortcomings that I later realized — almost immediately helped me settle once and forever that literal and literary translation were not the same thing. And could never be. I understood that verse-translation was quite possible, and developed a sense that literal translation of a poem, "faithful" in its way to the original, was an act of disrespect — a refusal to treat a poem as everything it truly was.  All my translation has involved renegotiation in terms of what the target language can and cannot be made to do. Because much of the poetry to which I was exposed in English in those days was different in character from anything I assimilated in Russian, because modern English poetry in the early 2000s did not as a rule employ rhyme and had an aesthetic that was as different from Pushkin's or Lermontov's as anything imaginable to me then, because I had seen that such poetry could nonetheless exist in English and that earlier English poetry was quite different as well, I was aware at some level (though I wouldn't have thus articulated it) that what a language can be made to do is not the same thing as what people are in the habit of doing with it at the moment, that language is capable of more than its users may imagine, or want to imagine. But I certainly recognized that there are things there would be no point in trying to do. As Robert Hall put it, not even Dante could have made Italian into a tone language. Nor could I or anyone else have transformed English into a language with six noun-cases, where word-order could be manipulated with latinate, or slavicate, plasticity.

The idea of translation as a point of confrontation with the foreign would have sounded even more bizarre to me then than it does today. Why would I have treated Pushkin as foreign? He wasn't foreign — not to me. What "essential otherness of the text" would I have even conceived of if such a notion were explained to me? That Pushkin may have been foreign to the aesthetics of modern English was not cause for much self-examination (let alone self-recrimination) on my part. After all my own aesthetics of language, and of language's joy, — shaped to a considerable degree by 19th century Russian poetry —were not those of modern English as I knew it either. Multilingual existence, unregulated cross-linguistic and cross-cultural accommodation and negotiation, had been my life, and thankfully would always be. It was not limited to Russian and English. It embraced Spanish (which to one degree or another I had had a passive understanding of since kindergarten), French (also the language of part of my family), and eventually Latin, Welsh and other languages as well. None of them felt, and no language has ever felt, like a "foreign" language exactly. To me, there is nothing foreign about a language simply because I happen not to know it, or not to know it yet. The extremely ethnically mixed highschool I went to ensured that I could find peers to talk to in almost any language, and I always approached it with the sense that multilingualism was a normal thing.

I did, as I grew up, grow alienated from Russianness — whatever that even is. But not from Russian literature. Today I never feel like more of a stranger than when in Russian company. It is only people who knew me before I was 18 that still call me "Sasha." There is little about me left by which to call me Russian. What does remain is Russian literature, and Russian poetry, and the ways of thinking which they instilled in me. And a world full of lunatic creationist priests, fascist Putin-heads, Slavophile racists, fulminating antisemites, Moscow police harassments and Moscow public bathrooms can never take that away from me.

The above is a retrospective on the thoughts of a teenage kid. But it goes a way toward explaining why I am basically hostile to the separatism which now passes for radicalism in a number of western societies, to the nationalism that dare not speak its name but passes for multiculturalism, and to much of post-modern translation theory, with its cultural pessimism, estrangement and profound mistrust of language, of the human ability to communicate anything at all. It goes hand in hand with the revulsion and incredulity which many feel about a language like Esperanto which aspires to its own Babel, as well as the mistrust of bilingualism if it does not involve a sense of the foreign. Robert Sieburth, who himself grew up bilingual, has convinced himself that “bilinguals are often the worst translators. You need that solid anchoring in one language, precisely because you need to respond to the foreignness; with bilinguals that tension gets lost. That tension needs to be maintained.” Robert Penn Warren observed that “those outside of the language....could appreciate its musicality more than a native speaker— precisely because the outside reader would tend to focus more on exotic sound than sense.”

When translators themselves start praising the opacity of language which (they believe) can only come with adult acquired bilingualism, or insinuating that part of the problem might be — in essence — being too familiar with a different language, not being "anchored" in a single one, something strange has happened.

Derrida's treatment of Babel as standing for l'inadéquation d'une langue à l'autre, d'un lieu de l'encyclopédie à l'autre, du langage à lui-même et au sens  "the inadequation of one language for another, of one place in the encyclopedia for another, of linguistic usage for its own self and for meaning" would evoke little more than pity from me if fewer people took it seriously. Much the same goes for Barthes' terror of language itself, the tendency to emphasize translation as a destructive act, metaphors that treat translation as violating a text's integrity, theories declaring that "the violence of translation resides in its very purpose and activity", the concern — much beloved both among reactionary conservatives of all shades, and among white people who hallucinate a radical face into the mirror — that  "making another culture comprehensible" is itself an act of trespassing, the doctrine of "radical inaccessibility", the value often placed on "conveying the foreignness" of a text...these to me are more than distasteful. Nineteenth-century notions about the purity of race and nation endure, in partially inverted form, just beneath the surface, alongside a profound anxiety of pollution, much like the fears about miscegenation which British colonial elites in Africa had, when they tried to peddle cultural identity to their subjects as a substitute for freedom.

This kind of translation theory insults not merely my intelligence, but our shared humanity. It would have us all remain small.

Some things don't translate exactly of course. The internet is full of people who like to collect and recycle such storied untranslatables as Russian toská, or Portuguese saudade. But there are much more mundane ways in which exact one to one equivalence will fall short.

Ask yourself, if a secret is a fact or object that is hidden from general knowledge or kept unknown to some party, then what word would you use to describe the opposite of that word? A secret is a concealed fact or object, then a fact or object that is known generally is a....what?
If you're a Russian speaker, ask yourself what three different Russian words can adequately render the different nuances of English disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, or how you could translate the Russian word полагать in all its polysemy
If you're an Arabic speaker, try translating the word عَصَبي into English, or try finding an exact Arabic translation of the English words fun and already.

But of course English speakers know what the opposite of a "secret" is, even if they don't have a word for it as Classical Arabic does. Russian speakers are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of privacy. And, yes, Arabic speakers do understand what it is to have fun.

Moreover, your language is always expanding, and adapting to new sense-strategies, such as the hyphenated term that came before that comma just now. You can even learn new languages. Every time you use a word you are subtly altering the way in which you relate to it. Some Arabic-speaking readers probably remembered above that the word "already" does in have an equivalent in many spoken Arabic dialects. And that word is ōlrēdī. Languages borrow from each other. They interact with each other. They influence each other. That is how they survive.

If there is one way in which a strong version of Whorfianism is at all worth entertaining, it is as it relates to poetry. If Pushkin were a native English speaker, he would not merely have written his poems in English. He would not have written the same poems in English that he did in Russian. The way the incidental features of language become employed in non-incidental ways in poetry means, effectively, that creative thinking of a linguistic kind may manifest itself in extremely different ways depending on the specifics of the language itself. I do believe that is the case.

Yet that, too, is not the end of the story. Different languages can push one another to do what they otherwise wouldn't. The Latinate syntax of the Spanish Golden Age  is often dismissed, like the scrambled latinate syntax of Milton, as being "artificial" (is anything involving creation not in some way artificial?) Yet it allowed poets to do things they might otherwise have been unable to do. The translator from Arabic who finds themself motivated to bring to light aesthetic properties of a text, may not be able to produce long stretches of monorhyme, but they may be in an especially good position to see the potential involved in assonance. When faced with a line involving morphological wordplay, such Al-Mutanabbī's line taqtulunā l-manūnu bilā qitāli, in finding the lexeme-echoed rendering of "death slaughters us with no onslaught" the translator can bring to light possibilities of language that tend to be more marginal in English poetry than in Arabic (perhaps in part because of how easy it is to engage in root-play in Arabic due to the morphology of the language, but also because English-speakers tend to limit punning and such to comical or "light" genres.) And linguistic distance may bring one closer to the author in some ways, in that it licenses translation. This is the reason modern Russian audiences are better equipped to appreciate Shakespeare than modern English-speaking audiences are.

Of course one cannot translate perfectly. But that doesn't mean the translation cannot be as good as the original. It may in fact be better.

Moreover, complete translatability of language in every single aspect at every level is impossible not because language fails to capture thought, or because language limits thought, or because extra-linguistic meaning doesn't exist, but because human thought itself, like human sociality, is not a "well-formed system." Language develops in ways that are only apparently systematic. It is rather messy once you look at it in high enough resolution. So too are our thoughts messy. They work in unsystematic ways. Different brains may also work in somewhat different ways. That doesn't mean they can't organize themselves or give us the ability to understand each other, and the universe in which we exist. Language exists, and has thrived in our species, to get around communicative barriers. Not to create them.

Language itself doesn't have "rules" so much as a set of stochastic processes that look like rules until you examine them up close, and then you begin to talk not about a system with rules, but (to take one way of thinking about it) a set of constraints in tension with one another. Even those who believe in universal grammar in one form or another will often accept that it is tendencies, rather than exceptionless absolutes, which are the universal. Railing about the tyrannical rule-bound nature of language in the manner of many a post-modernist is evidence above all else of an antiquated and superseded understanding of how language works. To the degree that language has its limits, this is because language is the product of human cultures and of human interactions. Language cannot serve the purposes of a kind of direct telepathy. Why would you expect otherwise, given that the species using it has had to make its way in the universe without telepathy? It presupposes both ineradicable barriers, and the possibility of overcoming them. For sociocultural, sociolinguistic and even morphological reasons, Pushkin probably would not have written The Prophet if he were not a speaker of 19th century Russian. But that the poem can work in other languages as something more than an off-brand knockoff, is no less unimaginable than the fact that 21st century Russian speakers find their own ways of relating to what that poem does. Great things can go beyond themselves. And that too, is part of the human condition.

Linguists can't even come up with a perfect definition of the word "word." No, really, they can't. But to retreat into a pessimistic non-speech act of "resistance" through silence or obfuscation, to prize opacity in translation as if it somehow were a virtue, to treat lucid translation as an act of aggression or violence forcing a text to become something "other", to treat language as a prison rather than one of the most precious vehicles available to our species, simply because it isn't a well-ordered enough system on the surface, is to opt against humanity. To sacrifice intelligibility merely for the sake of a text's cultural identity is to presume that without its cultural identity, it wouldn't be worth reading. It is reminiscent of that insufferable habit of Middle Class White America: respecting other cultures so much that they fail to respect other people. The belief that the way to ethically reveal is by concealing, that the best access is a display of inaccessibility, is the belief less of the translator, than of the religious dogmatist uncomfortable with scripture being made too intelligible; of charlatans and con-artists who wouldn't be able to sleep at night if they themselves had not long ago been taken in by their own sleight of hand.
Emphasis on the difficulty of conveying meaning out of context across cultures underestimates novel expression in everyday life, and how novel expressions are conveyed linguistically. Just as the individual can absorb new words and ideas, so too can individual languages. The universal human capacity for imagination and metaphor, translating ideas from one context to another, underpins the possibility of translation from one language to another. Human understanding has developed precisely from human capacity to convey meaning out of context. Abstract concepts have developed from metaphors, borrowed from ordinary activities. The vitality of a language, and a culture, has, accordingly, been linked to its receptivity to metaphor. Moreover, translation between different languages liberates concepts from specific words, increasing the flexibility of our thinking and expanding our minds and cultural ideas. 
— Vanessa Pupavac "Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance"

The Language of Literacy

I have been, and remain, skeptical of the claim that if one acquires literacy in a second language before one's native language, that this is automatically damaging or puts one at a disadvantage in all cases. Sometimes the claim is made even more strongly: that it is impossible to become fully literate if your earliest basis for literacy is a second language.

It has the ring of rationalization to it, like a conclusion arrived at precisely because one wishes to support efforts to include native-language alphabetization for speakers of minority languages in school curricula, so as to expand the domain in which minority languages may be used. This itself is a laudable goal. But furthering it with questionable conclusions based on debatable data sounds a bit like the discouragement of multilingualism on the strength of the now-antiquated notion (which used to be supported by now-discredited research) that you shouldn't raise a child with two languages lest they acquire an imperfect command of both. It also opens the language pluralist up to charges of dishonesty by nationalists and other linguistic chauvinists.

I'm not saying that native-language literacy instruction isn't easier for both student and teacher in many ways under many circumstances. Teaching literacy in a second language may, depending on circumstances, require different pedagogical approaches. If the teacher is unable or willing to employ such approaches, the student suffers.

My doubt rests on a few things:

The first is that being taught literacy in a language you don't know, or are only beginning to know, is different than being taught literacy in a second language of which you have a good functional command. Many studies of L1 vs L2 alphabetization don't tease out (at least not in any methodologically sound way) the variables involving how well the child learning literacy knows the second language in question.

The second reason is that learning literacy in a language or dialect other than the first one you learned has been the norm for most literate human beings until relatively recently. Until the past few centuries, very few of the many languages that people spoke were at all written down. Fewer still written regularly. And even fewer were the language normally employed on written media. Even if literacy in one's native language was eventually taught, this was not always the language in which literacy was first acquired, or most commonly used. In 19th century Russia, children of the nobility were frequently first taught literacy in French (and in some cases English) before Russian. In 18th century England, upper class children were sometimes first taught literacy in Latin and Greek before English.

Many written languages with old and and widely-cultivated literatures, such as Classical Chinese, Latin or Sanskrit, came to be exclusively literate languages. That is, there came a point in history where the only way one would know them would involve acquiring literacy in some way, and in many times and places, virtually anyone who acquired literacy did so first in those languages. Those trained in such traditions may be more at home writing and reading in their non-native language, than in their native one. It was a commonplace that French scholars through the end of the 17th century were more at ease writing and reading Latin than French, and even complained of the difficulty of the latter.

Terms like "fully literate" or "complete literacy" can mean anything you want them to mean, and I'm sure there's some metric by which I might be said to not be fully literate in English.

But if the basic premises were as true as they are sometimes claimed to be, then many empires would not have been able to function as they did. (Compared to the incomputable amounts of Latin writing by Franks, we have literally one surviving example of written Frankish — on a dagger handle.) Billions of human beings have lived by literacy exclusively or almost exclusively in a second language. Much of the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula did that.

In the modern world, with classrooms structured as they increasingly tend to be round the world, it may well be more expedient to alphabetize children in their first language in all cases. I can see several strong cases — practical and ethical — for doing so. But the idea that full literacy cannot be acquired, or is especially difficult to acquire, unless it is first taught in one's "native" language just seems like convenient mythology supported by questionable interpretations of data.

It is sometimes said that one's first language is processed and stored differently at the level of the brain than other languages — but this is only true for some values of "first." It is also not true for all people, or for all language pairs. And it doesn't line up with what we tend to think of as discreet "languages." If you go by that metric then, for example, Standard Arabic and Dialectal Arabic are processed as two different neurological languages in an Arabic-speaker's brain, yet Russian and Ukrainian are processed as if they were the same in a Russian-Ukrainian bilingual's brain. 

A Whole Nother Issue

There is a common misconception that it is the language of the elite which everyone imitates and is the basis for ideas of correct or desirable speech habits. It used to have some truth to it — though it was was always an oversimplification, neglecting as it did the populist element in the standardization debates that went on in various countries from the 17th through the 19th centuries. In any case, in the 21st century in developed and even developing countries, it seems like a matter of simple folk wisdom (which remains in circulation even in some linguistic literature in part because the speech of elites is rarely studied per se.)

In many modern nation-states, contrary to common perceptions, it is not the upper classes that adhere most to prescriptive speech norms. Nor, even in non-diglossic contexts, is it always their living speech which is taken as a model for correct language. Nor are they the ones most given to enforcing prescriptive standards in the speech of their children, or judging a person's character based on adherence to, or deviance from, a model of correct language use.

To the extent to which studies of elite language use in modern nation-states are available, the language of established elites is often typified by especial variability, and divergences from standard languages that would be stigmatized in less affluent circles. English spoken among members of some "old money" families in the Deep South, for example, appears to be quite resistant to assimilation by the phonological changes (such as rhotacization) that have taken place throughout speech communities in the Southern US, and speakers use a variety of non-standard constructions freely.

Elites, in fact, seem to be especially liable to cultivate non-standard or noticeably regional language as a matter of self-presentation, and embrace it as an expression of identity or as a way of assuring themselves and others that they aren't snobs, knowing that the worst that'll happen is that they might be mocked by people whose opinions they have no need to care about anyway. Think of the accent of George W. Bush, who has never needed to work a day in his life.

The example of Bush brings up another point I should address. Concern with correct language is not the same thing as concern with clarity of expression. It is possible to use non-standard language eloquently, as in the dialect poetry of Margaret Walker or Paul Laurence Dunbar. It is also possible to use the standard language awkwardly, in the rambling manner of a Sarah Palin. It is also possible to fail to adhere to a standard and produce ineloquent, awkward language in the attempt.

Those most concerned with eliminating non-standard, overtly regional or otherwise stigmatized elements from their speech (and from the speech of people they care about) tend to be of four kinds: (1) people farther down the social ladder with high aspirations, (2) people of humble beginnings who have come up in the world, (3) people who once were part of the elite but now — due to e.g. political upheaval or economic decline — have come down in the world, and (4) people who are afraid they might come down in the world. In other words: people who have, or have been given, reason to feel insecure. In the US in particular, it is upwardly mobile individuals from low-income backgrounds that are often the most zealous about the importance of correct language, and most likely to hold to conservative language ideologies. Bill Cosby's attitudes toward non-standard Black English are an almost textbook example. Two others would be Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot, both in the acrolectal British accents they cultivated, and their delusions regarding the cultural importance of hygienic and good language.

But Pound and Eliot were of another era, and for both there were somewhat idiosyncratic reasons for the variety of English they looked to as a model. Today, the common target speech variety in the US is, broadly speaking, the one used by members of the professional-managerial class — the economic middlemen of the white-collar world. I'm thinking particularly of those involved in arts, education, academia, non-profits, public service and administration, working the kinds of jobs where it is necessary to have the right manners, to say the right things, to seem like the right kind of person, and of course to appear hip and cool if possible. I note also that it is this sociolect of American English where political correctness is most important (if you're American, just think about the sort of person who opts for the term "African-American" in spontaneous informal speech instead of "Black.") The language used by those who sign these people's paychecks, however, is not generally the target speech variety of the upwardly mobile. Nobody, after all, wants to sound like an asshole if they can avoid it.

Even setting aside diglossic situations like Arabic or Tamil (where language attitudes to writing tend to be more complex) such a target speech variety is by no means always identical to the written norm, and does not generally correspond to anybody's prescriptive ideal. It tends to have elements that would be considered non-standard by grammarians or their modern heirs. In some linguistically judgmental circles, even excessively standard speech may be viewed quite negatively. (In fact, grammarians and their ilk have often been wont to preserve or even manufacture distinctions without warrant in any spoken variety precisely to ensure that complete correctness in writing can only be acquired by active training — and therefore only by those with access to such training. For a variety of reasons, this is much less the case today in English. One example is the traditional person distinction between "will" and "shall" in English, along with analogous person-distinctions for "should" and "would" which fly in the face of the way those modals are used in living speech, and which left no lasting trace except a few fossilized acrolectalisms such as "I should think so.")

Though non-standard usages in such a target variety may be plentiful, they are never of the stigmatized kind. "I done seen him" and "I ain't sure" are banned from American managerial professional contexts, but I would be genuinely surprised if a single American has ever tanked a job-interview by saying "a whole nother" instead of "a whole other" (however many schoolmarms it might piss off.) Likewise "nucular" for "nuclear" may be frowned upon in non-military professional contexts, but similar metathesized forms such as "comfterble" for "comfortable" may be quite acceptable as part of the spoken norm. Indeed, an entire class of peculiarities often arises due to the high value placed on "speaking correctly." Such target varieties — particularly when spoken spontaneously — usually harbor at least a few hypercorrections. In the US, for example, constructions like "As for you and I" — resulting from a stigmatization of a specific type of collocation — are most common among members of the professional-managerial class, and are frequently copied by those aspiring to join their number.

(Incidentally: the stigmatization of a specific collocation is due to the fact that oblique forms of English pronouns don't actually mark the object of a verb per se. They can appear in more or less any position that doesn't lead the verb phrase. e.g. "Me too! I want to go!" A strict subject/object distinction in English pronouns doesn't actually exist in any form of spoken English acquired natively, and so it comes as little surprise that speakers wishing to speak "correctly" therefore have difficulty accessing such a model as a guide to when one should say "me" or "I". Repeated failed attempts to access non-existent syntax, in the absence of intensive drilling to pattern one's speech directly off of the written language, lead instead to the stigmatization of specific collocations — in this case the use of an oblique pronoun immediately after "and" regardless of syntactic context.)

And it is those who are most insecure, and thus most hyper-concerned, who attempt (sometimes to the bemusement of their peers) to regulate or discourage even hypercorrections in the speech of others. It is akin to the insecurity, and the resulting prescriptive attitudes, which afflict Russians or French-speakers, in the face of the diminishing international roles of their languages.

Hyper-concern with correctness of language, particularly of spoken language, is not a sign of power, status or privilege necessarily. Sometimes, as is often the case with e.g. Greek language purism, it is about nationalism. Sometimes it is merely a mark of a mistaken belief in a meritocratic society where, if you just speak properly, you'll be treated equally — and a desire to eliminate injurious differences. Often, however, it is a mark of insecurity, of vulnerability, and of fear. It may be fear of losing the power or status one has, if any. It may also be fear of judgement, fear of not seeming good enough; a preference that — if you are to be judged — it be on the quality of your speech rather than something else less mutable such as your ancestry, where you're from or how much money your parents made.