I'm having a low productivity day. I have a coding problem that is just hounding me, something that simply will not run fast enough and requires a fairly big rethink. I'm avoiding getting into it in hopes that a flash of inspiration will come to me on the toilet or something.
Remarkably, this strategy actually works well. I actually had a dream last night where the solution to the whole problem came to me. It was beautiful and simple - something so transparent that I knew instantly it would work, something that would have been obvious to Kolmogorov or Chaitlin if they had only been terminologists. Unfortunately, I woke up and couldn't remember any of it.
So, until this flash of genius comes back, assuming it wasn't just the Tandoori chicken I made for dinner talking, I have some time to blog. There's so much work here that I've been putting off. The link list is a mess - out of date, doesn't reflect the people who link to me or are even still blogging, is missing a bunch of folks I do read; Grandpa is still on his way to Africa; I have a bunch of books I'd like to review; I have a couple of posts up on AFOE; there must be something new to say about this mess in Fallujah...
But, nah, I thought, why not dredge open another controversial can of worms. I figured I should either explain why I think Dave Sim is a genius because the last issue of Cerebus came out last month, or I should defend prescriptivism. So, I flipped a coin and decided to defend linguistic prescriptivism.
I'm lying. No, I didn't flip a coin. I'm a couple years behind on Cerebus anyway. I hear he's gone from misogynistic to homophobic over the last few years. I still think he's a genius, but I've never claimed that genius isn't fully compatible with being a flaming loon.
I just saw Mark Lieberman's post over at Language Log and thought it merited a comment or two:
A Field Guide to Prescriptivists
[...] Like bacteria transferring genes, prescriptivists -- whether sensible or idiotic -- mix and match ideas about usage. The resulting distribution is far from random: different prescriptive memes are more or less compatible with one another, and with other aspects of critical morphology, ideological metabolism and intellectual history. However, the result is not a nice Linnaean taxonomic tree either.
I don't think anyone can yet plausibly claim to have found memetic DNA, if such a thing is even possible. However, we can identify some key elements of prescriptivist metabolism, in terms of five different motivations that may be given for strictures about usage:
- Tradition -- how our forebears talked. Innovation is degeneration.
- Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.
- Universal grammar -- how one ought ideally to talk. Inconsistency is illogical.
- Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.
- Revelation -- how God taught us to talk. Alteration is transgression.
Particular cases are usually a mixture of these. Such metabolic processes may cooperate or conflict depending on details -- thus an appeal to fashion may point in the same direction as an appeal to tradition, or in the opposite direction, depending on whether the prescriptivist admires the old ways or prefers the latest thing.
These are all very substantial, unscientific and unfounded fallacies which serve as a poor basis for prescriptivism, except for numbers 2 and 4.
Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.
There is something I hoped someone would ask during the "Ebonics" kerfluffle a few years ago. Why do we teach kids standard English in school? Why do we call it standard in the first place?
The answer to the second question is one of a very small number of things on which virtually all linguists, of any stripe, agree. Standard English is standard for social and political reasons. It has no linguistic properties that make it special. Standard English does not correspond to some set of rules that can be placed in a little book and they have not come down from God or the government. It is not even a form of language that we can positively identify with the majority population of any nation on Earth, now or at any time in the past. Standard English is a fashion in the very same way that a particular style of dress is.
I remember someone half seriously saying that trends in dress follow a very simple rule: everyone tries to dress like people at least one level up in the social hierarchy, and the people at the top try not to look like anyone else. The exact form of expression that people mean by standard English is the kind of English that signals membership in the topmost classes of society. It really is that simple.
Now, at this point I could just say that we should fight the power and stop teaching "Standard English." But, I don't think we should stop. Instead, I want to advocate teaching people the truth. I want to say to them that we're teaching them the kind of English that the rich and powerful speak. They may decide to fight the rich and powerful, or they may try to join them. That's up to them. But either way, they will need to master the kind of speech that the rich and powerful speak.
This same piece of advice applies to English second language learners and people who speak "non-standard" Englishes. I think it's silly to decry prescriptivism in a second language class and I think it's just as silly to do in first language classes. But, I want to tell people the truth: We teach you how to speak in the most fashionable manner so that you will make the most positive impression on people, not because there is some arbitrary linguistic standard of right and wrong.
Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.
I hate to say this, but variation does confuse communication. Ask a translator, or better yet, an air traffic controller.
Fortunately, natural language enjoys a very high level of redundancy and people have devised a truly remarkable array of strategies to compensate for misunderstandings, ambiguity and confusion. This redundancy enables us to use language simultaneously as a medium of communication, an artform, and as a way of affirming our individuality.
I have been meaning to write a post for a long time on the linguistics of air traffic control. Most international air traffic control takes place in English. Many people believe this is required by treaty or international law - it isn't. Nearly everyone thinks that this means that all international pilots can speak English - they often can't. Yes, pilots who have mastered less than 500 words of English and cannot order a coffee in the English language fly all over the world into airports where ATC and ground control takes place exclusively in English. Almost no one knows that the single worst accident in the history of aviation - 583 dead - was caused by a Dutch pilot using a common Dutch verbal structure in English, which a Spanish air traffic controller understood as having the opposite meaning to that intended.
Air traffic control is one place where an absolutely Nazi level of linguistic fascism is generally held to be entirely justified. It is an extreme case, but not that extreme. Product labels, instructions, maintenance manuals, medical documentation - in each of these areas we are willing to forgo brevity and individuality for the sake of absolute clarity. In such instances, a failure to use a common, socially agreed upon standard language can lead to waste, economic inefficiency, legal liability, injury and even death.
There are other areas where I think weaker forms of prescriptivism are helpful - language preservation, neologisms and borrowed words, and as an aid to translators in particular - but none of those need to involve very heavy enforcement efforts to work.
No, I do not advocate the kind of folk prescriptivism associated with nuns bearing rulers. Most so-called prescriptive rules are a great big steaming pile of
dog's bollocks. I'm only able to defend prescriptivism because the primitive prescriptivism of grammar school teachers is already a dead issue among language professionals.
But, language in its social context has normative elements that we can not ignore. It would be better to embrace them and make our prescriptivism rational instead of leaving it to nonsense merchants in the Times.