29 October, 2006


επεων δε πολυς νομος ενθα και ενθα. . .
Iliad, 20.249.

Yesterday I had an hour to kill in the library, and decided to flick through some John McWhorter books. There was no real reason for this decision, other than that his name was in my head, and I knew the books would make light reading. John apparently writes for LanguageLog, though I can't recall ever seeing a post of his there. His books are full of defences of Black English as a respectable language in its own right, with its own rules, just as good as those of Standard English. Fair enough, of course—400 years ago it was white, middle-class Londoners at the forefront of the vernacular, now it's working-class blacks around the world. In the course of his arguments, McWhorter frequently attacks prescriptivist views of language—both the 'blacks talk bad' and the 'don't split your infinitives' varieties. There is, he argues, no better reason for the latter type of proscription than the arbitrary dicta of stuffy usageasters from 'the 1600s and 1700s'. That really should be 'the 1700s and 1800s', and frankly I'd much prefer 'the 18th and 19th centuries'—but he's essentially right. There's a detailed book about those usageasters, Sterling Leonard's The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, 1700-1800.

LanguageLog, also, is full of critiques of prescriptivism. One popped up just yesterday, in fact. Mark Liberman, who seems to writes most of the site's content, was defending linguists from the claim that they regard prescriptivism is 'evil', rather than 'foolish' and 'futile':
Sometimes. . . prescription is based on mistaken [grammatical] analysis, false history or bad logic. This is foolish, but it's not evil.

In other cases, prescription is based on resistance to innovation. This is usually futile, but it's not evil.
This position is eminently reasonable, although I have one minor problem with the latter statement. Liberman argues, quite rightly, that language inevitably changes, and that trying to 'halt its decline' is pointless. Resistance to innovation is futile. Well, this is true, but for better or worse, resistance to linguistic innovation is just as inevitable as linguistic innovation itself. If resistance to innovation is futile, so is resistance to resistance to innovation.

All through history people have bemoaned falling standards—and language is quite naturally a token of morality. Even Homer makes the connection. Deborah Levine Gera (Ancient Greek Ideas on Speech, Language and Civilization) demonstrates that the barbarous morality of Polyphemus is represented by his incorrect use of language, and 'incorrect' here means 'not in accordance with the rules of Greek society'. They did it in the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment, in the Victorian era, and they're doing it today. They will always do it, just as there will always be linguistic innovators. The only difference is that now it has become somewhat de-institutionalised and de-intellectualised, if you will please to excuse those clunkers.

I do it too. I correct my wife (an excellent speaker) when she says 'less people', and when she pronounces 'flaccid' to rhyme with 'placid'. (She corrects me too, occasionally.) Am I aware that 'less' is by now an acceptable Standard English variant of 'fewer', with no increase in ambiguity? Do I know that 'flassid' is much more common than 'flaxid'? Of course I do! I've been aware of this logic since I was a child—when my father in his own curmudgeonly ways corrected my use of 'hopefully' (= 'with any luck') I would generally remind him that 'meaning is usage', which is a child's expression of descriptivism. So why do I bother to correct my wife? Well, not from any scientific or philosophical belief in the superiority of 'fewer' or 'flaxid', but rather out of a sense of etiquette. The rules and prescriptions of this etiquette, like those of most etiquettes, are completely arbitrary. Whatever the logical or historical basis for drinking red warm but white chilled, 99% of people who follow these rules do it purely from the tacit pleasure of adhering to social conventions. They particularly enjoy being able to upbraid those who drink red cold, or order white with steak—and the near-arbitrary character of such proscriptions is irrelevant, however upbraiders might pretend good reasons. (Serious gourmets, of course, do have good reasons.) Likewise, I enjoy upbraiding my wife's verbal slips. It betokens respect, not disrespect. When she has the chance to upbraid my slips, she derives ten times the pleasure: how could I refuse her such delight? I like hearing a man avoid split infinitives, even though I am fully aware of the rule's arbitrary 1834 origin. There is a sort of stiff, pedantic elegance in this avoidance, or in the use of 'with whom', or in the pronunciation 'flaxid', an elegance that no amount of grammatical or historical analysis could possibly diminish. It takes self-command to speak and write in this manner—a self-command I respect.

(This is, I stress, not to say that prescriptivism has any scientific or historical weight, nor that it should be professionally advocated by linguists, grammarians, philologians or lexicographers.)

It takes self-command and mental effort to adhere to arbitrary linguistic rules. But here the analogy to etiquette breaks down, for it takes more effort to innovate—to innovate oneself, rather than just following casually the innovations of others. For this reason, lexical and syntactic innovation is something I admire far more than adherence to outmoded (or near-outmoded) customs. And that's an excellent reason to uphold the value of local vernaculars and dialects, which always abound with such innovations.


Anonymous said...


I really enjoyed this; its a rare man who stands up for etiquette; it is along he lines of a post i have been writing these 3 months, only better. you do the standing up well.

But i wonder just how completely arbitrary is the completely arbitrary; the rules of taste are rules after all; perhaps it is abritrary to choose one set over another (i am not sure that it is; imagine rules of etiquette which allow public defacation?), but once you choose one all sorts of things follow -- once the choice is made all arbitrariness evaporates. sorry, the thoughts are confused and half-baked. i need to work on them some more.

i am always glad to stumble upon a post which does this to me -- brings forth the amorphous thoughts in a difficult to make sense of torrent. so i suppose i owe you thanks.

btw, i had no idea flaccid was really flaxid. 10 years into my English education i was surprised to find just WHERE the stress in the word ascertain falls (weird).

Anonymous said...

and two words on innovation: it is good if it works. and, secondly, not all innovation is equally hard/admirable

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. By 'completely arbitrary' I did not mean to imply there were no constraints, merely that there is ultimately no logical jusification for it. I agree, choices constrain each other--perhaps that will be a fruitful subject for another post, either by you or by me.

Re: innovation, if you want to define it broadly, then just talking random nonsense is innovation. But I meant more systematic and coherent innovation, and I think that's valuable. How/where would you draw the distinction between good and bad innovation?

Anonymous said...

I don't know that that I can think of good examples of good and bad innovation in language (my English isnt that good and i dont feel proprietary about it). But I think there are very good examples in certain arts. In pottery, for example, a cup you cannot drink from is not much of a great innovation; it is a bad innovation if it is also nothing good to look at. It has something to do with the way all created objects (vocabulary included) fit into our life, our brains, and all the other creations with which we surround ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Come to think about it, language is probably a lot more personal than it appears: you know Shakespeare's characters by the way they speak, their diction, their choice of vocabulary. In that, it is perhaps like a lot of aesthetic experience: the language of X tells us something about him/her and is cause of immediate like and dislike. And while socio-economic and class issues are usually evoked to explain it, I think there is more to it than that: we are interested to know whether a person is decorous or gregarious, sensitive or happy-fellow-well-met, bookish or action-oriented and so forth. Perhaps when we correct someone's speech it isn't so much on account of universal standards of conduct as our own; and what fits (or does not fit) with who we think they are. You may correct the cunnada, but I doubt you bother to correct the librarian's senior assistantwhatshisname: and in this you are right, correcting a person can be a sign of our respect for them, our care for their image.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, I'm a real pain the arse; but I make up for it.

Anonymous said...

Less has been used with plural nouns since, I'm quoting, "the time of King Alfred."

The best pedantry is that independent of any actually existing fact about the world, however.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Less has been used with plural nouns since, I'm quoting, "the time of King Alfred.""

Quoting what? Naturally, the grammar of Old English has little relevance for that of Modern English--still, I can readily believe that "the best authors" have all used 'less' for 'fewer'. That doesn't make it sound OK to my ears.

"The best pedantry is that independent of any actually existing fact about the world, however."

Not sure this is true (I'm assuming you were not being sarcastic... perhaps you were); the best (linguistic) pedantry is certainly independent of any actually existing fact about the common usage of words; but not independent of any actually existing fact about cultural perceptions of the usage of words.

Anonymous said...

Look---I don't believe in pronouncing "bacchae" correctly. It sounds too much like how my fellow rustics refer to their state crop. I prefer to go with something like "BAKH-(l)ais."

Conrad H. Roth said...


Jonathan, I have the definite suspicion you're making fun of me, but I must confess that I don't get it. If so, chalk one up for yourself.

If you're being serious, on the other hand, then I don't understand why you would render the latter syllable of 'bacchae' as '(l)ais', but by all means: conscious adherence to a particular pronunciation for the sake of euphonics is perfectly legitimate. A friend of mine doggedly insisted on 'hal-ISS-i-on' as a pronunciation of 'halcyon', which I applauded.

It's laziness I don't like.

Anonymous said...

"By 'completely arbitrary' I did not mean to imply there were no constraints, merely that there is ultimately no logical jusification for it".

To give but one instance to refute your statement, the distinction between "fewer" and "less" is perfectly logical. It reflects a judgment that it is logical and worthwhile to distinguish individually numerable objects from objects that are quantifiable by volume or weight. One may quibble with the judgment (that is, the value of the particular logical distinction), but there is nothing "completely arbitrary" about it.

With regard to the "good" innovations that I gather you would find in the likes of Ebonics and ghetto-speak, I would suggest that the burden of proof is upon you to demonstrate why such "innovation" is "good". Those of us who feel otherwise do not need to prove a negative.

As an aside, to hear the descriptivists speak, one would think that 20th-and 21st-Century changes in language usage, which are mostly mistake-driven, were comparable to those of the Elizabethan period. It makes me laugh, albeit a bit sadly.

I do, however, agree with you about the following, although I would excise the weasel words "stiff" and "pedantic":

"There is a sort of stiff, pedantic elegance in this avoidance, or in the use of 'with whom', or in the pronunciation 'flaxid', an elegance that no amount of grammatical or historical analysis could possibly diminish. It takes self-command to speak and write in this manner—a self-command I respect".

That's right. Speaking and writing in this way involve holding oneself (and others) to a standard; they involve self-discipline and challenge.

You seem, however, to assume a false dichotomy between upholding these standards, on the one hand, and linguistic innovation, on the other. I see no justification for this assumption.

I also wonder, who is to say what is "outmoded"? Post-Structuralist perspectivism can cut both ways, you know.

In addition, you make the rather dubious assumption that local vernaculars and dialects embody linguistic innovation. To assert that they ever do is debatable; to assert that they "always" do is simply ridiculous.

At the end of the day, descriptivism, to me, is merely another manifestation of Nietzsche's concept of slave morality, which is the dominant morality of our day. It reflects a frantic race to the bottom, a form of the disease of neophilia; or, to put it another way, of that great logical fallacy of modern times: Post hoc, ergo hoc melius.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Alors, M. Toussenel, a somewhat more intelligent comment this time, thankfully.

"The distinction between "fewer" and "less" is perfectly logical."

It may have its basis in logic, but the fact that people get by without it, and with the greatest of ease, indicates that there is no particular logical argument for enforcing the distinction. The fact that we happen to mark this distinction is, ultimately, arbitrary, in the sense that we could just as well not have done.

"The burden of proof is upon you to demonstrate why such "innovation" is "good"."

Oh, assuredly, but I meant merely to indicate my own aesthetic preferences. Of course you can't prove that linguistic innovation is good.

I fail to see why 'stiff' and 'pedantic' are weasel words.

As for a putative dichotomy between innovation and rule-following, there is certainly a conceptual dichotomy between these two forces--but as I tried to indicate, one can certainly do both, albeit rarely within the same phrase or word.