Thursday, December 15, 2011

On pedantry, ambiguity[,] and the Oxford comma.

Hello to all my language hippies out there! I thought I would share an infographic I made earlier today, based upon an image I keep seeing people pass around online (roughly the top left of this version). The original purports to show that the Oxford comma, which is the use of a comma before the word 'and' in a list of three or more items, removes ambiguity from writing. My own version is meant to show that there are other sentences where it is the lack of an Oxford comma which would prevent ambiguity from arising instead.

My opinion is that you should use whichever style you prefer in your own writing, but also that you shouldn't judge other people for using a different one in theirs. But if you're going to get into an argument with someone over the relative merits of the Oxford comma or its absence, make sure you have the facts on your side: neither style is inherently less confusing or more straightforward than the other. It's all just just a matter of personal preference, or what the writer thinks will be most effective in a given sentence.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Language Rules! (That's a statement, not a noun phrase.)

Question: Hey, I’m just wondering- and totally not in a sarcastic/condescending way- from a linguists perspective, if there’s no “wrong” usage of words or grammar, why have rules at all? Are there any that matter? Just wanted to get your views on it.

Answer: Linguists really do vary, and most are not as pigheadedly anti-prescriptivist as I am. =) But, from my perspective, we don’t need rules at all. English survived for quite a while before people started writing down the rules to it, and there are many societies around the world still today that don’t actively enforce linguistic rules.

There’s a huge pressure on people who directly interact to understand one another. If X and Y are going to communicate to each one’s benefit, they’re going to need to be able to successfully pass messages back and forth. And when you expand that to an entire society, the principle remains the same: the language of people who are forced to communicate naturally converges to the point of understandability, without the need for actively prescribing rules.

Due to that pressure, most variation within a language is just statistical noise: it’s interesting, it can teach us a lot about the principles of grammar, and I would even say it’s beautiful… but it’s so minor that it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension. It’s really rare for two speakers of the same language to truly not be able to understand each other.

And if that were to happen — if, without the active enforcement of grammatical rules, a formerly common language begins splitting apart… who cares? Historically, that’s happened plenty of times. The various Romance languages all descended from dialects of Latin, Old English branched away from Old Germanic, and so on and so forth. Languages split when that social pressure goes away: when one population of Old Germanic speakers no longer are interacting enough with the others to need to maintain cross-group intelligibility. It’s a perfectly natural linguistic process, and it almost doesn’t make sense to stand in its way. If we need to understand one another, we will, and if we don’t, what’s the point of making sure we can?

So that’s my answer! The explicit enforcement of grammatical rules is unnecessary and only serves to unfairly shame speakers of nonstandard variants. If we just let the invisible hand take care of it (the way many societies have done and continue to do today), an equilibrium of necessary intelligibility in language would soon be achieved.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Accepting Accents

Ben Trawick-Smith's Dialect Blog recently posted a short piece on "great minds who kept their accents." He lists, along with accompanying video clips, several renowned intellectuals who were able to achieve success despite speaking with a nonstandard and stigmatized language variety. Trawick-Smith comments:
It is a sad fact that we easily underestimate people because of their accents... I’ve long hoped for a world in which we no longer associate certain accents with intellectualism. And while such a world may never be possible, it’s worth noting that genius speaks in many different voices.
The major point here, of course, is that language variety is not a reliable indicator of intellectualism, and it is both unfair and unscientific to act as though it is. I've mentioned before how from an objective, scientific point of view no language form or style is inherently better or worse than any other, and it is also true that personal qualities such as intelligence cannot be linked to the way you speak. Nevertheless, people tend to act as though speech is something that can be done right or done wrong, and to discriminate heavily against those perceived as wrong. The common assumption appears to be that only one form of language is correct and that all others are wrong -- and therefore that anyone speaking differently than the standard is unintelligent. Trawick-Smith's blog post represents an excellent demonstration that language is no indication of ability.

If no accents are better or worse than any other, why do we act as though they are? And if we are interested in decreasing the amount of accent discrimination in society today, what steps can be taken to remedy the situation? As I see it, there are three broad factors that need to be addressed: under-exposure, hostile treatment, and misleading commentary.

The first factor that leads us to discriminate against people on the basis of how they sound is simply one of exposure. If we are used to a certain variety of speaking, anything different from that is going to seem unusual -- and it is all too easy to treat the unusual as incorrect. This, I think, is a natural human impulse: to treat what we are accustomed to as the norm, and any deviation as a deficit. Racists tend to have grown up without much exposure to people from other backgrounds, and I think the same can be said for people who discriminate based on accent. If we are used to everyone being similar to us, we are likely to assume that anything different must be a sign of something wrong.

The solution to under-exposure, of course, is to increase the representation of other language varieties around us, particularly for children who are growing up and still forming their conceptions of what is and isn't normal. Just as a child being raised in a multicultural environment is likely to be tolerant toward other cultures, so too would someone growing up amid a rainbow of sounds likely be open to people who don't sound exactly like themselves.

There are many possible steps toward achieving this sort of diversity. One is simply to welcome people of different backgrounds into our communities, and to foster a sense of welcomeness ourselves, so that more people will feel pride and not shame when using their natural speech patterns. Another strategy, however, is to increase the representation of different language varieties depicted in mass media, particularly those films, music, and television programs that are aimed at children. In her book English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, Rosina Lippi-Green relates a study of English accent use in the 24 full-length Disney animated features released between 1938 and 1994. Among her conclusions is the following:
While 91 of the total 371 characters occur in roles where they would not logically be speaking English [such as characters in France in Beauty and the Beast, or the citizens of the mythical Arabic kingdom in Aladdin], there are only 34 characters who speak English with a foreign accent.
To children, this can send a message that certain language varieties are more normal or better than others, and make it harder to treat differently-accented people with fairness. (Children who do not speak the standard Disney accent might also infer that their language varieties, and thus they themselves, are in some way inferior.) Greater representation of accent variation in Disney films would certainly help acclimatize children to the widespread diversity of language that exists in the real world.

That people discriminate based on accent, however, is not just a reflection of representative exposure. There is also the greater issue of how language varieties are treated in society when they do appear. In that same study, Lippi-Green looked at how accent related to character motivations: what does the typical Disney 'good guy' sound like? And which accents are used to convey villainy? She concludes:
Close examination of the distributions indicates that these animated films provide material which links language varieties associated with specific national origins, ethnicities, and races with social norms and characteristics in non-factual and sometimes overtly discriminatory ways. Characters with strongly positive actions and motivations are overwhelmingly speakers of socially mainstream varieties of English. Conversely, characters with strongly negative actions and motivations often speak varieties of English linked to specific geographical regions and marginalized social groups.
Children are thus taught not only that certain varieties of language are more normal than others, but also that the less normal varieties can be taken as an indication of moral failing. It is only logical that individuals taught to discriminate will grow up to discriminate, and from the evidence Lippi-Green has provided, Disney is definitely teaching intolerance. Of course, such animated films are only one small facet of society, but they are nevertheless a representative look at how language varieties tend to be treated. And any time a variety is presented as substandard or its speakers are treated as such, children are learning not to treat others fairly. The solution, then, is to stop discriminating ourselves, both in our day-to-day lives and in the media materials we create for children's consumption. If our actions are being taken by children as examples of what is proper and right, then by all means, let us treat others with fairness no matter how they speak.

The final factor that leads to accent discrimination follows quite logically from under-exposure to diversity and unfair treatment of language varieties, but it bears mentioning independently. I am speaking here of commentary: the lessons we explicitly teach our children about language. Under-representation and skewed portrayals of language varieties can associate negative qualities with the speech of others, but the clearest way in which that message spreads is by people actually voicing the opinion to others. And once again, children are key. We cannot blame children for believing the lessons that parents, teachers, and other role models present to them as truth. But we can try, as role models ourselves, to rectify this situation. We can stop telling children there are incorrect ways of speaking, and actively inform them that differences in speech are not deficiencies. (I am speaking here primarily of accents, although I do think the same lesson applies to differences of grammar and word choice.)

I am not pretending that these strategies would be easy to carry out, or that most people would be receptive toward them. But if you believe, as I do, that it is unfair to discriminate against someone on the basis of his or her accent, then I encourage you to take such steps in your own life and in the environment in which you raise your children.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thoughts on a New Year of School

Welcome back, students! It's a new semester at the University at Buffalo, where I have the good fortune to study and teach in the department of linguistics. Over the coming months I will be TA-ing LIN 200, Language in Pluralistic America. That course is very dear to my heart, as it focuses on matters of linguistic diversity and prejudice, which are topics I tend to blog about here. It is a class aimed at non-linguists, and serves as an introduction to the idea that differences in people's speech are not necessarily a problem to overcome (or a sign of low intelligence, laziness, poor education, and so on).

After the first meetings with my two discussion sections, I find myself reflecting on the fact that linguistics is not a field that the average person knows a lot about. There are two false assumptions about the discipline in particular that I commonly encounter, and I should expect that at least some of my students will hold them already. Some may in fact have signed up for their first linguistics class because of these assumptions, and I should be prepared to face some surprise. I'm not entirely sure of the readership of this blog, but if you are a newcomer to linguistics yourself (especially if you've found it as one of my students), this short post might help set some of the facts straight.

Common Assumption #1: Linguists speak and study many languages. By far, the most common question linguists are asked is, "Oh, how many languages do you speak?" And as a descriptivist, I have to admit that this is a legitimate alternative definition to the word 'linguist': a person who speaks many languages. But in an academic context, the word more often refers to someone who studies language for a living, regardless of how many languages they happen to speak themselves. Some of us may speak multiple tongues, but asking about that is sort of like asking a veterinarian how many pets he or she has. The answer might be more than one, but that fact is entirely coincidental to the person's profession. (For what it's worth, my kind of linguist refers to a person who can speak multiple languages as multilingual or a polyglot.)

Common Assumption #2: Linguists are there to enforce standards on languages. Language is a beautifully complicated thing, and it's true that linguists are interested in making sense of it all. But to borrow a metaphor from Erin McKean's excellent TED Talk on lexicography, that does not make us the traffic cops of speech and writing. Our goal is to accurately describe language as it's already being used, not to endorse or enforce a standard. As scientists we want to observe raw data, and dictating what that data should look like is only going to weaken the conclusions we can draw.

One final note: Because of the scientific benefit of remaining objective, almost every linguist employs a descriptive approach to the language(s) that they study. I personally identify as a linguistic descriptivist (and not just a linguist) because I consider it my obligation to extend this objectivity into public outreach and social activism. There are a lot of unfounded stereotypes and prescriptivst notions in the world today, and I try to use my education to help counter this ignorance. This blog is part of my effort to spread the fact that from a scientific point of view, everyone’s language is inherently correct. There are no wrong ways to say something, and telling someone they’re using language incorrectly can be as hurtful as saying they’re of the wrong religion, sexual orientation, skin color, etc. My advocacy for language equality and tolerance is not something that every linguist engages in, but it stems from everything I've learned as a scientific observer of language.

In general, of course, a linguist is someone who is very interested in language. So the main thing to remember, when you happen across one of us in our natural setting, is that we like to talk about talk. This means that if there's anything you've ever wondered about how language works, feel free to ask a linguist! As long as you're okay with the possibility of having your opinions challenged, then we should get along just fine.

Class dismissed!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

On the acceptability of "on accident."

Over on the microblogging site Tumblr (where I don't always post about language, but you're welcome to look me up if you'd like), the following image has been making the rounds. As you might imagine, I do not particularly agree with its claims:


It is hardly the only message of its kind. Indeed, there is a great abundance of such misinformation on language and grammar in the world today, which was one of my main impetuses for creating this blog. Language Hippie is an attempt to share solid facts, the results of linguists' careful scientific inquiry into language, in a world where statements like the above image spread rapidly from person to person without much analysis of their claims. I'd like to focus on this particular image because of the way its author has framed and phrased its claims as authoratative. By that I mean it is a professional-looking image, and one that covertly claims authority on language with its reference to the findings of linguists (uncited and seemingly irrelevent as they are). It also refers in passing to language descriptivism, which is fairly rare in such a message. Usually, prescriptivist claims come from individuals who have never been introduced to the merits of descriptivism as a scientific approach to language. This author has heard of descriptivim but is dismissive, and all of this merits a closer look.

First, however, it is important to separate three possible arguments against "on accident", which may appear similar at a glance but are actually distinct claims. The first is the image's primary message, that the use of words "by accident" is absolutely correct and the use of words "on accident" is completely wrong. This claim represents the prescriptivist intuition that there is a single correct form of language, just like there is a single correct answer to the math question "What is 4 times 5?" or a single correct formula for the chemical carbon dioxide. The above image puts forward this argument via matter-of-fact statements like "Things do not happen on accident" as well as the claim that to use the word "on" in this phrase would be to "forget education" and spread the "rot" of the English language. The overall suggestion is that the phrase "by accident" is inherently correct, and "on accident" is inherently wrong. In this view, a speaker who uses the latter instead of the former is akin to a child who says that the first president of America was Thomas Jefferson, for in each case there is a particular correct fact about the world that has not yet entered his or her knowledge. (And, like the ignorant child, we should not tell someone who says "on accident" that their way of things is legitimate or equal to the truth of the matter.) This is the standard prescriptivist claim, that there is a single correct form of language that is being ignored, forgotten, or unlearned in some fashion.

Note that this argument, like the above picture, provides no reasoning for why one particular form of language is correct and another is wrong. "Things do not happen on accident" is presented as a simple factual claim like "4 times 5 equals 20", with no explanation for why this is the case. However, there are certainly arguments that could be made in favor of a form like "by accident" that go beyond simply asserting its inherent correctness. Although the above image does not do so, it is possible to argue from either a historical or a logical perspective for one linguistic form over another. Speaking from history, someone could plausibly say, "We have never used this form before, and deviation is unacceptable", while from logic, another might assert that the one form of language simply doesn't make sense. This type of reasoned argument against "on accident" is more nuanced in its approach, but now that we have defined the arguments, we can begin to examine and critique their qualities.

As I mentioned earlier, my goal on this blog is to share what linguists have discovered through applying the scientific method to language. And the primary, most certain finding of the field of linguistics has been that language is not fixed. It changes from person to person, from group to group, and most certainly over time -- so that even the same individual might not speak the exact same language at age 50 as he or she did at 30. So when linguists investigate a particular language, their conclusions about its grammar are not irrevocable facts the way discoveries in other fields might be, but are instead closer in spirit to the results of a census. They represent a split-second snapshop of the state of the language at that particular moment, and should always be interpreted as temporary. If a linguist declares something to be ungrammatical, he or she is merely stating that at the time of writing, the language does not appear to allow such a form.

It follows from the perpetual flux of language that there is no such thing as an inherently correct linguistic form. That is, there is no word, phrase, or grammatical construction that is necessarily grammatical, or necessarily ungrammatical, in a language. Although speakers might currently favor some particular construction, that is no indication that it used to be said in the language, or that it will be used by speakers in the future. Chaucer's Canturbury Tales, for instance, were written in the 14th century and contain the word "thanne." That word would have been ungrammatical in the 10th century, when English speakers said "รพa," and it is certainly ungrammatical today, when we use the word "then" instead. Yet in Chaucer's time, "thanne" was a perfectly acceptable word. And similarly, a construction that is today not considered acceptable might very well enter the language in the future -- which is to say, there is no word or phrase so inherently incorrect that it could never be part of a given language. Indeed, the fact of language change dictates that there is really no such thing as inherent grammaticality or ungrammaticality. The first argument against "on accident", that it is simply an inherently incorrect form of language, can therefore be discarded.

The fact of language change also serves as a counterargument to the potential argument from history, that the phrase "on accident" has traditionally never been used in English. It may or may not be true that this phrase is a new addition to the language, but from a linguistic perspective, an item's longevity should have no bearing on its grammaticality or acceptability to speakers. Phrases that have been popular in a language for centuries may suddenly fall out of favor, and new coinages may suddenly be heard on every speaker's lips. This is simply how language functions. A construction should not be villified for its newness, for nearly every word we say today was at some point a new entry to the English language. The claim that deviation is unacceptable in language is therefore absurd, and the argument from history can be discarded as well.

Finally, then, we reach the argument from logic. This argument against "on accident" claims that the phrase is compositionally nonsensical -- that is, that the meanings of its pieces do not make sense together. It could be argued, after all, that the preposition "on" designates placement at the top of something, as in the phrase "sitting on the table", while the preposition "by" indicates means, like in the phrase "going by train." According to this argument, "on accident" would mean placement at the top of an accident rather than happening through the means of an accident, and so the phrase cannot be an acceptable substitute for "by accident." The phrase simply doesn't make sense.

Another finding of linguistics, however, is that language is not always logically compositional: the meanings of an utterance's pieces do not always add up to the meaning of its whole. This is readily evident in English, where the phrase "I'm not unhappy" is most definitely not synonymous with "I'm happy." Or consider the word "inflammable", whose individual pieces appear to mean "not able to be set on fire" and yet whose definition is the exact opposite of that. And logically, the verb "am" indicates a first-person subject, so the pronoun "I" should be redundant and unnecessary in the sentence, "I am a lawyer" -- and yet dropping it to say "Am a lawyer" sounds curiously ungrammatical.

The fact is, language meaning does not always follow the rules of logic, and it is a futile endeavor to apply logic to judgments of grammaticality. If this is still not clear, simply consider the phrase "on purpose", whose meaning is roughly opposite to "on/by accident." If we follow the definition of the preposition "on" given above, we would have to conclude that "on purpose" is nonsensical and ungrammatical, and should properly be stated as "by purpose" instead. And yet, as a linguist looking at English, I have never come across a speaker saying something happened "by purpose." Despite the logic of its composition, it is simply not a phrase that speakers are saying. And "on accident", despite its composition, is.

Ultimately, this last fact is the truest judge of grammaticality: that the phrase "on accident" is something that people are saying. The job of a linguist is to examine the language that people speak and describe it as best we can, and from this perspective, "on accident" is wholly grammatical. In fact, since people rarely complain about linguistic forms that no one is actually using -- "It's not correct to say 'sdog' as the plural for 'dog'! The 's' has to go at the end of the word!" -- claims of ungrammaticality are almost always misguided. If someone has taken the time to complain about a certain language form being unacceptable, that is usually a pretty good indication that someone in the language is saying it. And if it's being said, it's a part of the language -- no exceptions.

Despite the above image's disdain for descriptivism as asking people to "forget education", we are actually sharing the real scientific findings of how language works. It is not necessarily "how you feel about English" that matters, but it is true that everything you say is grammatical. And for a scientist studying language, it would be sheer folly to discount that data due to a misguided preconception of what we are looking for when we study grammar.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Language: jump in!

One of my favorite ways to think about language is to compare it to jumping. This may seem strange, but I think it makes a lot of sense. After all, jumping is something that nearly all mature humans can do, provided we have the requisite body parts. And probably, no one taught you how to jump. They may have offered advice or demonstrated their own forms, but you basically learned how to push yourself into the air by observing other people do so and trying it out for yourself. From what we know about child language acquisition, this is roughly analogous to how babies learn to speak.

It's also true of language, as of jumping, that you don't need to mentally review every step of the process before you perform it. We don't typically run through a mental catalog of the muscles we'll need to flex, or the order in which we'll flex them, before launching ourselves off the ground. And we don't need to think about the rules of grammar before opening our mouths to speak. They come naturally, like jumping, and what results is a grammatical utterance just as surely as what happens when we jump is a jump.

You can, of course, think about jumping before you begin to move, and plan out exactly how you're going to do it. You can choose to move in a precise way, more planned out and self-aware than a normal jumping maneuver would require. Language is like that too. If you think about your words carefully before speaking, you can produce a more polished utterance just as surely as you can produce a more precise jump by thinking about the matter first. But an unreflective jump is just as authentic as one with thought before it -- by which I mean, no one would accuse jumping-without-planning of not being a true jump. I don't think anyone would even make the claim that planning out your jumps makes them objectively better than jumping without thinking first.

It is my contention that language is the same way. When we speak without thinking about it, our utterances do not always adhere to the standard notions of grammatical correctness. We speak in run-on sentences and dangling participles, in "misplaced" modifiers and all of the other things that would send an English teacher scurrying for the red pen. If we think carefully beforehand -- as we usually do when we write -- we can generally avoid these items, but they are very present in our unguarded speech. But, like a jump without thought behind it, I see no reason to consider such speech improper, incorrect, or in any way inferior to its more planned-out alternative.

The notions of grammar and grammaticality are still important to a descriptivist, of course, but here too a jumping metaphor can prove useful. For a linguistic descriptivist, investigating which utterances are grammatical and which are not is as pointless and frivolous as considering which jumps qualify as legitimate acts of jumping. We instead take as granted that anyone trying to jump produces a jump, and anyone trying to speak produces a grammatical utterance. The notion of grammar is used to analyze what all of the utterances have in common, just as a general description of jumping could be produced by observing many people's individual acts of it. But descriptivists do not believe that everything is grammatical, just as surely as no one would conclude that any possible motion is a jump. There are some things that simply no one would do when asked to jump, and there are just as many that no one would do when asked to speak.

And this is perhaps the best test of what is a legitimate instance of a particular kind of action. When someone is asked to jump, and attempts to jump, and considers what they have done to be a jump, we should surely accept that they have in fact jumped. And when someone is prompted to speak, and opens their mouth to speak, and considers what they have said to be a meaningful contribution to the conversation (and not just nonsense noises), we should just as surely accept that utterance as grammatical, whether they planned it all out in their head or not.

In the end, language is just like jumping. When we attempt to speak, we speak -- and what comes out is an utterly genuine act.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open. " -- Albus Dumbledore

Aloha and alohomora, language hippogriffs! Tonight is the midnight release of the last Harry Potter movie, and I thought a Potter-themed Language Hippie post seemed in order. If you're not a Potterhead, don't turn away just yet -- I'll be focusing on those stories, yes, but I believe the conclusions I'll be drawing are not so limited in scope.

Language diversity and tolerance might not seem to immediately apply to the adventures of a young boy wizard, but I think the series can actually teach us a lot. Anyone who has both read the books and watched the movies has surely noticed some differences between the two. In addition to details that were changed in the transition from novel to film, there are also elements that were unspecified in the original stories and had to be filled in by the moviemakers: from the tune of the song the mermaids sing, to the way werewolves transform at the full moon, to the exact design of Voldemort's wand. Most likely, readers imagined such details quite differently in their own minds, before witnessing how they were presented on film. As a result, the story we watch is somewhat different from the one we had experienced before.

This, I believe, is a fairly obvious point that has probably occured to all of you before now. And it is my hope that you will also accept as noncontroversial my further claim, that the version of events and details presented in the Harry Potter movies is not the only legitimate one. That is, I hope you will not consider yourself to be incorrect in how you imagined the stories before, just because the filmmakers viewed and presented them differently. While their vision may have the original creator J.K. Rowling's seal of approval, and yours likely does not, that does not mean that your own version of the story is in any way misguided or wrong.

I mention all of this as set-up for my ultimate point, which is about the language of the Harry Potter books. This is another element of the novels that had to be filled in by the filmmakers, either with or without consultation by J.K. Rowling. (I am guessing the former, but I consider the matter to be ultimately moot.) Although Rowling's books are full of unusual character and creature names, magical spells, and so forth, she usually provides little indication beyond spelling as to how these words are to be pronounced. And so, when those words are spoken aloud in the movies -- or the audiobooks, for that matter -- the producers must decide on one interpretation, one vision, to present to the audience. And like any other detail, those pronunciations might not agree with how we imagined the world of Harry Potter ourselves.

I urge you, then, to not be swayed by how the movie characters pronounce J.K. Rowling's magical words, if you have always believed in your heart that they were said differently. If you think 'accio' should have a 'CH' sound and not a 'K', if you rhyme 'muggle' with 'frugal', or if you pronounce 'Voldemort' with a silent -t, don't be discouraged that the people in the movie franchise do things differently. Theirs is but one interpretation, one dialect, of the words J.K. Rowling has gifted to us. Your own is just as valid, and just as worthy of celebration.

Mischief managed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Overthinking "old-school."

Earlier this week, the quite excellent website Overthinking It featured a guest post from Diana Barnes-Brown, applying the site's characteristic over-analysis to a recent commercial for clothing store T.J. Maxx. (Full post available on the website, here.) I usually enjoy Overthinking It's particular style of commentary, but I admit I was preparing to grit my teeth when I saw the opening line mention "the continual decline of the English language." This is one of those phrases that gets used a lot by opponents of language variation and change -- it implies that any new development in the language must be one for the worse, even though from an objective point of view, no form of a language is superior or inferior to any other form. Different, yes, but no better or worse.

Happily, my fears about Barnes-Brown's article were for the most part misplaced. Despite the provocative opening about the decline of English, she actually makes some insightful points about how language change operates.

Her main contention is that the T.J. Maxx commercial contains an unacceptable use of the word "old-school" to mean 'old-fashioned and lame' rather than 'retro and cool.' The exact line in question is, "I’m in T.J. Maxx all the time. I used to think it was old-school, but it’s not. I get this season’s designer clothes - and I still get to eat!” Barnes-Brown asserts, and I quite agree, that this is not the way the word "old-school" is typically used. It's hard to tell in this short sample exactly what the speaker means when she uses the word, but as Barnes-Brown points out, the ad does seem to have changed its connotation from positive to negative.

Barnes-Brown writes:

...while language and in particular semantics are dynamic, they aren’t dynamic in this way. Saying things incorrectly in a way people don’t generally say them isn’t being linguistically progressive, it’s just being ignorant. There’s a difference between a) meaning that evolves over time, as people slowly apply a word at the edges of its current meaning, and that usage gradually edges from rare to common and b) meaning that is confounded because you never knew the common or accurate usage in the first place. To vary from or build upon a linguistic or semantic convention, you first have to understand what it is you had to begin with.

I think there's a lot of truth to be found in these comments. I'm not quite as opposed to this new use of "old-school" as Barnes-Brown is, because it seems to me that all new uses of words have to start somewhere, and I don't agree that there is -- or should be -- a requirement that the new use be closely connected to an older one. (And since a television commercial for a national department store chain is a fairly major platform, it's even possible that T.J. Maxx will inspire many more people to start using the word in this way.) However, I completely agree with Barnes-Brown that there is a world of difference between the avoidance of prescriptivism on the one hand and what she calls "linguistic apologism", the unqualified acceptance of all forms, on the other.

There is a misconception at times that being against prescriptivism means not believing that language has rules, or believing that that any combination of words is as good as another. Instead, descriptivists hold that the rules of language are fluid: they exist and are semi-stable, but they are in no way permanent. Someone speaking in a way that goes against conventional rules or definitions is most likely a sign that the rules are in shift once more.

This is my one objection to Barnes-Brown's commentary: I think the definition of "old-school" could well be in a state of flux, either before or because of the clothing commercial. But in general, her position is a strong one that is worth repeating: being descriptivist does not mean that we have to accept as legitimate just any combination of words. Although all speakers are free to invent new words, definitions, or grammatical rules -- either consciously or not -- those that are just too far removed from existing conventions are unlikely to be picked up by other speakers and enter into the wider language. There is a certain stability that is essential for language if it is to remain an effective means of communication, and language-users seek to preserve that stability almost automatically by avoiding sudden radical changes to the system they know. As a result, the changes that occur in language are more likely to be slow and gradual, as Barnes-Brown observes.

Sudden changes are in fact all around us, in the speech of individuals. Human beings love to push at boundaries, and even if that's not what the scriptwriters at T.J. Maxx were intending to do, it is what their unusual use of "old-school" achieved. Most such radical changes, of course, do not last long beyond the first speaker to employ them. The descriptivist's job is to describe: to determine when changes have been picked up by a wider speech community, passing from individual idiosyncrasies to groupwide rules.

Monday, July 4, 2011

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...

Happy Fourth of July, language hippies! Today in America, we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which symbolizes the start of our Revolutionary War against Britain and the birth of the United States as a country. We celebrate the nation and its founders, whose vision of America has survived 235 years to today. And we praise Thomas Jefferson in particular as the brilliant writer and thinker whose passionate words declared our nation's independence to the world.

Too often, it seems, we don't go back and look at those words (although anyone who wants to can do so here). But there are important lessons, both political and otherwise, that can be learned from a fresh review of the document. The signed version of Jefferson's declaration, in its final wording, begins as follows:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

It is immediately striking to any native speaker of English today that Jefferson does not write the same way that we would. This first sentence, which is certainly not atypical of Jefferson's writing style throughout the Declaration, is much longer than the sentences we are more used to reading. There are also several strange instances of capital letters, which nearly any grade school teacher would mark as incorrect. And I know that if I had written this first sentence of the Declaration, I would not have placed commas in every place that Jefferson has. By the common standards of today, the Declaration of Independence is riddled with such grammatical oddities.

How can we explain the fact that the Declaration would not escape the red pen of a twenty-first century editor? Jefferson, educated as a young man at the College of William and Mary, was by all accounts an incredibly brilliant individual. Was he never taught how to correctly craft an English sentence? Was he somehow ignorant as to the proper rules of grammar?

Obviously, this is not the case. Rather, the common standards of what is grammatical, what is acceptable, and what is proper in the English language have shifted from Jefferson's time to our own. This is what language does: it shifts, it mutates, and it is not the same from year to year or generation to generation. As a result, the grammatical sentences of someone else -- particularly of someone removed from us in time or space -- often strike us as unusual, and therefore incorrect. It is easy to forget the inherent mutability of language, and to claim that any unfamiliar patterns in the language must be "ungrammatical" as a result.

The rules of language can differ from one person to the next, whether that second person lived two hundred years ago or is alive and well down the street from the first. Today as we celebrate the birth of America through Thomas Jefferson's famous words, let us endeavor to remember this fact, and to accept as legitimate and worthy all of the speech of our fellow souls.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Some Thoughts on Prescriptivism

Welcome back to Language Hippie! In today's post, I'd like to talk a little bit more about linguistic prescriptivism, or the attitude of imposing a standard on the language of others. Although I do believe prescriptivism can have its uses, in this post I'll be focusing more on what I see as its downsides.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a prescriptivist myself. To the extent that descriptivism and prescriptivism are opposed -- and I don't believe they fully are -- I come down firmly on the side of linguistic description. As a scientist of language, I don't understand why anyone would throw out good data simply because it doesn't match our preconceptions. But that's what is being done nearly every time someone says, "It's not grammatical to..." No matter what behavior that person goes on to identify -- "split an infinitive", "end a sentence in a preposition", etc. -- he or she is presenting an argument that there are instances of language around that do not fit the rules of grammar.

For a linguist, that type of claim is troubling -- or at least, it should be. Linguists think of grammar as the set of internal rules in a speaker's head that cause his or her language to come out the way it does. As a simplified example, a linguist might say that there is a rule in the grammar of English that puts the article before the noun and not after it, so that we say, "The dog jumped" and not "Dog the jumped." Linguists do not all agree on exactly how these rules work, or how they are formed or stored in the mind, but most linguists would not argue with the claim that English speakers have some sort of subconscious knowledge that keeps them from putting the article last. (By subconscious, all I mean is that you do not need to pay attention or focus to avoid saying "Dog the jumped"; your inner grammar avoids that structure automatically.)

It’s important to note here that although descriptivism is often linked with a permissive attitude toward language, a descriptivist would have no problem with calling the sentence “Dog the jumped” ungrammatical. It is a kind of sentence that no fluent English speaker would naturally produce. There is nothing inherently wrong about its word order, of course, and many languages around the world do in fact put their articles after their nouns. But English never does, and a descriptivist should have no qualms about identifying this feature of the language.

The difference, then, between the prescriptivist and descriptivist outlook is not simply that the former is concerned with language following rules and the latter thinks that any combination of words is acceptable. The descriptivist is just as concerned as the other about how language follows rules. The difference again comes down to observation: what are people in the world actually saying, and how can we describe that behavior through grammatical rules? So whereas no one is lobbying for “Dog the jumped” to be considered an acceptable sentence, a descriptivist has no objection to a sentence such as, “Where did you get those from?” This sentence is produced naturally enough by most English speakers, and that makes a descriptivist value it as a piece of data. For a prescriptivist, however, the fact that the sentence ends in a preposition somehow renders it unacceptable, no matter who said it or who thinks it sounds just fine.

It should be obvious that the usual prescriptive claim starts out as a descriptive one. There is a reason that no one goes around printing in textbooks that the English article should go after the noun, because it is very clear that that is not how the language works. There are, however, a great many sentences that English speakers and writers produce that would support the claim that a sentence in this language can’t end in a preposition. Rather than say, “Where did you get those from?”, some speakers would ask, “From where did you get those?” And when we recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, we swear loyalty to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands”, not “and to the republic which it stands for.” Sentences such as these give credence to the notion that English prepositions don’t end clauses. Or, to put it another way, that rule accurately describes the linguistic behavior of those sentences.

The problem is that such a rule, which starts out as a pure description of how previous sentences have been produced, gets elevated over time to become an authority for how other sentences should be produced in the future -- or a damnation of sentences being spoken in the world today. A prescriptivist, in short, is someone who promotes the status quo of yesterday as the standard for today, ignoring the fact that today’s status quo is perfectly valid in its own right.

Perhaps this is a feature of the human condition: glorifying the way things were in the past and denouncing anything that strikes us as new and unusual. That’s a bigger issue than I’m prepared to tackle on this blog, however. What I’d like to come back to, instead, is why I think it’s bad science.

A linguist’s job, as I’ve mentioned before, is to accurately describe the evidence of speech and writing in the form of rules representing a speaker’s subconscious knowledge of language. This is a scientific process, and the scientific method involves the regular formation of hypotheses -- temporary conclusions that can be tested and refined with further data. It is a poor scientist who grows so attached to his hypothesis that he neglects to test it further, or who invents reasons to throw out any evidence that goes against her preconceptions. In the case of the prescriptivist, there is often a vicious cycle: an existing ‘rule’ of grammar is considered to be unbreakable, so anything that doesn’t fit the rule is labeled as ungrammatical -- meaning, of course, that those pieces of language cannot be considered as data, and only sentences which do not break the rule are actually tested against it. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which no further scientific progress is made.

There are other reasons to reject prescriptivism, too, that have nothing to do with science. As unscientific as it is to identify someone’s speech as ungrammatical, it is also quite hurtful -- for our language is a reflection of our identity, so how can we be anything but offended when someone tells us we are doing it wrong? In short, prescriptivism in language strikes me as both misguided and dangerous.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Welcome to Language Hippie!

Hello there! And welcome to Language Hippie, a new blog I have set up as a voice for language celebration and tolerance. I am a linguist, and a language descriptivist -- a fancy term that means I approach language as a subject to be observed and described, rather than as something out of control that needs to be tamed. Descriptivists like me are scientists, and we study the world as it already is. When it comes to language, that means that we don't use words like "improper" or "ungrammatical" to describe the things that people say on purpose. Instead, we just try to describe what was said, and speculate about why they said it -- the rules to people's internal grammar, so to speak.

Descriptivism's opposite is an approach known as prescriptivism, and it's how most people seem to view language. Prescriptivists are like doctors, prescribing what should and should not be done by their patient. Language prescriptivists tend to view language as a system of laws: there is a single right way of doing things, and anyone who doesn't follow the rules is speaking incorrectly. That's the view that foreign language instructors take, and with good reason. But a prescriptivist attitude is by definition a judgmental one, and it is unfortunately often a condescending and mocking one to boot.

And it is also very common in the world today. A Facebook group entitled "I judge you when you use poor grammar" currently boasts over 400,000 members, and a Google search for the phrase "I am a grammar nazi" yields 250,000 hits. If that last factoid doesn't strike you as odd, consider how rare it is to hear someone self-identify as a Nazi in any other context. The phrase "grammar nazi" likely came about due to the Nazi Party's reputation for extreme intolerance and rule-following, but it has been embraced as a label by many in the prescriptivist crowd. As anyone online is probably already aware, harshly judging other people's language is rather fashionable today.

It is this attitude that I wish to counter, in my own little corner of the internet. I am not here to judge your language -- I'm here to embrace it. A descriptivist birdwatcher doesn't yell at a penguin when the creature fails to fly; he adjusts his preconceptions (if necessary) of what being a bird entails. And if he's like me, he's fascinated by this new diversity he's discovered.

So welcome to the blog. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions of future topics you'd like to see me cover, feel free to leave a reply. "Correct" spelling and grammar not required.