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.