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.
...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.