Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Joy of Language

Imagine you have a favorite recipe for making cookies. You learned it from your grandmother, and you have always made cookies this way. You think they're the best dessert in the world, and people regularly compliment you on them when you bring them to parties. You understandably take great pride in your baking -- but would you insult someone else's cookies, or denounce their recipe as illegitimate?

One hopes the answer would be no, but people take this attitude towards other people's language every single day. As I've argued before, anything that someone says or writes on purpose is a correct use of language, just like every cookie recipe out there is a correct use of baking. Unfortunately, some uses of language are often considered incorrect, and I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, although most of us are probably tolerant of variation among baked goods, there does seem to be a natural tendency for people to assume that their way of doing something is the only right way -- and to believe by extension that all other possibilities in that mode are wrong. This tendency is compounded if someone knows a lot of other people who do things the same way as them, since we tend to look to those around us for verification that we're in the right. So if you and your friends would never say “ain’t,” for example, it’s very easy to conclude that “ain’t” isn’t a correct use of language. But that claim is a subjective opinion, not an objective fact. At its core, it’s just like saying that your grandmother’s recipe is the only correct way to make cookies. The fact that you might call my recipe wrong doesn’t mean that it really is incorrect; it just means you’re judgmental about cookies.

The second reason is that historically, people have listened to the haters, and written down their opinions in books that market themselves as holding facts. So there’s a widespread belief in the world today that some forms of language are wrong, because textbooks and dictionaries and Microsoft Word’s spellcheck all say so. But even if all of the cookbook writers in the world liked your grandmother’s recipe and printed scathing condemnations of my own, that wouldn’t make my cookies any less legitimate. They’d still be valid as cookies, and I’d be well within my rights to prefer them to yours.

As a linguist, I make it my job to look at language as it exists in the world and draw conclusions about it based on what I see. Imagine if I was trying to do that with cookies: examining individual cookies to learn more about the nature of that dessert. My report would be a lot poorer if I listened to people saying, “Don’t bother with those ones — they aren’t real cookies. Eat all the ones in this batch instead.” Indeed, I might easily overgeneralize, making conclusions like, “All cookies have chocolate chips in them,” and I might unknowingly leave things like Oreos out of my account of the various forms a cookie can take. If my job was to accurately describe the snack, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job of it.

The reason I react so strongly against judgments on language is that, unlike with cookies, most of the world doesn’t really understand that language isn’t a matter of right and wrong. Prescriptive grammar (saying what’s right and what’s wrong in language) has a long history in our society, and it’s going to take some real effort on the part of people who know the facts to overturn that myth’s hold on people’s minds. And also unlike cookies, language is something that most people feel very strongly about. Language is often a reflection of a person’s identity in some form or another, far more than a recipe is, and people can be very hurt by the allegation that their language is incorrect or shame-worthy. It feels like a personal attack, and to some extent it is —- especially because judgments on language often mask judgments on other factors of a person’s identity, such as gender, race, or age.

There's also the simple fact that I think diversity is beautiful. I think the world is a much tastier place the more recipes are represented in it, and language is no exception to that.

This is not to say that you have to stop liking your grandmother's cookies, or start liking oatmeal raisin. In language or in baking, it's fine to have preferences of things you like and dislike (although I think it can be revealing to investigate where those preferences come from). It’s just not fair to dismiss the things you don’t like as illegitimate, or to assert that no one else is allowed to like them either. It’s true of cookies, it’s true of music, and it’s true of language: we don’t all have to like the same things, but we should all respect the tastes that other people do have.