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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think it might have something to do with the advent of "scientific management" during the industrial revolution, which suggests that there is only ONE most efficient way to get a job done. This kind of thinking is pretty pervasive nowadays. Even though most people don't know the phrase "scientific management" itself, they experience it every time they visit a fast food joint, or purchase something manufactured on an assembly line.

    It's tempting to extrapolate "scientific management" to language, as though there's only ONE most efficient way to say something. What most people forget, however, is that their own language is terribly inefficient, and it only FEELS efficient because they're so used to it.

    For example, a truly efficient language probably wouldn't have phonetically unrelated words for related concepts, like "good" and "bad." It would have something more like "good" and "ungood." Of course, most English teachers would redline the Hell out of that, unless I was writing a paper about Orwell's 1984. (Laughs Out Loud)

    Good post.

    --- Ashkuff | | How to venture out of “armchair” scholarship and into action? One anthropologist tackles business, occultism and violence! He gets spooked and roughed up a lot.

  3. Really nice post!! Someday schools will stop teaching that is not good being "judgemental" about religions, races, sexes, cookies, ice-creams but it is not only perfectly natural but necessary being judgemental about language…

  4. But if the purpose of the language is to be understood by others (rather than just a means of self expression) isn't it important that there be some standards to prevent miscommunication? To take the cookie analogy one step further, a person allergic to tree nuts needs to be absolutely certain there are no walnuts or pecans in the recipe. If you serve your grandmother's recipe with the disclaimer that there are no peanuts (a more common allergy), you may still kill your guest.

  5. Toni- Language is meant as a tool for communication, yes, but that doesn't perclude language change. In fact, it necessitates it. Cultures are not stagnant. They change and grow and develop new ideas. If the language can't change with them, they will be just as incapable of communicating. We need language to reflect our thoughts and societies, not define them. If we protect our children from all the cookies which might contain allergens, they'll have no immunities. It'll do them no good. There are some grammatical rules that the language itself won't let be broken (have you ever heard anyone say something like 'She didn't like hisself anymore'?), but anything else is fair game.

  6. O hai. I wanz tu thank u 4 respektink difrenz talkz. Catz haz difrenz talkz than hoomanz. (Hooman sez mai breed iz "lol" whatever that iz.)

    Thaz all. I don typ gud; clawz getz stuk.

    Thankz 4 respek

  7. While I agree that language must (and does) change to accommodate changes in society (including changes in technology, cosmology), perhaps the most important changes in language (IMHO) have to do with the sociolinguistic setting of the communication. For instance, physicians use different words than lawyers, who use different words than golfers or painters. Language not only changes over time, it changes from setting to setting, depending on the needs of the communication event...which brings me (at some length) to my point.

    Effective communication attempts to transmit more-or-less the meaning contained in the communicator's mind into the mind of the respondent. While communication is negotiated, it is still important for the communicator to use language in a way that is understandable to the respondent. To use your analogy, it's pretty lousy communication for me to offer you the cookies that you cannot eat...unless my goal is to make you go away and stop communicating.

    Similarly, while there are a wide variety of cookies in the world, the semantic field of "cookie" and that of "cake" don't overlap a great deal. Insisting that my boston cream pie is just a large "cookie" might be an interesting experiment, but it does little to advance effective communication.

    So, I'm okay with language changing dynamically over time (as if my opinion matters much) long as our focus is on making communication effective, aesthetic, and meaningful for the respondent.

  8. Standardization is useful and even necessary when you want to produce language or cookies for a wide audience. You buy an Oreo because you know what to expect.
    In publishing and formal speaking, following standards is appropriate. What is not appropriate is enforcing those same standards on casual, local, non-formal uses of language (and baking).
    I remember a brand of cookies called Grandma's Cookies. We looked at the ingredients and noticed that they had BHT in them. The joke was the my grandma didn't put preservatives in her cookies. She didn't follow arbitrary usage guidelines in her vernacular use of the language either.

  9. Dude,

    Post something, please.
    This started in April, and it is now July.

    I understand that you're a graduate student.

    Don't make it complicated. Post a simple idea and see what happens.

    Give it 15 minutes once a week.


  10. I apologize for the previous comment. That was inappropriate.

  11. I love this post, it's so enthusiastic and youthful; it equates prescriptivists with haters and makes me think of baked goods and grandma. Do you know my friend Eva Juarros?

  12. Excellent! You've got a future, boy!
    Common sense, good taste and fine ingredients is what really matters both in cooking and writing, yes!
    Language isn’t a matter of right and wrong, of course; Language is alive, it has been changing for centuries, and its beauty doesn't depend on strict rules but on the writer's hability to mix words, sounds and meanings.
    If you can make an omelette with no eggs, tasting as a traditional omelette, who cares? The result is what counts.

    Want to know your opinion about something am going to do when writing:
    Am not going to use (I) any more; am fed up of this stupid tall capital vowel.
    Its origin was iċ ... ich ... ek ..., then I... so about time to get rid of it, don't you think so?
    Methinks, like Shakespeare's Tatiana or Puck in "A Midsummer's Night Dream":
    --“Methinks I see things with parted eye".

    How can join your Blog? Mean, how can know when you publish new posts?
    See you.

  13. 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. Mareq