02/01/2012

i think you'll find it's pronounced natse



"I think you get taught a set of rules and then you learn to abuse them – that’s part of what linguistic facility is. It’s about going beyond competence and understanding when you can violate conventions. We talk about rules but it really is more sensible to talk about conventions. The point is that these things will change."
- Henry Hitchings


One of the few things I'm anarchist about is language; or, properly speaking, prescriptivism in linguistics. (Another is scientific methodology.) There's no pettier a way to get me angry than correcting someone's speech from a purist high horse. This is not just because it's generally needless and unkind, but because it stems from a mistake about the nature of language: as fixed, or as logical, or as containing national essence, or as a top-down construction - when it is none of these things.


1. Claim:
Language is for the communication of ideas.

1'. Consequence: Any utterance which passes the relevant idea along is successful language.

2. Norm: The success of an utterance is more important than the correctness of an utterance.


2^9. Mad norm: Successful language is 'correct' language. This goes for grammar, spelling, and especially pronunciation.


C. entailed Anarchism: Grammar is parasitic on usage. Linguistic change is not corruption, barbarism or solecism, but often enrichment by better correspondence to the rapid cultural world. The contrary mindset, prescriptivism, is both descriptively inadequate and an excuse for classism and tiny acts of sadism. The only restriction on language should be that it succeeds.


(This is stricter than it looks, since the opposite of purism - e.g. people using new slang to alienate others - is also proscribed. It doesn't entail the destruction of standards - just clips their claws.)


(vs 1'. The content of a speech-act is not so simply independent of form as you seem to assume. The idea that eventually gets communicated is inescapably shaped by the register, 'correctness', context of the utterance and by the identity of the speaker. Your 'anarchism' is all very well, but why don't you speak lolspeak?)

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However, I'm a fool if I deny that value gets lost in the faster-than-the-speed-of-precedent manic social chatternova. (Such rowdy kids!) It's mostly some useful distinctions that get blurred and eroded. Some things now used as equivalent:

  • "Jealousy" (protective anger for something one possesses) v "Envy" (covetous anger for something one doesn't)


  • "Guilt" (moral pain, from own conscience) v "Shame" (social pain from being perceived to have wronged)


  • "Refute" (disprove) v "Reject" (disbelieve, deny)


  • "I do not believe that" (~belief, so doubt) v "I disbelieve that" (denial)


  • "Awesome": we've lost the complicated transcendental horror that this used to denote. And there's no word to replace it, since we've done the same grin-job on "sublime". And "bizarre".

Since these contain good ideas, don't I want to prescribe that they get used properly? Again: no, cuz that'd be neither right nor good.

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