My occasional posts about language have sometimes caused a little brush with what has been hyped as a “language war” between “descriptivists” and “prescriptivists”. I don’t think it’s a real war myself, but more an excuse to write, for people with too little to write about. People who like to write can get hung up on this sort of thing. It’s one of those hazards of human behavior; to apply one’s own activity to one’s own activity. It’s why we have a surplus of:
blogs about writing
books about literature
songs about music
movies & plays about show biz
PhDs in education
I got to this subject by writing about political activity; just trying to encourage my associates to think a little more about how to communicate effectively. To that end, another rant. But first I’ll try to cover some principles about the “descriptive” vs “prescriptive” non-war. Let’s see how fast we can get through the obvious stuff.
(1) There is no “original” form of any language (except an artificial one, like Esperanto). There was no Englishman at the Tower of Babel who originated his language. There was no Adam or Eve speaking some “original” language. Those are fables, and not very good ones at that. If you don’t accept this, go read your fundie tracts. You won’t like my blog at all.
(2) Languages in use today all evolved from earlier languages, seamlessly. There was no defining moment between Latin and Italian, or Middle English and modern English. Reading anything written 200 years ago, or even watching a film made 80 years ago, should make it fairly obvious that language is always changing.
(3) All the older languages were quite diverse. What you see in one ancient book, like the Iliad or one of the Vedas, is a snapshot of one dialect, as written by one writer or group of writers, frozen whenever people began preserving manuscripts of it. Every pattern of speech habits common to some group that has been named as a “language” has presumably taken many forms, whether examples of them survive or not.
(4) As more gets recorded in a language, and more people view what is recorded, it changes more slowly. I’m told that a modern Greek reading Homer is about comparable to me reading Chaucer. One is 2,800 years old, the other is 600 years old. Greek has had a
sizeable body of literature and literate people much longer than English, hence the slower change.
(5) With sound recording, and easy access to it, language should be changing even more slowly now. With mass communication, the general trend is toward more uniformity. Much as some writers decry diversity in language, they would have had to put up with far more of it in earlier times, once they wandered 30 miles or so from their home villages.
Item #4 above is just a corollary to a general principle in anthropology that education stifles innovation. This might seem counterintuitive to someone who has swallowed propaganda from “entrepreneurs” who want us to worship their kind of “innovation” (“Let us destroy natural systems and societies to make money. It’s PROGRESS!”), and thinks of
“innovation” as something always good, always showing skill or savvy of some kind.
It’s important to remember just how many things the word “innovation” can cover. A new way of whistling, tying a bundle, or making soup is innovation. It might be a random variation, showing no skill at all, and it’s like genetic mutation: There are millions of “failures” for every “success”.
Just google for a list of slang from the mid-20th century. You’ll see tons of linguistic innovations that have died quiet deaths, and a few that have survived 50 years or so. Just to make it onto a list like this, for instance: http://www.fiftiesweb.com/fashion/slang.htm , a word had to be used by a few hundred people at least.
There’s where the “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” points of view can arise. Is the five-year-old using the word WRONG, or just using it in a new way? Let’s take a trivial example.
If I call a dog a “cat” in the fifties slang sense, is that an error, or am I just recognizing him as a personality anthropomorphically? It depends on how the hearer understands it, of course. That can depend on context, perception of the speaker’s attitude, whether the hearer is aware of that bit of slang, all kinds of things. The “prescriptivist” is more likely to point out the confusion such a usage can make, and mention an old editor’s rule: “Don’t use slang.” The “descriptivist” doesn’t point to any old rules, but just records the fact that someone used that word in that way.
When the “prescriptivist” says “This is against the rules!”, the “descriptivist” says: “But there aren’t any rules in how people use language. All we can do is look for patterns in what we observe.” The two have very different purposes in mind. The “descriptivist” is a linguist who wants to understand how language works.
The “prescriptivist” is not playing around with theories (if smart), but wants to get the job of communicating done. The “prescriptivist” is, most emphatically, NOT a linguist. It’s the difference between a climate scientist and a sailor: It’s not that a certain wind or current doesn’t exist, it’s just not very smart to ride it if that’s not where you want to go.
Between the linguist and the user of language might lie the lexicographer and grammarian, who make reference books and explanations to inform users of what seems to be common, or uncommon, practice with a language. Such books change a great deal every 50 years or so, and always have.
I love to read about what linguists study (when it’s accessible to the layman), but it doesn’t get my flyers or emails written. It doesn’t make any new converts to my political beliefs. To communicate with people, you need to use a language that is already understood by large numbers, in a way that makes the listener identify with the speaker. Avoiding distraction in what you say or write is a big part of that.
To illustrate, let’s take a couple of examples from this phony war:
Y’all know my opinion of this from an earlier post. I know of one lexicographer who wants to allow the “completely destroy” meaning into the dictionary, based on how commonly it’s used. That is, of course, the arbiter of inclusion in a dictionary. But for the time being, as long as there are minimally educated people around, the “deci” in that word will always remind us of its primary meaning, and make dissonance whenever we hear it used otherwise. It distracts people from whatever point you’re trying to get across. What is your reason for using “decimate” rather than “destroy”, anyway? If all you mean is “destroy”, why not use the much more common, easily understood, “destroy”?
This is one where the “prescriptivist”, or a troll playing one, might say, “It’s NOT A WORD!” That’s ridiculous, of course it’s a word. It’s a silly word, that marks the user as a silly person. A composite of “irrespective” and “regardless”, it might have originated as a joke, a deliberate malapropism. Enough people didn’t get the joke that it became common for a while, and now the user makes himself a joke. It’s part of the language, but that doesn’t mean you should use it if you want to be taken seriously.
With all that in mind, here are some additions to my list of things that might send a different message from what you want to send with your language.
Message #1: “I’m using weasel words to sell you something”
The ad biz has made more innovations in language than I care to count, some of which have gone mainstream, but it’s not good to sound like a slick salesman when you’re trying to sell serious ideas. It’s really best to avoid weasel words of quantity like:
“use up to four times less” (from a Charmin commercial)
(WTF is that supposed to mean, anyway?)
“98% fat free”
(How is this different from “2% fat”?)
“up to 70% off!” (“Up to” of course specifies only an upper limit, not a lower limit. Zero is included in that range.)
“as little as..” (likewise, specifies a lower limit, but no upper limit)
“upwards of…” (trying to give the impression that the number continues on up for some distance, when it might actually stop just the tiniest bit above the number specified)
Message #2: “I want to sound enthusiastic and supportive of something, or want to emphasize something in my speech, but I don’t have the wit to do so.”
Probably related to the latter, it’s also used as follows:
“I am SO proud to be here with you today.” “It was SO good of you to invite me.” “This issue is SO important.”
How important is it?
The grey among us remember this as one of Johnny Carson’s stock routines:
“It was so hot today I saw a robin dipping his worm in Nestea.”
“It was so hot today that Burger King was singing, ‘if you want it your way, cook it yourself.’”
“Last night, it was so cold, the flashers in New York were only describing themselves. “
Those with less wit are unable to complete the routine. Don’t start what you can’t finish, ok?
Message #3: “I am trained in the pretentious, bullying, deceptive ways of management.
Much has been written about management speak. Like five year-olds, business managers are a rich source of innovation in language. You can explore it here: http://unsuck-it.com/ If you want to avoid sounding like the guy who laid people off or that HR manager who thinks you go to the bathroom too often during work, you might want to take note of the general characteristics of their language use:
(1) Nonsense, but it sounds forceful: “giving 110%”
(2) Using more words than necessary (a habit probably formed by trying to look productive): “at a rapid pace” rather than “fast”.
(3) Making a new word, or a new meaning for an old word, when completely unnecessary. This might be done for several reasons:
● Ignorance: using “impact” as a verb because management clowns could never figure out how to use “affect”.
● Attempt to appear to have esoteric knowledge: “disincentivize” for “discourage”,
● Attempt to glorify something: “proactive” and “dynamic” sprinkled randomly, “personal growth” for taking on more duties.
(4) This might not be any more common with management types than elsewhere, but beware of using “get” for “understand”. It’s often used in a bullying way. This use of “get” has been around much longer than I have, as in “get the joke”, but it seems to have exploded in recent times. Maybe it began with ESTies back in the 70s, and expanded from there. Anyone who disagrees with you or doesn’t understand your nonsense doesn’t “get” it. Such usage will not get you any friends.
A nice essay about how people in power communicate is here: http://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2012/05/speaking-truth-about-power.html
Message #4: “I don’t know what I’m saying.”
● I subscribe to what is generally a very good lefty newsletter, and was very disappointed to read this in it a while back:
“Egyptian women involved in the struggle to break away from the Mubarak client state of the Empire, are now rebelling from bullies who sexually harass them in the streets. This is a welcome sign, women having suffered more as a consequence of their appearing in public to protest, finally receiving the support of many Egyptian men, with whom they’ve stood toe to toe in the democracy struggle.”
I’ll ignore, for this bit, whether “from” is the right preposition to follow “rebelling”, and the superfluous comma.
When people are “toe to toe”, they are in opposition. The writer was probably thinking of “shoulder to shoulder”, but that’s such a tired cliché that it might have been purged from the writer’s conscious vocabulary.
● “…much less…” in a place that really calls for “…not to mention…”: .
“To change our Country, much less the World, we must first change ourselves.”
● “At any rate..”
Yes, it’s a very well-established practice to use “at any rate” for “anyway”, “at least”, or “in any case”. That doesn’t mean it’s right. A “rate” is a speed, price, or some quantity linked to another quantity. If that’s not what you’re talking about, it’s not the word to use if you want to avoid dissonance. The following example, stolen from somewhere, is one that I would call “wrong” though the whole world might be against me: “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.”
● “disingenuous” for “lying” (and generally overusing the word)
Look it up. It’s not exactly the same, but some people think the two are interchangeable. A “polite” way of calling someone a liar, as if you come from a culture where too much candor would be cause for a duel. There’s enough lying that needs to be called out nowadays that you may as well clean up your chosen weapons and keep them handy. I keep a pair of banana cream pies in a nice mahogany case just for that.
None of this, of course, should be cause to suppress any creative impulses you might have in your language. Euphemisms and malapropisms are harmless ways of joking around, if they’re original, but repeating the same old figures of speech, especially malapropisms, gets old.
Much-circulated quote, probably not from Descartes, but often attributed to him:
“Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will eventually be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe that they’re in good company.”
Happy bantering, all.