Progress and its enemies

« previous post | next post »

Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com specializes in quantitative modeling of political trends, but yesterday he posted a terminological discussion of political philosophy, "The Two Progressivisms", distinguishing what he calls Rational Progessivism from what he calls Radical Progressivism. This reminded me of something that I noticed recently in reading Mark Halpern's book Language and Human Nature, namely Halpern's surprising level of interest in the word progressive and its derivatives, discussed on 15 different pages.

Mark Halpern was known to me previously as the author of a pro-prescriptivism essay "The War that Never Ends", published in The Atlantic in 1997. He isn't Mark Halperin the political analyst; and neither of them is Mark Helprin the novelist. Obviously, none of these diverse Mark H's is me, either, though we share first names and a few phonetic features of our surnames, which apparently makes us similar enough that a couple of years ago, someone that I admire revealed her belief that I was both the author of Winter's Tale and a columnist for Time.  I was simultaneously flattered and depressed.

On his web site, the Mark Halpern we're talking about further distinguishes himself from a professor of physics and a San Francisco restaurant consultant. As for his positive features, in a recent comment on LL, Kevin S. closed with an invitation to "Read the writings of Mark Halpern, if you dare. He guts descriptive linguists the way a fisherman guts a perch!"

And it's certainly true that Halpern has a particular animus towards linguists. In Language and Human Nature, Noam Chomsky is mentioned on 30 pages; Geoff Nunberg is also mentioned on 30 pages; Steve Pinker on 24; Geoff Pullum on 12; John McWhorter on 10 — and the discussions are not generally positive. In fact, the book perhaps should have been titled Linguists and Human Nature, since these page counts for Halpern's prominent linguistic enemies far exceed the number of references to words involved in analyzing language. Thus the term verb occurs eight times; adjective occurs three times; clause and subjunctive occur once each; adverb, participle, morpheme, phoneme not at all. Even the imply/infer issue only rates mention on 11 pages

But forms of the word progressive occur on 15 pages — "progressive" 11 times, "progressives" 3, and "progressivism" once — and needless to say, none of these are referring to the grammatical concept of "progressive aspect".

Usually Halpern uses forms of progressive to take a swipe at (a broad range of) political views that he dislikes, e.g. on p. 209:

…[Postmodern] spokesmen try to convince us not merely that no one has such absolute knowledge, or can have such knowledge, but even that there is no such knowledge to be had. They apparently believe that if we give up our absolute beliefs and our belief in the absolute, what will remain is sweet reason. Rorty usually […] seems to think that if we give up our belief in objective reality, we will become liberals or progressives or whatever Utopian socialists are called these days. [emphasis added]

Or on p. 19 (emphasis added again, and in subsequent quotes):

Discrimination, once the name of an admired intellectual faculty and practice, has been used so often as short for racial discrimination or bigotry that its use in its own right is imperiled; here is a typical modern and 'progressive' use:

It is wrong for the police to pull a car over just because its black occupants are driving in a rich white neighborhood. It is discrimination.

(The corruption of discrimination is especially dangerous, because it fosters the notion that the very act of distinguishing between one person or practice and another, no matter on what basis for for what purpose, is reprehensible.)

Or on p. 198-199:

Language, originally meant to refer to a preexisting world, now more and more is used to build imaginary worlds… The poet tells us that the poem "should not mean, but be"; he has prevailed beyond his fondest wish — more and more of our written words are now used "creatively," an the symbol of our age is framing quotation marks, used to proclaim "art at work here." So Communism (with all its isotopes and Lite versions — socialism, progressivism, left-liberalism, radicalism, Utopianism, "activism," and so on), as despotism packaged for the word-intoxicated, gets a free ride on the literacy wagon: it prevails with those who write and read books, while poor old down-market Fascism and Nazism have to court the unlettered, trying to sell despotism by rousing the rabble with long hypnotic speeches, heavily rhythmic music, mass-formation marching, and street fighting.

But Halpern's dislike of the term progressive is deeper than his dislike for the ideas of political progressives (with or without scare quotes). On pp. 245-6, he explains that under his preferred linguistic régime,

[t]o begin with, we should see an end to the use of the "living, growing language" fallacy as an excuse for misuse of the language — meaning not just the solecisms that can create trouble by causing ambiguity and obscurity but that truly abusive practice, the building of prejudices into the language so as to shut down criticism before it can even raise its voice. A good example of this stratagem, as I noted at the outset of this book, is the term progressive, which is now generally accepted, even by conservatives, as the proper name of a loosely-defined cluster of controversial views, and tacitly awards those views the twin crowns of virtue and inevitability.

Thus it'll do Halpern's blood pressure no good at all to read Nate Silver's explanation of what he means by rational progressivism:

The first type of progressivism has its philosophical underpinnings in 18th Century, Enlightement-era thought. It believes that politics is a battle of ideas. It further believes that through the use of reason and the exchange of ideas, human society will tend to improve itself through scientific and technological innovation. Hence, it believes in progress, and for this reason lays claim to the term “progressive”. Because of its belief and optimism in the faculties of human reason, I refer to this philosophy as rational progressivism. [emphasis original]

Talk about "virtue and inevitability"…

But seriously, can we really expect people to name their political philosophies things like "irrational regressionism", "excessive regulationism", "rampant cronyism", "naive over-simplificationism", or whatever?

It's true that there's the Two-axis Stupid/Evil chart, where any movement away from [0, 0] represents a decrease in intelligence and/or morality, with political stupidity available in both  positive and negative versions (not enough government vs. too much government), and political evil likewise (moral rigidity vs. moral relativism. But the opposition of Bureaucialism-vs.-Aynarchism and  Diablorthodoxy-vs.-Beelzapologism is a cynical (and morphologically questionable) joke, not a basis for self-identification.  I think we can count on the partisans of political philosophies, from progressivism to objectivism, to choose brand-names that present their ideas in a favorable light.



67 Comments

  1. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

    I'm astonished that Mark Halpern's book is considered worthy of discussion here. I decided I wouldn't waste my time reading it.

  2. marie-lucie said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 8:15 am

    Surely it is a service to readers to make them aware of the actual contents of a book called "Language and Human Nature."

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    Simon Cauchi: I'm astonished that Mark Halpern's book is considered worthy of discussion here.

    Humani nihil a me alienum puto.

    And once you get past the parenthetical political crankiness and the eruptions of anti-linguistics fury, there are some interesting ideas in Halpern's book, which I might post about another time.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    marie-lucie: Surely it is a service to readers to make them aware of the actual contents of a book called "Language and Human Nature."

    Quite a few different books with that title or sub-title have been published: Paul Kurtz, "Language and Human nature: A French-American Philosophers' Dialogue", 1968; Charles Taylor, "Language and Human Nature", 1978; Harvey B. Sarles, "Language and Human Nature", 1985; Ray Jackendoff, "Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature", 1994.

    In retrospect, perhaps it's surprising that there aren't more.

  5. Chris said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I think we can count on the partisans of political philosophies, from progressivism to objectivism, to choose brand-names that present their ideas in a favorable light.

    The obvious historical counterexample is Mussolini, who named his own political movement and party after an instrument of corporal punishment.

    With his beliefs that *could* be seen as positive, but most people won't (and don't) see it that way.

  6. jamessal said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    I just read that old Atlantic article — thanks for the link. It reminded me of the proposed division of labor between the two camps in the intro to "Garner's Modern American Usage": http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000925.php. Both are well written, even well reasoned; both also fail to acknowledge the shoddy state of real world prescriptivism (Halpern sets up a few straw men too). One passage I found interesting, though:

    "Nunberg objects to the prescriptivist approach on two grounds: it is futile, since language will follow its natural destiny despite all the efforts of the prescriptivists; and it is somehow wrong — immoral? unethical? — to try to interfere, even though the attempt must be futile. But neither Nunberg nor any other linguist has offered any evidence for either of these points.

    An acorn, left to itself, becomes an oak, and a geneticist altering its DNA to make it grow into an elm, or a fish, may justly be said to have interfered with its natural course. But what does language, undisturbed, become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it? No one has ever shown that language has such a natural course, let alone that there would be anything wrong, if such a course did exist, in altering it." [My emphasis.]

    My immediate reaction, as a lay person, is that this sort of speculating is best done by the people who know most about language and its history — linguists, of course.

    That's an invitation, if any of you would be so good.

  7. acilius said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    Chris- I thought Gabriele d'Annunzio was the one who coined the word "Fascismo," as a gesture of defiance against those who called his group a "fascio," a term used at the time for streetgangs. Was I mistaken?

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    Chris: The obvious historical counterexample is Mussolini, who named his own political movement and party after an instrument of corporal punishment.

    The story that I learned about the fasces is the one given in the Wikipedia entry:

    Believed to date from Etruscan times, the symbolism of the fasces at one level suggested strength through unity. The bundle of rods bound together symbolizes the strength which a single rod lacks.

    The sometimes-included axe did symbolize the state's power of life and death. So maybe the birch rods were also supposed to represent "instruments of corporal punishment" — the entry in Lewis & Short does support this view: "a bundle carried before the highest magistrates, and consisting of rods and an axe, with which criminals were scourged and beheaded". So is the binding up of the bundle a symbol of judicial restraint? or a symbol of strength-in-unity? or both?

    The extensive use of fasces in modern non-fascist iconography seems mostly to relate to the strength-in-unity idea; was that also the idea that Mussolini wanted to project, aside from the most obvious thing, which was a reference to the power and prestige of ancient Rome?

  9. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    Mark, I googled the Latin that you wrote in response to Simon.

    The quotation is new to me, but upon seeing the translation I was intrigued because I recognised it instantly from the following passage in "Reaching Out" by Henri J M Nouwen:

    "In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognise them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal, and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. There we can feel that the cruel reality of history is indeed the reality of the human heart, our own included, and that to protest asks, first of all, for a confession of our own participation in the human condition. There we can indeed respond."

    Nouwen was obviously aware of Terence, and by revealing the source to me you have enriched what I already thought of as a beautiful piece of English prose. It's also interesting that Nouwen uses the phrase as a foundation for compassion and empathy whereas I gather Terence's original angle was more intellectual.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Weren't the fasces carried at the head of Roman army units as a portable execution kit? The bindings were simply there to make the kit easier for a soldier to carry. Any deeper meaning we late-comers assign to them is surely of our own making and means whatever we want it to mean.

    Dan

  11. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    acilius: I thought Gabriele d'Annunzio was the one who coined the word "Fascismo," as a gesture of defiance against those who called his group a "fascio," a term used at the time for streetgangs.

    The OED gives this etymology for fasci

    [It., pl. of fascio bundle, burden, assemblage, group:–pop.L. fascium for L. fascis bundle ]

    with these citations

    1902 Encycl. Brit. XXIX. 649/1 To produce in Sicily a discontent of which Socialist agitators took advantage to organize the workmen of the towns and the peasants of the country into groups known as fasci.
    1921 Public Opinion 20 May 464/3 The first Fasci (composed of ex-soldiers) began to show signs of resistance and opposition to the Communists.
    1922 Q. Rev. Jan. 144 A considerable proportion of the poet's legionaries in Fiume was drawn from the Fasci in different Italian towns.
    1959 E. J. HOBSBAWM Primitive Rebels iii. 42 The great peasant rising of 1894 — the Fasci Siciliani — saw it [sc. the Mafia] on the side of reaction, or at best neutral… Even then it was observed that the rise of the Fasci had diminished the hold of Mafia on the peasants.

    and refers to it in the entry for fascism. So perhaps the classical Latin fasces were not directly involved at all.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    Weren't the fasces carried at the head of Roman army units as a portable execution kit? The bindings were simply there to make the kit easier for a soldier to carry.

    I am not aware that the fasces were anything other than a ceremonial object, used in public displays but not as actual weapons. Fully-armed soldiers in the field would have no need to carry another "portable execution kit".

    The Wikipedia article on "fasces" gives comprehensive information, including the well-known Etruscan origin of the fasces and its links to other Mediterranean cultures. The only recorded use of the fasces as a weapon of sorts refers to someone smashing a chair with it (under conditions which suggest symbolic use).

  13. James C. said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

    I think that Language or maybe the Linguist List should start publishing reviews of books such as Language and Human Nature which dump on linguists directly. We can ignore the usual prescriptivist ranting, but when people come out and defame the discipline we really ought to be taking notice. At least enough to be armed against further complaint.

  14. Matt Heath said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    IIRC the Whigs and Tories named each other, mockingly ,after a Scots Presbyterian faction and Irish Catholic guerilla bands respectively.

    [(myl) Yes, see "Tories then and now", 1/22/2009.]

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

    jamessal, quoting Halpern: But what does language, undisturbed, become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it?

    This strikes me as a very peculiar question, since nearly all of the world's languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance. An admittedly unfair list of examples would be Biblical Hebrew, Homeric Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Dante's Italian, and Elizabethan English, none of which seem to have been entirely ruined by the lack of oversight.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

    Mark posted a comment about Malagasy (the language of Madagascar) which includes a very relevant quote from an earlier linguist about how this beautiful language must have developed naturally (Feb 7 at 10:40).

    @jamessal: who could those outsiders be who would meddle with a language? aren't prescriptivists obsessed with preserving/improving their own language, not others?

  17. jamessal said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    Thanks, Mark! Just to be clear, though, I wasn't endorsing what I quoted from the essay you linked to at all; I just came upon an assertion that seemed dubious to me but which I also didn't have the facts to refute, namely that every language ever to exist has had prescriptivist assistance. Now I have the facts. Thanks, again.

    I think that clears me with you, Marie-Lucie.

    [(myl) It was clear that you were passing on a question that struck you as odd, as well it should have.

    The question of when and where (and how and why) explicit prescriptive grammar came into being is an interesting one. People sometimes say things like "the notion of [linguistic] correctness emerged only in the late 18th century", and it's certainly true that the rise of modern nation-states made a difference, but there are plenty of examples of legal, ethical, and medical metaphors for linguistic correctness in pre-modern times — see "Horace and Quintilian on correct language", 1/9/2005. The earliest examples of linguistic analysis that we know of involve preserving an earlier stage of language for ritual reasons (Pāṇini's grammar of Sanskrit), or explicating a prestige language for people who didn't speak it (Akkadian documentation of Sumerian), and these are thus prescriptive grammars of a sort. ]

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    On the Roman use of fasces — I took the trope from Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome but the dang book doesn't have an index and I can't locate the passage. My point was that fasces were also a practical object.
    There's a site
    http://www.legionxxiv.org/fasces%20page/
    that has an illustration of the object itself being carried by a legionnaire in a parade. My note was not to imply that fasces were used as a weapon, just that its message was one of intimidation and that the straps were to facilitate its being carried by a soldier. No question that it was a symbol of authority, but we shouldn't get carried away by the details. There was nothing subtle about the Roman legions.

    [(myl) Alas, Cullen Murphy's scholarship is not always above reproach. Google Books finds the relevant segment in Are We Rome — p. 129 and following — but there aren't any footnotes.]

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    Hmm, shouldn't the title be "Progress and its Malcontents"?

    Google offers up "GLOBALONEY AND ITS MALCONTENTS", "Prose & Its Malcontents", "NARRATIVE EXPLANATION AND ITS MALCONTENTS", "Multiparty Democracy and Its Malcontents", "Umami and its malcontents", "The Multi-line Text Box and its Malcontents", "Modernity and Its Malcontents", "The penis and its malcontents", and downhill from there (capitalization preserved).

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    Nathan Myers: Hmm, shouldn't the title be "Progress and its Malcontents"?

    Google counts for some sub-snowclones of "X and its Y":

    "and its discontents": 813,000
    "and its malcontents": 13,800
    "and its enemies": 613,000

    Did you mean that "X and its malcontents" needs help, being behind in this competition?

    The originals, of course, are Freud's 1929 "Civilization and Its discontents" — or perhaps we should credit his translator, since the original was Das Unbehagen in der Kultur — and Karl Popper's 1945 "The Open Society and Its Enemies". More recent memic energy was provided by Virginia Postrel's 1998 "The Future and Its Enemies".

    Each pattern has many imitators among book titles, leaving aside the contributions of headline writers. Thus a Google Book search for {"and its discontents"} turns up X = globalization, darwinism, innovation, patriarchy, war, deregulation, assimilation, the academic novel, manliness, social security, Italy, the China boom, French civilization, absolutism, multiculturalism, emancipation, feminism, jazz, democracy, sovereignty, diplomacy, physicalism, auto work, puritanism, politeness, …

  21. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    myl — Thanx for the reference — I should have tried Google. The (end-note) reference in Murphy is to Anthony J. Marshall, "Symbols and Showmanship in Roman Public Life: The Fasces," Phoenix 38, no. 2 (summer 1984), pp. 120-141. The Phoenix Web site is still under construction for that issue, but the journal is probably in your campus library.

    Just in case anyone's interested.

    Dan

  22. marie-lucie said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

    @Dan Lufkin, i don't know if I can access the journal you mention, but Wikipedia has a lot of information on ancient Rome and especially the military. I looked up "Roman legion" and went on to associated sites, including also "lictors" and could not find any reference to legions carrying the fasces, although they carried other symbols and insignia as well as a variety of weapons, and the particular soldiers carrying the symbols had specific designations, such as aquilifer 'eagle-bearer'. Surely if the fasces had been part of a legion's paraphernalia, there would have been some mention of it, including a specific name for the soldier in charge of it. "Lictors", most of whom did carry the fasces, were civilians, did not wear any kind of armour, and their role, aside from participating in parades and triumphs, was that of bodyguards, and they were not included in the military. They apparently had the power to arrest troublemakers who might bother the persons they escorted, but were not executioners. On the (reenactor) website you mentioned in your earlier posting, neither the man carrying the fasces or the two men in red in what seems to be a painting (no date or provenience given) look at all like Roman soldiers in their manner, clothing and (lack of) equipment.
    The page reference found by myl says "historians remind us" that the fasces were used for executions, but without a single reference to support this statement. Unless there is a lot more documented evidence for it, I think one has to be sceptical of Murphy's interpretation.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

    myl: Oh yes, "discontents". My point was just that the enemies of progress are also its beneficiaries.

  24. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    @marie-lucie, I hate to flog a deceased equine, but I liked Murphy's book and he does indeed have copious references, 40+ pages of them, but at the end of the book and not keyed on each page. The elusive reference I mentioned is cited on Murphy's p. 235, about 2/3 of the way down.
    Sorry to be such an old biddy, but the mechanics of scholarship deserve to be honored, even if one does not agree with the scholar's conclusion.

    I suppose that the red straps could also have been used to tie up the subject (or object) of the flogging and/or execution. Wouldn't show blood.

    I suspect that ol' Murph picked up his cooties from his long involvement with his father's Prince Valiant comic strip.

    BTW, let me recommend Murphy's book of essays Just Curious.

  25. joseph palmer said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Halpern seems to think that the problem is that certain words have become loaded. That is, however, inevitable. The problem is actually that "progressive", which is close to being an opposite counterpart to "loony left-wing" and is indeed a very loaded term, is to found liberally sprinkled in many supposedy scientific and even-handed papers.

    Thus you have an atmosphere in ceratin branches of academia of 4 legs (new stuff) good – 2 legs (old stuff) bad.

  26. Maureen said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    Re: most languages develop without prescriptive guidance

    So… nobody ever told anybody else, "That doesn't sound right" or "That is so lame an expression" or "Nobody uses that phrase anymore except farmers and idiots", and nobody ever made nasty jokes about the bizarre way that people across the valley pronounce their words?

    I don't believe it, frankly. The smaller the society, the harder it tends to watch and criticize every act and word. You are saying that only self-proclaimed grammarians count as prescriptive, when in truth, most societies spend huge amounts of their time being prescriptive. Your mother was heavily prescriptive when she taught you how to talk. Grammarians, by contrast, are almost an escape from prescription.

  27. marie-lucie said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Maureen, of course everyone can and does make comments on other people's speech, but "your grandmother" or other people are not setting themselves up as The Voice of Authority to be obeyed by everyone, or else.

  28. Picky said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    My grandmother did.

  29. Mark Liberman said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    Maureen: The smaller the society, the harder it tends to watch and criticize every act and word.

    I'm not sure that this is true with respect to language and speech. In working with a large numbers of languages over the years, I've encountered a wide range of degrees of tolerance and sensitivity to such matters. This seems to vary culturally as well as individually, and the size of the speech community doesn't seem to me to predict much of the variation.

    In any case, the key point here is related to the one that marie-lucie makes — linguistic norms, even if they are rather narrow and rather strictly enforced by the community, are normally what Hayek called a "grown order" rather than a "made order". (See discussion and links here.)

  30. Picky said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    But does any of that counter what Maureen was saying? She says there was an argument about whether language has developed without prescription guidance. She finds it difficult to believe that language guidance hasn't always been present. marie-lucie says not so, because norms enforced by the family are not authoritative in the way those enforced by grammarians are. Is that really the case? Can I really be persuaded that the instructions of my father on "correct" usage, at an early age and backed by force, have not been as powerfully persuasive as those of a hundred Fowlers?

  31. marie-lucie said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    Maureen and Picky, your grandmother or your father might be able to enforce usage within the family (at least in their presence), it does not follow that the neighbours or their children will follow suit.

  32. jamessal said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Maureen, Picky: I don't think it's purposeful, but there is a bait and switch going on here. Until you guys came along we weren't talking about "language guidance"; we were talking about prescriptivism. Mark Halpern, in an article Mark Lieberman linked to, asserted that linguists have no evidence that languages would evolve satisfactorily without the help of prescriptivists (i.e. soi disant language experts, like William Safire and John Simon — this has nothing to do with either of your fathers) because prescriptivists have assisted every language ever to exist. Mark Lieberman responded that in fact "nearly all of the world's languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance," rendering Halpern's argument totally bogus.

  33. joseph palmer said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    God only knows what Halpern is trying to say, but surely the point is whether the army of prescriptivists (the army that really counts in the "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy" quote) have a role in keeping a language stable across time and geographical space, and thus help diverse people communicate and exchange ideas.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

    It is true that the existence of a written standard tends to uniformize (?) the written version of a language, especially that of the more educated segment of society, but it has little to do with how people actually talk in spontaneous situations. For instance, newspapers in London, Washington and New Delhi might use a very similar form of English, but the people in those places may differ considerably in their speech. As another example, it was believed until recently that the omnipresence of television and films in the US would eradicate regional speech differences, but in fact such differences have been found to become more marked as time goes on.

    In languages such as English or French which have had a more or less official written standard for several centuries, as well as considerable prescriptivist pressure, works from past centuries can look superficially very similar to the modern languages, but that is because retaining old spellings often masks considerable changes in the pronunciation, and even excluding those changes, other changes in vocabulary, syntax and style usually make it quite easy to recognize in which century a given text was written. In Greek, which has been written for a much longer time, the growing difference between the very conservative katharevousa and the everyday demotiki became so marked that the written language was practically a foreign language for the majority of speakers, until demotiki was finally recognized as the language of the country (worthy of being the one taught in schools, for instance) a few decades ago. Some linguists feel that the situation in spoken vs written French is becoming similar to the Greek one (French spelling is largely based on the pronunciation of Old French, spoken in the medieval period; English spelling is largely based on that of Middle English, not too long afterwards).

  35. joseph palmer said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    Speech and writing are different, but there can be a pretty strong connection. I remember reading a Gore Vidal interview where he boasted how he was the only American left who spoke in complete sentences. I rather tend to think that anybody who grinds down the road towards becoming an "intellectual" tends to talk more and more like a book as they get older, but that few of us end up as far down that road as Gore Vidal.

    I agree that written standards help written communication across time and space, but I'm not sure that everybody would agree that "prescription" is helpful (though I do feel it is a necessary evil myself).

  36. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 4:07 am

    jamessal: I think you slightly extend Halpern's argument, but then since he seems to me to rather enjoy exaggerating his opinions for polemic effect, fair enough. I think the underlying issue he was addressing (and Mark Liberman was addressing) was whether language is a natural growth or a man-made thing. (Those who stand on the touchline watching the game might think it's a bit of both – that's what I think myself, but then I'm a wishy-washy liberal.) If by "man-made" we mean affected by prescriptive guidance, then why aren't my father and Maureen's people on this side of the valley just as relevant as Mr Safire? I think they are.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 7:57 am

    why aren't my father and Maureen's people on this side of the valley just as relevant as Mr Safire?

    Because they are only relevant on "this side of the valley" where other inhabitants are just as relevant as they are, and even if they (try to) enforce standards within their families, they are presumably not trying to enforce them in communications with their neighbours. Instead, an equilibrium is reached through constant intercommunication, as in all languages. Mr Safire on the other hand, and others like him, claim to be arbiters for the whole nation and hundreds of people who have no personal contact with them, but only read their columns, look up to them as models.

  38. Mark Liberman said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    marie-lucie: Mr Safire on the other hand, and others like him, claim to be arbiters for the whole nation and hundreds of people who have no personal contact with them, but only read their columns, look up to them as models.

    Let's be fair to William Safire — he once wrote a book called "In love with Norma Loquendi", and usually writes as if his role is to act as a guide to the norms of usage, rather than someone laying down the law from a position of power and authority. Some question his conclusions, and even his competence, but that's a different matter.

    In this respect, Safire's approach is similar to the one taken by the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (E. Ward Gilman and others), a work that has often been praised in this space.

  39. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    marie-lucie: So it's not a question of right or wrong, not a question of scientific or non-scientific, not a question of provable or non-provable, not a question of valid or invalid, not question of helpful or unhelpful, not a question of just or unjust; – merely a question of reach?

    Interesting.

  40. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I take that back – it's pretty, but it's nonsense.

  41. bianca steele said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    jamessal, Picky,
    It seems to me that Halpern isn't bashing prescriptivists in general — if by "prescriptivist" you mean English teachers, conservative preservers of the language, stylists (like Vidal, maybe) who clearly write in an older tradition — but academic linguists in particular. Does his argument make sense if this is the case? Maybe not, but I'd guess he sees academics as invariably "liberals" (meaning, for him, as good as Communists), having a "theory" or ideology, invented in recent years, which is intended to induce people to "go against nature" in some way.

    It is funny, and I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it before reading myl's post, that "progressives" are usually on the left, while belief in "progress," in at least some left-leaning academic circles, is considered rightwing.

  42. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    Ah, marie-lucie, (said he, doing a handbrake turn) but my argument is that we can safely leave Mr Safire out of it (whoever he may be – he doesn't disturb our sleep much this (east) side of the Atlantic). Has our language not always been moaned at by prescriptive guiders? Doesn't it seem likely that there has been generation after generation of fathers and dale-dwellers pontificating on what is kosher and what isn't? And, if so, have they had no effect? It doesn't matter whether it's a lesser effect than Safire's or a greater one – have they not had the slightest, tiniest, most miniscule effect? Of course they have – go on, admit it! Say "yes" – it doesn't mean you have to keep your infinitives unsplit or your prepositions coralled early, you know. It just means we have to agree that to some extent the language is man-made.

  43. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    I think you slightly extend Halpern's argument</I

    I'd prefer to say that I restated it from a vantage that wasn't so tendentious, extracting all the straw men (e.g., that linguists believe language has its own "natural destiny") — but whatever.

    Those who stand on the touchline

    That's what most people who don't really grasp the arguments do. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_ground

    I think the underlying issue he was addressing (and Mark Liberman was addressing) was whether language is a natural growth or a man-made thing.

    You're giving Halpern too much credit, accepting his misleading framing of the issue. Once you understand the processes by which languages change (described within the first few chapters of any linguistics textbook), and the fact that all languages have always changed in these ways, it becomes a lot harder to view language as a "man-made thing." But that's beside the point. Prescriptivists always like to take this argument into the realm of the purely speculative, where nothing can be proven, because their position is so weak. Really, linguists don't object to prescriptivists for "interfering" with any "natural growth"; they just point out that the prescriptivists don't have any scientific ground to stand on (something that most people, contra Halpern, don't understand), and that the rules they promulgate — whether handed down from on high or solipsistically confected out false etymologies and whatever nonsense principles the prescriptivists have extrapolated from the snatches of Greek or Latin they remember from school (*takes deep breath*) — just don't make much sense.

  44. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Dammit, I screwed up the itals. Again:

    I think you slightly extend Halpern's argument

    I'd prefer to say that I restated it from a vantage that wasn't so tendentious, extracting all the straw men (e.g., that linguists believe language has its own "natural destiny") — but whatever.

    Those who stand on the touchline

    That's what most people who don't really grasp the arguments do. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_ground

    I think the underlying issue he was addressing (and Mark Liberman was addressing) was whether language is a natural growth or a man-made thing.

    You're giving Halpern too much credit, accepting his misleading framing of the issue. Once you understand the processes by which languages change (described within the first few chapters of any linguistics textbook), and the fact that all languages have always changed in these ways, it becomes a lot harder to view language as a "man-made thing." But that's beside the point. Prescriptivists always like to take this argument into the realm of the purely speculative, where nothing can be proven, because their position is so weak. Really, linguists don't object to prescriptivists for "interfering" with any "natural growth"; they just point out that the prescriptivists don't have any scientific ground to stand on (something that most people, contra Halpern, don't understand), and that the rules they promulgate — whether handed down from on high or solipsistically confected out false etymologies and whatever nonsense principles the prescriptivists have extrapolated from the snatches of Greek or Latin they remember from school (*takes deep breath*) — just don't make much sense.

  45. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Bianca: If by "prescriptivists" you mean descriptivists, then no, I still don't know what you're talking about. Academic linguists — i.e., people who study language for a living and therefore know more about it than almost anybody who doesn't — ARE the descriptivists, and Halpern was bashing them in general.

  46. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    Well, jammesal, apart from the question of whether it is possible that neither side is in exclusive possession of the truth (your view on that seems to me, forgive me, cock-eyed) I have a deal of sympathy with what you are saying, as it applies to many annoying pontificators about language.

    I just ask that you don't send me to the gallows for suggesting that (to re-roast the old chestnut) it is useful and attractive that "infer" carries a meaning not contained in "imply"; and that I prefer that distinctive use of "infer"; and that I would urge that use on anyone interested. No false etymologies in that, not Greek or Latin from school (I don't remember any). And I don't see why I should believe that nothing I could say on the matter could ever have any effect on anybody (not that I am overwhelmed with hope, you understand).

    Oh dear, am I still close to that quicksand of ignorance in the middle ground?

  47. Picky said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    Sorry, jamessal, for mistyping your name.

    Ignorance indeed!

  48. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 11:51 am

    No false etymologies in that

    Well, you didn't call the usage you prefer the "traditional" one, so I can't quite pin you down on the charge of citing false etymologies, but in case you didn't know: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=47

    More later; I still think you're confusing the issue. I just have to run.

  49. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    Well, jammesal, apart from the question of whether it is possible that neither side is in exclusive possession of the truth (your view on that seems to me, forgive me, cock-eyed)

    The analogy I like is to creationists vs. biologists. I hope you won't find me cockeyed for supposing the creationists to be wholly and utterly full of shit.

    I just ask that you don't send me to the gallows for suggesting that (to re-roast the old chestnut) it is useful and attractive that "infer" carries a meaning not contained in "imply"; and that I prefer that distinctive use of "infer"; and that I would urge that use on anyone interested.

    Descriptive linguists don't object to people stating their preferences. If you were to publish an article calling people "illiterate" and the like for using "infer" to mean "hint; imply; suggest" (Random House's fourth definition), that would be another story.

    That said (and that is the main point, what we were talking about, prescrips vs. descrips, who's right and who's wrong), I'd also disagree that it would be useful to stop people from using the fourth definition of "infer." Why, exactly? The two meanings ("derive" and "hint") are so distinct that I'm having trouble even imagining any potential ambiguity (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=267).

  50. bianca steele said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    jamessal,
    Sorry, you're right, I got confused. Halpern is attacking linguists, whom he apparently sees as invariably, these days, descriptivists. Unfortunately, what I've read of Halpern has seemed to me poorly written, dull, uninformative, and itself confused. What stands out is that (1) he believes he knows everything he needs to know about linguistics, (2) he believes certain things are true (in some cases you can see this though in other cases you can't tell what he's trying to say), (3) he doesn't see a need for appeals to authority o any sort, (4) there's an animus of some kind or another. I have some sympathy for the idea of trying to find something worthwhile, buried in there among all the other "stuff." But unless I have a good reason to do so, the fact that it's poorly written, dull and uninformative makes me a little uncharitable.

    So, although Maureen and Picky each has a point, I don't think it's worthwhile trying to persuade yourself that Halpern agrees with you on some level. It makes more trouble than it's worth. In the end, all I'm left with is the fact that the writer see himself on one side and a bunch of people who disagree with him on the other.

  51. marie-lucie said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    To what extent is language "man-made"?

    Let's take an analogy: babies "learn" (= begin) to speak at about the same age that they start to walk. No one can force a baby to speak or walk, or prevent the baby from doing so (and going through specific stages) under the normal circumstances of living in a family that speaks. However, writing prize-winning novels, or training for the Olympics, requires conscious effort at a much later age, innate suitability to the task, as well as help (direct or indirect) from other people as role models. Much of what is "prescribed" for language is of the order of medium- to high-level training, sometimes in minute detail, like shaving a fraction of a second on an Olympic speed record (eg distinguishing infer and imply, surely not among the most common or useful words in the English language, and not what you would start with in teaching ESL).

    As I wrote earlier, the conspicuous differences in language between, for instance, English novels of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (practically all of which are written in the standard of each relevant period) show that even the written standard evolves over time, no matter what "guidance" the writers have been exposed to.

  52. jamessal said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    I like your analogy, marie-lucie. Only you give the prescriptivists too much credit: much of their advice is pernicious, whereas Olympic coaches, I imagine, are generally helpful.

  53. Dave said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    An anecdote in favor of marie-lucie: living in Switzerland, I can affirm that swiss germans (despite their small population) take pride in — and further tend to accentuate the differences between — their regional dialects. While swiss french speakers may vary in vocabulary and idiom, swiss german speakers will even differ in how they conjugate simple phrases involving to be, to do, to have…

  54. Picky said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    Well, jamessal, I quite like marie-lucie's analogy, too, and of course we agree that languages change, including standard written Englishes, and that the concerns of usage writers are small change compared with the big deal at the age of two or three or whatever. But I would hold that at each stage, as a child first absorbs its family tongue, and then grows up and joins varied language communities, prescription is present, whether codified or imposed by peer pressure or social embarrassment.

    My second point was that I don't understand why taking my position should bring forth bitterness and anger. No I don't believe that the truth is always in the middle of the spectrum, just that it isn't necessarily at the end.

    The analogy with creationism is a case in point. If we take a spectrum running from Dawkinsite evolutionary biology at one end to the fallacies of creationism and intelligent design at the other, we find that there are intermediate positions which are not "full of shit".

    The many Christians who fully accept evolutionary theory, but see it as the mechanism by which god has created the living world – these people may be (I think they are) mistaken, but I hope we would not take them to be necessarily "full of shit". Nor would we, I hope, be quite so furiously dismissive of Gouldites who might support the concept of "non-overlapping magisteria".

    OK, I'm not only a wishy-washy liberal, I also (surprise!) think it's not the worst thing in the world to be.

  55. jamessal said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    I would hold that at each stage, as a child first absorbs its family tongue, and then grows up and joins varied language communities, prescription is present, whether codified or imposed by peer pressure or social embarrassment.

    Prescription, yes. PRESCRIPTIVISM, no. And PRESCRIPTIVISM, of the sort defended by Halpern in that article (he even offers names), is what we were talking about when one of you jumped in about your father or grandmother or whatever. My exasperation, or "bitterness and anger," doesn't stem from your "position"; it stems from the conflation, ubiquitous in these conversations, between the common definition of "prescription" and a whole body of literature evincing the noxious ideology that one form of language, one "standard," is better than the rest. Reread the article and the thread: clearly, it's the ideology Mark and I were referring to when one of us said that "most languages develop without prescriptive guidance." Then came the grandmothers. (And, really, I'm not bitter or angry or even exasperated at all — I just like to keep these things clear.)

    I don't believe that the truth is always in the middle of the spectrum, just that it isn't necessarily at the end.

    What fool, once you introduce the concept of a spectrum, is going to insist that Truth is at only at one end? This kind of abstraction obscures everything interesting.

  56. jamessal said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    (And, really, I'm not bitter or angry or even exasperated at all — I just like to keep these things clear.)

    Let me just stress that point a little more. I enjoy a good polemical workout, and appreciate your taking it this far with me. Obviously we agree on a lot more than we disagree.

  57. marie-lucie said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    jamessal:I like your analogy, marie-lucie. Only you give the prescriptivists too much credit: much of their advice is pernicious, whereas Olympic coaches, I imagine, are generally helpful.

    Thank you, jamessal. Of course any analogy breaks down at some point, but most people tend to overestimate the influence of prescriptivists on the development of a language. Prescriptivism grossly inflates the importance of relatively trivial points.

  58. Picky said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    Oh 'eck, marie-lucie/jamessal …

    I'll close the door behind me, and creep away. But I hope I just about live to prescribe another day.

    Thanks for your courtesy.

  59. bianca steele said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    jamessal, marie-lucie,
    Since it's ml's analogy and she's obviously satisfied with the discussion up to this point, it may be silly for me to put in my two cents, but anyway: jamessal, are you asserting that when a grandmother, high school teacher, or someone similar makes a claim about the correctness of language as it's to be used around him or her, s/he is necessarily not making a claim about the correctness of the language always and everywhere? Or are you making the less surprising claim that no language can long continue as such without grandmothers and teachers to impose the rules on the young in the usual way? Or have I misunderstood you entirely?

  60. marie-lucie said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    bianca,

    Speaking for myself: I did not mean that grandmother, etc was not making a claim about correctness, she was, but if her prescription went against that of her friends, neighbours and fellow citizens, she would have no credibility beyond her immediate family, if at all. For instance, in most immigrant families where parents or grandparents speak to children in a divergent form of English (which is not their own language), children still grow up speaking like the other children they interact with, not like their parents and grandparents.

    The rules "imposed on the young" through formal teaching are relatively trivial compared to the vast number of language rules which children just absorb from being surrounded by mature speakers, eg when to use "a" or "the" (something hard to grasp for speakers of languages without articles), when to use the simple or progressive present (something hard for French or German speakers to grasp), in what order to place subject and verb, how to form questions (quite a complex process in English) and a host of other linguistic rules that are common to all mature speakers of the language, so that these rules do not need to be formally taught. In any language, barring extreme upheavals, children do not speak exactly like adults but eventually grow up to speak like them, even if they go through a consciously divergent phase as teenagers. There is no need to "drill" these rules into them.

  61. bianca steele said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    marie-lucie,
    It's probably true that in most cases, grandmother's rules won't have any larger effect. But as a matter of social "pragmatics," some grandchildren may have more influence over their peer group than others.

    I'm not sure about your second point, though it may just be the way you've expressed it that's giving me trouble. To use jamessal's analogy, it seems like saying that those of our genes we share with chimpanzees are more numerous than those unique to us, therefore the shared genes and whatever corresponding traits there are are more important.

  62. marie-lucie said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    bianca: It's probably true that in most cases, grandmother's rules won't have any larger effect. But as a matter of social "pragmatics," some grandchildren may have more influence over their peer group than others

    Yes, of course, but that is a function of their leadership abilities and does not mean that those leaders are enforcing specific, formalized rules, rather than simply acting as role models.

    I am not sure about what you mean in the second paragraph, except perhaps in so far as you mean something statistical. But I don't think the analogy is relevant: what traits are considered "more important" would depend of the context. If you are trying to prove that human are primates, shared genes etc are crucially important. If you are trying to prove human uniqueness, the ones that are different become the most important ones.

    In terms of being able to use language, the most common features are the most important ones, those which are a matter of style or literary convention (and could often be rephrased in a different way) much less so. Think of what you would need to teach foreign speakers: "Who did you speak to?" is much more important than "To whom are you speaking?" which is possible but unlikely to be very useful in participating in English conversation. I myself learned to say "Did you not do X?" before I learned "Didn't you do X?" – guess which was the more important phrasing.

  63. bianca steele said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

    marie-lucie,
    I'm interested to hear more about what it means to have "leadership qualities."

    Regarding your second point, I don't quite see that individuals who are enforcing the rules of their families and villages "on this side of the valley" act invariably as "role models" and never by enforcing "formalized rules." Surely, at least in some cases, they believe their grandparents and schoolteachers were in command of the same language standards as those accepted in other places. (In some cases, perhaps, the same standards, and in other cases, standards of equal worth.) You seem to imply people who impose local language conventions actually do different things from people who impose global, rule-based language conventions: it sounds like local languages are different in kind from "real" languages, which I'm sure is not what you are trying to say.

    And, finally, regarding your last paragraph: I'm not sure I grasp what you're trying to say. Could you explain? (Sorry if I seem to be missing your point.)

  64. marie-lucie said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    bianca,

    I'm interested to hear more about what it means to have "leadership qualities."

    This is a blog about language, not social psychology. Persons with "leadership qualities" are those who demonstrate those qualities (whatever they are) by getting others to agree with them and follow their lead, whether in fashion, morals, politics, language, you name it.

    I disagree with you saying that some people "impose" language conventions. Very few people can deliberately "impose" such conventions, that is normally done informally just by people speaking to each other on a consistent basis. Those who are more influential (for whatever reasons) will be more listened to and imitated, is that so strange? As for those who supposedly "impose global, rule-based language conventions", it is impossible to do so apart from some very restricted circumstances such as submitting one's work for publication and having it scrutinized and "corrected" by editors with very strict, usually archaic or artificial standards. That has nothing to do with "local" or "real" languages – in the US English speakers are the overwhelming majority but different local, rural standards (= the normal way ordinary people speak in those regions) exist together with more widespread and uniform standards of literary or academic usage (but those are not always the same everywhere, for instance you can usually tell within a few sentences whether an author is British or American or Indian). But those who obey (or submit to) such written standards in their writing are not necessarily observing them in their own speech.

    In my last paragraph I gave examples of artificial styles of speech that I (a non-native speaker) was taught and that some people would consider the only "correct" ones, even though hardly anyone would actually use them. Teaching foreigners those supposedly "correct" but unused and unusable forms is not doing them a service.

    I hope I have finally made my points clear.

  65. bread & roses said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    It seems to me that the existence of shibboleths implies the existence of prescriptivists even in Biblical Hebrew.

  66. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    bread & roses:

    "shibboleth" in the Bible is the word (I think it means something like "ear of wheat") that the winning tribe (in a particular conflict) used to recognize speakers of a different dialect, who said "si" in words where the eventual winners said "shi". There was no problem in comprehension, and no one suggested that the "si" speakers "should" say "shi" instead, but the "si" tribe was the enemy and that small element of pronunciation made them instantly recognizable so that they could be killed without the risk of killing the wrong side. Nowadays the word is used for some element (perhaps the use of a particular 'buzzword") which differentiates one's "friends" or kindred spirits from one's "enemies". Nothing to do with prescriptivism.

    Prescriptivism is an attitude: the language is basically imperfect and people are making it even worse, so we need to impose strict rules before it completely falls apart (basically Mark Halpern's position). Nothing to do with the original "shibboleth".

  67. Kevin S. said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    I am delighted to see myself cited once again on the Language Log. Just to complete the context, however, let me make clear that the phrasing of my statement, "Read the writings of Mark Halpern, if you dare. He guts descriptive linguists the way a fisherman guts a perch!" was intended merely as a parody of Geoffrey Pullum's charming style.

    I do not really believe that Halpern guts descriptivists like fish, but I do believe that he poses some serious challenges for them and their work. I look forward to Professor Liberman's serious engagement with some of these challenges, if he chooses to pursue that route.

RSS feed for comments on this post