Querkopf von Klubstick returns

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday, a correspondent I'll identify as "Kevin S" sent me a left-handed compliment:

Someone recommended your posts on Language Log as an instance where I might encounter a rational form of Descriptivism. I must admit, you do generally write well, and your "mask of sanity" appears firm. It doesn't take long, however, before the mask fails.

Kevin uncovered my true nature by inspection of a Language Log post from 10/28/2006, "Evil". I'll spare you the body of his evaluation ("disingenuous … smug … misrepresentations …"), but his peroration is worth thinking about:

I doubt that you've read this far (or read this e-mail, at all), but in case you have, I suppose that I should fully disclose my colors before I close.

At the end of the day, Descriptivism appears merely to be another form of Nietzsche's concept of slave morality, which is the dominant morality of our day. Emily Bender's remarks, as quoted in your post of 10/28/06, offer a typically tedious, humorless, and self-righteous example of this type of morality. Descriptivism, like most such ideologies, merely reflects the values and tendencies of the society it serves. In this case, those tendencies are a frantic race to the intellectual bottom, where language and the Humanities are concerned; a perversion of the concept of democracy; a mutation of the virus neophilia; and a telling instance of that great logical fallacy of modern times: Post hoc, ergo hoc melius.

The business about "slave morality" is from Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887, available in English translation here. In the first essay, "Good and Evil, Good and Bad", Nietzsche finds "the origin of the opposition between 'good' and 'bad'" in "the aristocratic value equations (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = fortunate = loved by god)", which emerge from "the lasting and domineering feeling … of a higher ruling nature in relation to a lower type". He introduces this idea with a parenthetical fancy about the origin of language as a sort of baronial jus primi verbi:

(The right of the master to give names extends so far that we could permit ourselves to grasp the origin of language itself as an expression of the power of the rulers: they say “that is such and such”; they seal every object and event with a sound, and in the process, as it were, take possession of it.)

But according to Nietzsche this "knightly-aristocratic" idea of Good vs. Bad has "fought a fearful battle on earth for thousands of years" with the "priestly" (and "Jewish") idea of Good vs. Evil:

In opposition to the aristocratic value equations (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = fortunate = loved by god), the Jews, with a consistency inspiring fear, dared to reverse things and to hang on to that with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of the powerless), that is, to “only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the low are the only good people; the suffering, those in need, the sick, the ugly are also the only pious people; only they are blessed by God; for them alone there is salvation. — By contrast, you privileged and powerful people, you are for all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lecherous, the insatiable, the godless; you will also be the unblessed, the cursed, and the damned for all eternity!” . . . We know who inherited this Judaic transformation of values . . .

In connection with that huge and immeasurably disastrous initiative which the Jews launched with this most fundamental of all declarations of war, I recall the sentence I wrote at another time (in Beyond Good and Evil, section 195) — namely, that with the Jews the slave rebellion in morality begins: that rebellion which has a two-thousand-year-old history behind it and which we nowadays no longer notice because it — has triumphed. . . .

This subversive Jewish anti-egoism is the morality of slaves, who slyly pretend that their powerlessness is a virtue:

While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant affirmation of one’s own self, slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.”

70 years earlier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge ridiculed this sort of Germanic philosophizing in his caricature of Fichte as "Querkopf von Klubstick, Grammarian":

Here on this market-cross aloud I cry:
'I, I, I! I itself I!
The form and the substance, the what and the why,
The when and the where, and the low and the high,
The inside and outside, the earth and the sky,
I, you, and he, and he, you and I,
All souls and all bodies are I itself I!
All I itself I!
(Fools! a truce with this starting!)
All my I! all my I!
He's a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!'

It's far from obvious that linguistic prescriptivism is "a triumphant affirmation of one's own self", as opposed to a way of saying "No" to what is "outside" — but put those doubts aside for a bit, while we follow up on a linguistic issue that is more central to "Good and Evil, Good and Bad". At the end of the essay, Nietzsche adds this "Note":

I am taking the opportunity provided to me by this essay publicly and formally to state a desire which I have expressed up to now only in occasional conversations with scholars, namely, that some faculty of philosophy might set up a series of award-winning academic essays in order to serve the advancement of studies into the history of morality. Perhaps this book will serve to provide a forceful push in precisely such a direction. Bearing in mind a possibility of this sort, let me propose the following question — it merits the attention of philologists and historians as much as of real professional philosophical scholars:

What suggestions does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?

In the body of the essay, Nietzsche offered his own answer to this question:

I was given a hint of the right direction by the question: What, from an etymological perspective, do the meanings of “Good” as manifested in different languages really mean? There I found that all of them lead back to the same transformation of ideas — that everywhere “noble” and “aristocratic” in a social sense is the fundamental idea out of which “good” in the sense of “spiritually noble,” “aristocratic,” “spiritually high-minded,” “spiritually privileged” necessarily develops, a process which always runs in parallel with that other one which finally transforms “common,” “vulgar,” and “low” into the concept “bad.” The most eloquent example of the latter is the German word “schlecht” [bad] itself, which is identical with the word “schlicht” [plain] — compare “schlechtweg” [quite simply] and “schlechterdings” [simply] — and which originally designated the plain, common man, still without any suspicious side glance, simply in contrast to the noble man. Around the time of the Thirty Years War approximately, hence late enough, this sense changed into the one used now.

As far as the genealogy of morals is concerned, this point strikes me as a fundamental insight; that it was first discovered so late we can ascribe to the repressive influence which democratic prejudice in the modern world exercises concerning all questions of origin.

By the way, it's rather un-Nietzschean for Kevin to associate slave morality with "a perversion of the concept of democracy", since Nietzsche suggests that all of modern democracy is "a monstrous counter-attack" whereby "the ruling and master race, the Aryans" is "being defeated, even physiologically".

In any case, without evaluating Nietzsche's opinions about democracy or his moral philosophy more generally, we can observe that his assertions about etymology are almost entirely false. It's not true that "everywhere 'noble' and 'aristocratic' in a social sense is the fundamental idea out of which 'good' … necessarily develops". Indeed, it's not even true for the Germanic languages of the Indo-European family. Here's the Oxford English Dictionary's etymology for good, which turns out to derive historically from "fitting, suitable", not from "noble, aristocratic":

[Com. Teut.: OE. gód = OFris., OS. gôd (MDu. goet, inflected goed-, Du. goed), OHG. guot, kuot, guat, kuat, etc. (MHG. guot, G. gut), ON. góð-r (Sw., Da. god), Goth. gôþ-s, gen. gôdis:—OTeut. *gôđo-. The root *gôđ- is perh. an ablaut-variant of *gađ- to bring together, to unite (see GATHER v.), so that the original sense of ‘good’ would be that of ‘fitting’, ‘suitable’; cf. OSl. goditi to be pleasing, godĭnŭ pleasing, godŭ time, fitting time, Russ. godnȳĭ fit, suitable. ]

The American Heritage Dictionary joins in relating good to IE ghedh- "to unite, join, fit", also at the root of together and gather.

And here is the OED's etymology for bad, which turns out to come not from "lower class" but from "homosexual":

[ME. badde appears in end of 13th c., rare till end of 14th: see below. Regularly compared badder, baddest, from 14th to 18th c. (in De Foe 1721), though Shakespeare has only the modern substitutes worse, worst, taken over from evil, ill, after bad came to be = evil.

Prof. Zupitza, with great probability, sees in bad-de (2 syll.) the ME. repr. of OE. bæddel ‘homo utriusque generis, hermaphrodita,’ doubtless like Gr. ἀνδρὁγυνος, and the derivative bædling ‘effeminate fellow, womanish man, μαλακὁς,’ applied contemptuously; assuming a later adjectival use, as in yrming, wrecca, and loss of final l as in mycel, muche, lytel, lyte, wencel, wench(e. This perfectly suits the ME. form and sense, and accounts satisfactorily for the want of early written examples. And it is free from the many historical and phonetic difficulties of the derivation proposed by Sarrazin (Engl. Studien VI. 91, VIII. 66), who, comparing the etymology of madde, mad, earlier amad(de:—OE. ȝemǽded (see AMAD), would refer badde to OE. ȝebǽded, ȝebǽdd, ‘forced, oppressed,’ with a sense-development parallel to that of L. captīvus, ‘taken by force, enslaved, captive,’ It. cattivo, F. chetif, ‘miserable, wretched, despicable, worthless.’ No other suggestion yet offered is of any importance; the Celtic words sometimes compared are out of the question.]

Most of the specific etymologies that Nietzsche offers are nonsense; for example:

The Latin word bonus [good] I believe I can explicate as “the warrior,” provided that I am correct in tracing bonus back to an older word duonus (compare bellum [war] = duellum [war] = duen-lum, which seems to me to contain that word duonus). Hence, bonus as a man of war, of division (duo), as a warrior. We see what constituted a man’s “goodness” in ancient Rome. What about our German word “Gut” [good] itself? Doesn’t it indicate “den Göttlichen” [the god-like man], the man of “göttlichen Geschlechts” [“the generation of gods]”? And isn’t that identical to the people’s (originally the nobles’) name for the Goths?

In fact, according to current scholarship, Latin bonus came from IE deu-2 "To do, perform …", through the sense “useful, efficient, working”. And for German "Gut", see the discussion of good above.

Nietzsche's thoughts about Latin malus pile racism on top of anti-semitism:

In the Latin word malus [bad] (which I place alongside melas [black, dark]) the common man could be designated as the dark- coloured, above all as the dark-haired (“hic niger est” [“this man is dark”]), as the pre-Aryan inhabitant of Italian soil, who stood out from those who became dominant, the blonds, that is, the conquering race of Aryans, most clearly through this colour.

It's true that (e.g.) Lewis and Short identify mălus as related to "Sanscr. mala, dirt; Gr. μέλας, black"; but even the earliest Latin citations don't suggest any connection with dark-haired people, or with the lower classes of society either. Latin mĕlas, borrowed from Greek μέλας, just meant "a black spot on the skin". Liddell and Scott's entry for Greek μέλας does indicate that it could mean "of men, dark, swarthy", but none of the related Latin words seem to have had such a meaning. And other sources suggest that Latin malus came from IE mel-3 which already meant "False, bad, wrong" before the Romans went to Italy.

Of course, the logic of Nietzsche's argument from etymology is faulty, independent of the validity of its premises. (See "Etymology as argument", 6/18/2005, and the other posts listed here.) Still, the carelessness of his scholarship may serve to indicate the overall quality of his ideas — and it would be worth investigating, some day, why people who advance etymological arguments are so often wrong about their etymologies.

OK, in the end, what does all this have to do with linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism? It seems to me that Kevin's Nietzschean equations (descriptivism = morality of slaves) and (prescriptivism = morality of nobles) don't make much sense.

Most linguists certainly believe that vernacular norms — the speech patterns of common people — have intrinsic value. But aren't the common people, at least in stereotype, precisely those today whose cultural values "have as their basic assumption a powerful physicality, a blooming, rich, even over-flowing health, together with those things required to maintain these qualities — war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and, in general, everything which involves strong, free, happy action"? Friedrich, meet 2Pac:

Thug Life, y'all know the rules
gotta do whatcha gotta do (Stay True)

And it may be true that some of the paradoxes of prescriptivism — shoddy scholarship, sporadic neologism — can be explained as an affirmation of linguistic ego, rather than a defense of cultural standards (see "Snoot? Bluck.", 11/8/2004l, for some examples; and "Hot Dryden-on-Jonson action", 5/1/2007, for more.) But more broadly, shouldn't we see linguistic prescriptivism as essentially the morality of (house) slaves — those with clerkly duties — who teach the aspiring masses how to talk and write like their betters?

The answer to both questions is "no". Vernacular language is not morally superior — or inferior — to formal language, never mind who is more self-affirming; and the description of standard — or vernacular — language is not a prescription for slavish imitation, but an opportunity for informed choice.

Genuine linguistic norms of all kinds — formal, standard, vernacular, ethnic and whatever else — are emergent properties of groups of (linguistically) free people, and the philosopher who has most to teach us about this is not Nietzsche, but Hayek (Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volumes 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11):

[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever prefection they possessed to such design. …

Yet … [m]any of the institutions of society which are indisensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. …

Man … is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

Given this, there's no contradiction — and no shame — in ignoring the ignorant sermons of self-appointed usage experts, and examining instead the writings of admired authors. Linguistic "correctness" is not defined either by a priori "rules" or by lists of unanalyzed observations; and authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism.



59 Comments

  1. fev said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 9:40 am

    Oh, cool. You found somebody to play Otto in the remake of "A Fish Called Wanda."

  2. gyokusai said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    Fantastic entry, or rather essay, thank you!

    There's some minor issue with Ian Johnston’s quotations from Nietzsche’s „Erste Abhandlung: ‚Gut und Böse‘, ‚Gut und Schlecht,‘“ though:

    Instead of

    The most eloquent example of the latter is the German word “schlect” [bad] itself, which is identical with the word “schlicht” [plain] — compare “schlectweg” [quite simply] and “schlechterdings” [simply]

    it should read:

    The most eloquent example of the latter is the German word “schlecht”[bad] itself, which is identical with the word “schlicht” [plain] — compare “schlechtweg” [quite simply] and “schlechterdings” [simply]

    (The word „schlechtweg“ developed into modern „schlichtweg,“ by the way.)

    That’s according to my copy, of course, but you can also check the German text at the Gutenberg Project:
    http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/?id=5&xid=1948&kapitel=2&cHash=ee53a33c202#gb_found

    And again (in order to not end this comment on a nitpicking note): this is a marvelously rewarding entry!

    Cheers,
    ^_^J.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    @gyokusai: Thanks! I believe that the scribal errors are Ian Johnston's, since I took the passages via cut-n-paste; but I should have seen the mistake. Yet another piece of evidence that I'm the world's worst proofreader.

  4. Laura said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    Your use of the phrase "left-handed compliment" was, I hope, deliberate. I found it rather amusing and clever, either way.

  5. slawkenbergius said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    While Kevin "Apes don't read philosophy!" S. is certainly some sort of degenerate, I think you're being unnecessarily harsh when it comes to Nietzsche. Not about the etymologies–I don't know anything about that, and it's not a fundamental aspect of his argument–but about his philosophical ideas.

    It's easy to read the Genealogy as a racist text, given the constant fulminations against the Jews (and idea that blacks feel less pain because they are unrefined). To do so would be to completely miss the point. Nietzsche isn't discussing the Jews because he hates them; he's discussing them because they're his best way of getting at the Christians, who are his real target. Every epithet that Nietzsche applies to the Jews in GoM should be read as applying tenfold to the Christians, who represent the ultimate evolution of slave morality.

    Further, the blond conquering Aryans, despite all appearances, are not the heroes of the GoM (and hence the Jews and the supposed swarthy inhabitants of the Italian peninsula are not its villains). Nietzsche is not identifying with them. As far as he's concerned, the nobles are just brute animals, they have no control over their actions, and they are not interesting. What they do have is a perspective on life that jars us out of our conventional moral frameworks, and Nietzsche wants the reader to experience that jarring and begin to mistrust all systems of morality. His real goal is to take "the animal with the right to make promises"–who can only be the product of slave morality–and reshape him into something that can construct its own morals.

    (Disproving the Nazi and anti-Semitic conclusions implied by a superficial reading of the GoM has been a cottage industry in Nietzsche studies for decades. Read Walter Kaufmann for a far clearer and better-written explanation.)

    One last objection. Nietzsche is not about the "affirmation of the self" in any obvious sense, and he is certainly not the "I,I,I!" of Querkopf von Klubstick. For Nietzsche the idea of the subject as something separate from the deed–the very idea of an I–is the product of slave morality, which constantly wants to impose the idea of moral responsibility. (That is to say, the noble does something and has no notion that he could have done differently; the slave wants to give himself moral brownie points for his weakness, so he tells himself and others that he could have acted like the noble but chose not to. Hence the rise of the Subject.)

    Later in the GoM, Nietzsche mocks the philosopher who is obsessed with the I: "he affirms his existence and only his existence, and does this perhaps to such a degree that he stays close to the wicked desire pereat mundus, fiat philosophia, fiat philosophus, fiam! " In other words, he is, if anything, on Coleridge's side–any attempt to reduce the world to the Self, or to claim the Self's independence from the world, is bad (life-negating) and laughable.

    And finally, a quote for Kevin S., from "Twilight of the Idols":

    "I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar."

    Now who's a good Nietzschean?

  6. Chris Kern said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    I think some people have trouble seeing descriptive linguistics as anything more than a different brand of prescriptivism — that is, the principle that "you can do anything" or "anything a native speaker says is correct". Descriptivism is often considered to be the opposite of Prescriptivism, when to me it's an entirely different thing. It's like saying that researching disease is the opposite of telling people what to do to avoid disease. (At least this is my understanding. If only there was a descriptively-informed type of prescriptivism, but this seems to be absent. Perhaps the MWCDEU is the closest thing to that.

  7. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

    …this subversive Jewish anti-egoism is the morality of slaves, who slyly pretend that their powerlessness is a virtue…Coleridge ridiculed this sort of Germanic philosophizing…Nietzsche suggests that all of modern democracy is "a monstrous counter-attack" whereby "the ruling and master race, the Aryans" is "being defeated, even physiologically"…Nietzsche's thoughts about Latin malus pile racism on top of anti-semitism…Still, the carelessness of his scholarship may serve to indicate the overall quality of his ideas

    Mark, I won't go into your remarks about etymology, but I'm singling out these other bits because they're unfair to Nietzsche. Nutty people quote him, and it also might be worth investigating why people who advance philosophical arguments are so often wrong about their philosophies. Michael Tanner (Nietzsche 1994) said:

    An excellent recent study (Aschheim 1992) devoted to (Nietzsche's) impact within Germany between 1890 and 1990 lists, among those who have found inspiration in his work, 'anarchists, feminists, Nazis, religious cultists, Socialists, Marxists, vegetarians, avant-garde artists, devotees of physical culture, and archconservatives,' and it certainly does not need to stop there…Almost no German cultural or artistic figure of the last ninety years has not acknowledged his influence, from Thomas Mann to Jung to Heidegger.

    The historian Keith Thomas wrote in the foreword to Tanner,
    …Tanner convincingly argues that Nietzsche's fundamental concern was to plot the relationship between suffering and culture. Hence his interest in tragedy, his preoccupation with the heroic, and his attack on all religions that teach the existence of an afterlife. Of the many striking remarks in The Genealogy of Morals, perhaps the most arresting is the assertion that Christianity as a dogma has been destroyed by its own morality.

    About prescriptivists, linguists should understand that some of us are secretly rather glad of the advice we get from the dreaded Strunk & White. OK, some of their rules are wrong, but we don't even see rules. In there somewhere you can find help. When you're writing your cv it's no compensation for not getting interviews that linguists think it's ok to split infinitives. If nobody else thinks it's ok you're screwed.

  8. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    Mark, I pressed the 'submit comment' button before I had said the most important thing: that you've written a remarkably interesting post, even for you, and thank you for it.

  9. John Cowan said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    I strongly suspect from the use of "rational" and "mask of sanity" that "Kevin's" Nietzsche is filtered through Ayn Rand. To Randites, "rational" and "objective" are Yang Worship Words meaning "agreeing with us". This is, I believe, a consequence of the Randite assumption that purely formal logical rules, like the famous "A is A", have metaphysical consequences.

    As for "mask of sanity", it's the title of a book on psychopathy. So now you know what "Kevin" really thinks of you.

  10. language hat said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

    It's easy to read the Genealogy as a racist text, given the constant fulminations against the Jews (and idea that blacks feel less pain because they are unrefined). To do so would be to completely miss the point. Nietzsche isn't discussing the Jews because he hates them; he's discussing them because they're his best way of getting at the Christians, who are his real target. Every epithet that Nietzsche applies to the Jews in GoM should be read as applying tenfold to the Christians, who represent the ultimate evolution of slave morality.

    In other words, Nietzsche is saying "See those vile, crawling, slave-moralizing Jews who have screwed up the entire world? You're even worse than they are!" Somehow that doesn't do much to assuage my feelings, and I don't think it's a really successful defense against the charge of anti-Semitism.

    An excellent recent study … lists, among those who have found inspiration in his work, 'anarchists, feminists, Nazis, religious cultists, Socialists, Marxists, vegetarians, avant-garde artists, devotees of physical culture, and archconservatives'

    This proves nothing except that he's such a powerful writer that even people he insults find inspiration there. I remind you that Louis Zukofsky continued to champion Pound's work even after the latter's nasty speeches during WWII; as a Jew he was appalled, but as a poet he had to acknowledge Pound's greatness. Didn't mean Pound wasn't anti-Semitic.

  11. language hat said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    In other words, surely we can accept Nietzsche as a philosopher without having to try to make him a saint as well.

  12. Karl said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    Mark (may I call you Mark?),

    While this post was fascinating and far more than adequate a response, do you not realize what you've done? You've just given the signal to all potential peddlers of prescriptivist poppycock that draping their tired old notions in new philosophical finery will be rewarded with meticulous, essay-length response.

    Oh well, do let us know if you hear back from Kevin S.

  13. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    LH wrote, 'surely we can accept Nietzsche as a philosopher without having to try to make him a saint as well.'

    OK, but in my experience it's harder to be convinced by the reasoning of someone i see as an antisemitic racist who's careless of his scholarship. There's a marvelous book about Nietzsche's last year, called Nietzsche In Turin, by Lesley Chamberlain, which I recommend to anybody who has speculated on his personality. It is out of print, but it's available in the US edition via Amazon.com and in Britain from Abe Books.

  14. slawkenbergius said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

    In other words, Nietzsche is saying "See those vile, crawling, slave-moralizing Jews who have screwed up the entire world? You're even worse than they are!" Somehow that doesn't do much to assuage my feelings, and I don't think it's a really successful defense against the charge of anti-Semitism.

    There are plenty of other arguments to be made that Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite (he was at least as critical of Germans as he was of Jews; he essentially renounced his sister when she married an anti-Semite). In general, though, my point is that Nietzsche was not opposed to the Jews as a people but rather to Judaism (and Christianity, and Hinduism…) as a religion. I think the latter is much more defensible than the former–although I'm an atheist Jew, so what do I know.

    I don't think Nietzsche was a saint, by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think it's too easy to see things like this in his work and reflexively attribute them to crude prejudice, when more often than not they're part of a subtle and interesting chain of reasoning. (Admittedly, this tendency is only worsened by Nietzsche's deliberately polemical and exaggerated style.)

  15. Chris Henrich said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    Surely there is a place in the world for level-headed prescriptivism, that is, for advice on how to write well. I even have a prescription of my own, for writing mathematics. It is, "Eschew discourse deixis." (See the Language log "A test kitchen for stylistic recipes'.)

    My argument is that the writer of math is trying to lead his reader through a complicated sequence of thoughts. A discourse deixis, such as "this implies…" where the referent of "this" is not explicit, gives the reader too many opportunities to get lost.

    But I guess I can't be a prescriptivist, because I do not regard a discourse deixis in the local paper as an evil more urgent than poverty, war, and corruption all put together.

  16. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

    *Post hoc, ergo hoc melius* This guy was so rich, I'd like to know what he meant, if someone could kindly translate "melius". Capitalized, it's a Norwegian surname is all Google was willing to say. :)

  17. Matthew said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    Wow! As a rather uneducated but ardent fan of Language Log, I just have to say that this essay blew me away. Thanks for the great post!

  18. jamessal said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

    "Melius" means "better."

    Language Hat says the Latin is wrong, by the way, and though I don't have enough Latin to confirm, I'd trust him for sure.

    From Languagehat.com:

    Personal to "Kevin": if neophilia were a virus name, it would not be italicized according to AMA style; "Humanities" should not be capitalized; and your Latin is ungrammatical and says the opposite of what you want it to say.

  19. jamessal said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    "Wow! As a rather uneducated but ardent fan of Language Log, I just have to say that this essay blew me away. Thanks for the great post!"

    I'm gonna have to second that, too. Really a lot of fun.

  20. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    Janice Huth Byer said: Capitalized, Melius is a Norwegian surname was all Google…

    I'm not sure that's right, either (there's only one Melius in the Norwegian phone book).

  21. Amy Vaughan said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

    Word.

  22. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    jamessal, thank you. I'd say that does snuggle up nicely with Mr. S's position, without, alas, advancing it.

  23. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    slawkenbergius said, 'Nietzsche essentially renounced his sister when she married an anti-Semite

    Nitzsche's wicked nazi sister was his executor (or do we still say executrix? I don't know). She is supposed to have been responsible for creating a far-right audience for his work by managing what got published and what didn't. Of course, it doesn't explain why the Marxists liked him.

  24. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    Les S. Moore [I love it!] yes, my bad. A genealogy thread says it is what it is: Latin for "better" that was, for obvious reasons, taken as a surname in Germany NOT Norway, except by migration. It's said to be uncommon in the Old Country, while enjoying a small but solidly rooted life in the Pennsyvania Dutch regions of the U.S.
    ,

  25. jamessal said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    Update over at Languagehat:

    Commenter Conrad has defended the grammaticality of Kevin S's Latin, and Language Hat has bowed to Conrad's "superior Latinity" and apologized to Kevin.

  26. Sili said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

    I doubt that you've read this far (or read this e-mail, at all)

    Oh, lucky KennyKevin. You did read it.

    Methinks KennyKevin would have been better off had you not.

  27. john riemann soong said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    Regardless of Nietszche's philosophy (which may be odd to say) it strikes me as rather odd that Nietszche started out as a philologist and yet he makes such elementary mistakes?

  28. Aaron Davies said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    Just a quick note on Ayn Rand: please don't confuse this loon with people who take Rand seriously. She took some inspiration from Nietzsche, certainly, but no Objectivist would use his ethics to critique anything.

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 12:30 am

    Aaron: We don't need to confuse any loons with objectivists. Objectivists present us with more loons than we will ever need, from among their own ranks, the more admired the more deeply loony. Fetishism breeds loons.

  30. Stuart Robinson said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 12:32 am

    Here's the Otto quote from A Fish Called Wanda:

    Wanda: [after Otto breaks in on Wanda and Archie in Archie's flat and hangs him out the window] I was dealing with something delicate, Otto. I'm setting up a guy who's incredibly important to us, who's going to tell me where the loot is and if they're going to come and arrest you. And you come loping in like Rambo without a jockstrap and you dangle him out a fifth-floor window. Now, was that smart? Was it shrewd? Was it good tactics? Or was it stupid?
    Otto West: Don't call me stupid.
    Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?
    Otto West: Apes don't read philosophy.
    Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up. [source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095159/quotes

  31. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 11:28 am

    "Surely there is a place in the world for level-headed prescriptivism, that is, for advice on how to write well."

    Surely there is, and this is completely unremarkable among descriptivists. Any suggestion otherwise is a straw man argument. But what constitutes "writing well" has very little to do with the dreary array of usage manual shibboleths.

    The way I explain the difference between descriptivists and prescriptivists is by analogy with clothing. Suppose you are preparing for a job interview and you ask advise on what to wear. Both descriptivists and prescriptivists might suggest wearing a suit. Suppose you are preparing to go to the beach. A descriptivist would suggest bathing trunks. A prescriptivist would insist on that same suit, with coat and tie, that you wore to the job interview: can't let your standards slip!

  32. mmm said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 1:15 pm

    Kevin's comments are neither about Nietzsche nor about the descriptivist/prescriptivist conflict. I've reread the Emily Bender piece that he finds so offensive:
    "I can think of one case where prescriptivism is evil, or at least is inspired by another evil (namely racism or classism): When speakers of minority dialects are told that their native varieties are illogical etc. because they don't conform to the (prescriptive) norms of the local standard, or worse, told that they themselves must be lacking in intellectual ability to be using such a variety. In such cases, prescriptive grammar becomes the handmaiden of institutionalized racism (or classism). It might not be the root of the evil, but it can be a means through which those in power belittle, demean or otherwise demoralize some segment of the population."
    Now we see what Kevin's problem is: He has been found out…

  33. john riemann soong said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    "A prescriptivist would insist on that same suit, with coat and tie, that you wore to the job interview: can't let your standards slip!"

    Eh, for me it is a bit more like the contrast between people who construct models (whether theoretically or statistically-based) and people who apply such models (in business, etc.)

    For example, prescriptions that attempt to resolve ambiguity could be justifiable if it's a stylistic suggestion on what people should be doing, knowing that this is not the current trend. That is, it can be justified in some situations if it is an active attempt at social engineering for a supposedly better end.

    After all, the people who create constructed languages that are more "artful" or "logical" (depending on the constructed language chosen) I think have such prescriptivist aims. That is, while some of them may themselves abhor prescriptions against singular-they, they wish to create standards in language that are more natural/artful/logical/unambiguous than they are now.

  34. Alan Gunn said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

    The thing I find interesting about many of those who strongly denounce prescriptivistm is that all of them seem to follow standard, traditional English usage. They don't use apostrophes to form plurals, or say things like "he invited George and I to dinner," or use "infer" and "imply" interchangeably. This suggests to me that they once learned the many rules that prescriptivists try to encourage people to follow. To be sure, there are prescriptivists who insist on imaginary rules, like Fowler's proposed distinction between "which" and "that," and that sort of thing ought not to be encouraged. And it is indeed foolish to ignore distinctions between casual speech and edited prose; only a stuffed shirt would say "It is I" in ordinary conversation. But to point out that some would-be prescriptivists don't know what they're doing doesn't discredit prescriptivism itself. I'm inclined to think that it's a good thing that there are copy editors and English teachers. I just wish more of them knew what they were about.

  35. Josh Millard said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

    Well, and there's an issue of 'Prescriptivist' and 'Descriptivist' as complementary pejorative labels for mere subsets of what I suppose you could reasonably label 'little-p' prescriptivists and 'little-d' descriptivists — few folks, I think, who complain about prescriptivism are complaining about the casual notion that there's utility in being aware of formal conventions, at least.

    It seems to me that the pools of little-p and little-d folks consist mostly of reasonable non-extremists, and that the two pools overlap pretty heavily at that. It's the big-p Prescriptivists — the activist, down-the-nose folks who prefer rules over reason and observation — that get the grief, and likewise it's the big-d Descriptivists who are hung in effigy by the big-P folks.

    The difference there is that I've read plenty of bad, self-righteous advice from big-p Prescriptivists over the years, and even did minor stints as an obnoxious teenager on that bench. Whereas I've never met a big-d Descriptivist, the sort purportedly rejecting the utility of rules or structure or knowledge of formality in the way they are supposed, in strawman form, to do. I'm sure there are some out there, but they don't seem to get nearly as many column inches.

  36. P Terry Hunt said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 5:10 am

    Somewhat off the main thrust of this discussion, but arising from Mark Liberman's essay, I was struck by part of the passage quoted from the Coleridge poem, which I understand dates from 1815:
    "All my I! all my I!
    He's a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin!"

    I'm sure many are familiar with the (now somewhat old-fashioned) British slang expression "All my eye [sic] and Betty Martin" – often reduced to only its first three words – meaning roughly something one believes to be nonsense. I find it surprising (recency illusion?) that this expression might be old enough even to be derived from Coleridge; however, his use of it appears to be an allusion to an already-known expression. Does anyone know the actual provenance of the idiom, and who Betty Martin might have been?

  37. ToussianMuso said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    Thank you on behalf of linguists everywhere for this eloquent apology for well-informed descriptivism. I have on occasion had a terrible time trying to explain to certain friends and relations that all the semantics, morphosyntactic rules etc. that make up language (not to mention the nature of "illegal forms") are not something that somebody just sat down and made up.
    There are some fascinating and intelligently stated responses here as well. Regarding the call for "a descriptively-informed type of prescriptivism," I would say that is precisely what is present in the structural rules, used implicitly by speakers of any given language and made explicit by observant linguists, that emerge based on how people use language naturally. It is also why we learn the grammar of our own language in our formal education, except for when some misguided educators lapse into descriptivism for its own sake.

  38. Les S. Moore said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:27 am

    Why are there no prescriptivist linguists writing at Language Log?

  39. ToussianMuso said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:29 am

    The reason there are no prescriptivist linguists here is that the term is an oxymoron. That is a distinction one might make between linguists and grammarians.

  40. Les S. Moore said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 9:47 am

    Try again. Why does nobody blogging on Language Log advocate linguistic prescriptivism? (Toussian Muso: it's the premise of the piece, and it wasn't written by a grammarian, whatever that is.)

  41. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 10:28 am

    There is no such thing as "linguistic prescriptivism," any more than there is such a thing as "scientific creationism." The premise of prescriptivism is that people should avoid certain forms of English for reasons that have nothing to do with science. Note that (to make it clear for the millionth time, because the straw man keeps rearing its dry, crackly head) it is perfectly in order to say that different forms of language are appropriate for different circumstances, and linguists do it all the time (the good people here at the Log, in my view, occasionally bend over backwards doing so); the salient feature of prescriptivism is that it privileges a certain "correct" form of English (the details vary with the prescriptivist) as the only valid form and claims that others should not be used, which is repugnant as well as unscientific.

  42. Mark Liberman said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    Language hat: There is no such thing as "linguistic prescriptivism," any more than there is such a thing as "scientific creationism."

    I'll respectfully disagree with this. In fact, I *have* already respectfully disagreed, in "Prescriptivist science", 5/30/2008, which begins:

    Is there any "prescriptivist science"? Could there be any? The reaction of some linguists will be that "prescriptivist science" is as much as a contradiction in terms as "creation science" is. But I disagree.

    and argues, later on, that

    the word "prescriptivist" is generally taken to refer to the crazies rather than to the scholars, and this seems unfair to me. The scholars also prescribe, after all, it's just that their recommendations are based on a rational analysis of the facts. It's as if we called witch-doctors "prescriptivists" because they prescribe on the basis of magical thinking about imaginary spirits, while calling practitioners of evidence-based medicine "descriptivists" because their recommendations are based on the factual relationship between remedies and their consequences.

    Of course, I was writing about a hypothetical universe in which the word prescriptivist has been reclaimed and redefined.

  43. Les Moore said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    So right now nobody would actually present themself as a prescriptivist, it's more of an accusation, like irrational pedant. Everyone claims to be descriptivist, or scholar-scientist.

    But if, as Mark says, scholars prescribe, based on the rational analysis of the facts, then until it has been reclaimed, it sounds like prescriptivist/descriptivist is too hazy to be a sensible distinction.

  44. john riemann soong said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    "So right now nobody would actually present themself as a prescriptivist, "

    Well, I would. It's like asking whether you would call yourself a reader or a writer…

    If you admit language usage isn't always ideal, especially when many languages have been affected by language contact in a way evolution may have failed to anticipate, on top of general infelicities or lapses in thought, and you *prescribe* solutions, you take a prescriptivist view.

    It is the same with the label "fundamentalist" I think. Theoretically, fundamentalism doesn't have to be anti-intellectual, intolerant or irrational — it was a reform movement, to the extent I sometimes borrow the term for my own purposes. My ideal conception the fundamentalist is a religious intellectual who may be upset with the corruption or nepotism within a religious institution (that may be complacent in its wealth) and the general attitude of its attenders to be blind sheep in general, and prescribes a change that returns people "to the basics". Hence, Martin Luther would fit my *ideal* definition of "fundamentalist".

    Of course, current politics in the present day has led the word to be associated with intolerance, anti-intellectualism and backwater backwardness, even though the term does not necessarily imply that.

    Similarly, prescriptivists do not necessarily have to be linguistically misinformed, intolerant to opposing views and overly rigid, but current politics of the day has led to that association.

    Again, for those who like to indulge in the construction of languages that are more "artful," "logical," etc. they are basically indulging in a form of prescriptivism — trying to manually introduce what evolution did not. "My native language isn't logical enough, which is why reading some mathematics and scientific papers is harder than it should be! These problems would go away with lojban!" etc. (Or something of the sort.) Tolkien was somewhat of a prescriptivist. (These Mordor sounds are ugly … these Elven sounds are beautiful, and on top of that it would be good to use beautiful language more often.)

    So yes, you can call linguists prescriptivists, in the same way you might call Luther a fundamentalist. It would challenge the public definition — but if you *know* that to be the case, know that you aren't the authority of things but are simply trying to convince people to take up the new label, trying to solicit a better state of affairs, then why not?

  45. Les Moore said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

    current politics in the present day has led the word to be associated with intolerance Not sure what you mean by that.

    Why not? Yes, I suppose that's what Mark was saying. It's just that you're going to confuse people. You'd be better off calling yourself something like a post-prescriptivist, something new.

    Martin Luther, now there was an anti-Semite.

  46. john riemann soong said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    Has led the label, perhaps I meant to say — a process comparable to semantic drift. To have the label X applied to oneself one had to have characteristic Y, but because there was frequent (though non-obligatory) correlation with some trait Z, label X ends up picking up Z as a criterion as well, even though X did not originally imply Z. Something like that — do forgive me, I'm just a high schooler who's trained in neither logic nor linguistics.

    "It's just that you're going to confuse people."

    But how else do you challenge perception? By making them go "whaa…?" it makes people think.

    Words have been reclaimed before — e.g. queer, nigga, etc.

    "Martin Luther, now there was an anti-Semite."

    His crime I suppose was being intolerant towards non-Christian religions, though this is not any more remarkable than many of the contemporaries of his day. Anti-judaism and anti-semitism (as a race), though unpleasant hatreds, are rather distinct are they not? (As has been mentioned previously by someone else on this thread.) And I believe the latter is less excusable than the other. In the least, the former may be somewhat comparable to militant atheism (e.g. the demand that everyone be atheist and that the State officially sanction it). AFAIK, converted people with Jewish ancestry would not have been considered Jews in Luther's eyes. So it falls again to semantics.

  47. John Laviolette said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    I hate to interject a non-scholarly question here, but: do we know if "Kevin S" was serious, or just trolling? The weird mix of Nietzsche and grammar discussion, as well as the (deliberately?) incorrect interpretation of "slave morality", suggests to me a carefully-designed troll.

    To make this comment worthwhile, I'll broaden this into a question about determining intent in a message: are there easily-detectable signs that a communication is intended as a troll or otherwise is not a serious expression of the communicator's ideas? I have a vague feeling that there are such signs, but I've never tried to rigorously define what they are, so maybe I am wrong and they aren't "easily detectable" excpt in retrospect.

  48. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    I'll respectfully disagree with this. In fact, I *have* already respectfully disagreed

    I know, that's why I said that about bending over backward. I think you are too generous to the forces of elitism and prejudice. My attitude is that they should be confronted head-on, not coddled with attempts to provide an acceptable version of their attitudes.

    If you admit language usage isn't always ideal, especially when many languages have been affected by language contact in a way evolution may have failed to anticipate

    This is nonsense. Prescriptivists always claim whatever usage they don't like isn't "ideal" for some pseudo-rational reason ("it isn't logical!" "it impedes communication!") which is invariably either irrelevant or wrong. All native-speaker use is perfectly adequate for communication; the fact that advanced societies generate special versions for elite use does not make those versions "better" except, of course, for the purposes of maintaining the elite.

  49. Les Moore said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

    "It's just that you're going to confuse people."

    Sorry, by politics I thought you meant politics.

    But how else do you challenge perception? By making them go "whaa…?" it makes people think.

    Prescriptivist isn't in the same league as queer and nigga — I'm not sure there are enough of your kind of prescriptivist to change the meaning of a word. But I thought clarity was a goal of prescriptivists, not confusing people.

    Martin Luther. Yes a lot of people agree that it is anachronistic to call him an anti-Semite in the Nazi sense, but on the other hand (I quote from Wikipedia,) "Ronald Berger writes that Luther is credited with "Germanizing the Christian critique of Judaism and establishing anti-Semitism as a key element of German culture and national identity."
    Also from Wikipedia, His main works on the Jews were his 60,000-word treatise Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies), and Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (On the Holy Name and the Lineage of Christ)…He argued that the Jews were no longer the chosen people, but were "the devil's people." They were "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." The synagogue was a "defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …" and Jews were full of the "devil's feces … which they wallow in like swine." He advocated setting synagogues on fire, destroying Jewish prayerbooks, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews' property and money, smashing up their homes, and ensuring that these "poisonous envenomed worms" be forced into labor or expelled "for all time." He also seemed to sanction their murder, writing "We are at fault in not slaying them."

    Anti-judaism and anti-semitism (as a race), though unpleasant hatreds, are rather distinct are they not?

    Not sure I see a distinction here, although I do with Nietzsche.

  50. john riemann soong said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    "Prescriptivists always claim whatever usage they don't like isn't "ideal" for some pseudo-rational reason ("it isn't logical!" "it impedes communication!") which is invariably either irrelevant or wrong."

    Well you see, it's like saying that if you tried to use lojban out of the blue in mainstream use today, it wouldn't encourage logical communication, which would be true, because it's entirely unhelpful to attempt to use it among a community that doesn't speak it. But this doesn't undermine the premise that "if everyone spoke lojban, communication would be a lot more logical." Now I won't comment on the overall validity of this idea — I'm not into lojban, but that's also prescriptivism that I don't think will be "invariably wrong or irrelevant."

    The idea of, "this is what people aren't doing but *should* be doing" sometimes has merit, in my opinion. It occurs to me that perhaps that the current natural languages of the world aren't the best languages for discussing extremely abstract academic prose in academic journals (Sokal affair and all.) It's just a wild thought, and maybe it will turn out to be wrong. But doesn't the concern have some validity? That the majority of journal articles published today aren't exactly written in the most lucid prose ever? And so shouldn't those who underline a couple of prescriptions not be outright condemned for making them?

    Prescriptions that are based on a rational analysis of the facts (as someone said above) might be justifiable.

    "All native-speaker use is perfectly adequate for communication"

    Adequate indeed — but is it necessarily the most optimum?

    Les Moore: I'll concede your point. I suppose what I wanted to say, before you thoroughly destroyed my point ;-), is that the popular perception of Luther nailing his 95 theses might be redefined as "fundamentalist."

    As for the "clarity is the goal of prescriptivists" idea, I think clarity is frequently a goal of prescriptivists, but not necessarily. If you are making prescriptions for more beautiful language and greater use of Sindarin, however naively geeky that might be, it would still be a prescriptivist aim. Prescriptivists prescribe, for some stated benefit to a community who would use that changed language — and why not advocate a change in the meaning of "prescriptivist" as well?

    If you called yourself a prescriptivist (rarely used as a self-label, after all), you would get remarks like, "huh? How are you a prescriptivist?" and you could then explain your own particular philosophy of prescriptivism and so on. But a label like "post-prescriptivist" might not make people even flinch.

  51. jamessal said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    john riemann soong:

    I wish you luck on changing the definition of "prescriptivism," but I also have to say it's a little strange to defend prescriptivism only to admit that what you've defended isn't really prescriptivism, just some toothless, idealized form of it that nobody would have a problem with. Using private definitions is not, in my opinion, a good way to get people to pay attention to your ideas.

  52. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    But this doesn't undermine the premise that "if everyone spoke lojban, communication would be a lot more logical."

    I suggest to you, in as gentle and amicable a way as possible, that this idea could only occur to a geek/engineer/Vulcanoid type. The human mind does not work according to logic except under special circumstances and with special training, ergo human language does not work logically, nor should it. Logic is a useful tool under certain circumstances, but it is useless for dealing with much of life. Furthermore, any statement that begins ""if everyone spoke lojban…" invites rejoinders involving pigs and wings or aunts and uncles.

  53. Z. D. Smith said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    I think Josh Millard's comment of 6/11 bears another look, because it outlines what is to me the fundamental and real difference between the P-ies and the D-ies, and the reason that people can't usually, as they sometimes do, try to demonstrate how some alleged descriptivist is actually a prescriptivist himself, he just doesn't know it; that reason is David Foster Wallace.

    I mean this: there are still people who with acid joy embody every negative stereotype of the pedant and the curmudgeon. Leaving aside whether they're appealing to logic, or class, or correctness, or clarity, there are indeed many folk—even if Mr. Soong isn't one of them—who gleefully and shamelessly rave about how bad grammar makes them want to commit murder, self- or otherwise.

    So as much as the stereotype of the Peezy (that's more fun, I think; couldn't you people argue over shorter terms?) is just that, and fails to encompass, at times, the several good reasons someone could have for—well, doing whatever it is they're doing, but let's be most charitable and say, for championing an increase in the quality of speech and writing, it nevertheless cannot fail to describe at least some highly public and vocal factions of the community.

    And I am unaware of any descriptivists who do the things THEY complain about US for: as Mr. Millard mentioned, getting all loosey-goosey and rushing to jam pages into their dictionaries, filling them up with whatever bosh and ignorant neologism and corruptions might flow from the mouths of the ignorant; or delivering addresses to educators' societies on the marvelous linguistic innovation and faculty being displayed by 6-8 year-olds all across the country, and on the marvelous benefits to a curriculum that involves stamping 'GOOD JOB!' on every sheet, regardless of its contents.

    That might just be because the Deezy-weezies tend to also be stuffed shirt academics, whereas all you need to be a P-er is a computer and a set of strongly-held opinions.

  54. john riemann soong said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 7:17 am

    "but I also have to say it's a little strange to defend prescriptivism only to admit that what you've defended isn't really prescriptivism, just some toothless, idealized form of it that nobody would have a problem with."

    I'm not defending the current batch of prescriptivists — but in terms of critically analysing the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, I do not think that one cannot be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. People accuse all the time that descriptivists end up prescribing too! But there's noting inherently wrong with prescribing — just something wrong with prescribing something that has no basis in fact or theory (and maybe taste).

    "Furthermore, any statement that begins ""if everyone spoke lojban…" invites rejoinders involving pigs and wings or aunts and uncles."

    Awww, such a sad reality check on the speakers of Esperanto! (And any other advocates of constructed languages.)

    I'm not actually into constructed languages, but the philosophies that many constructed languages are based on seem to be rather prescriptivist ones when you really take a look at them. I'm saying there's nothing inherently wrong with prescriptivism — it really depends on just what kind of prescription you are prescribing.

    Advocacy of using an international auxiliary language that is easy to learn, somewhat systematic, culturally-neutral, and so forth, does seem like a form of prescriptivism to me. And is it an inherently bad one?

  55. language hat said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    Awww, such a sad reality check on the speakers of Esperanto!

    Come, come, you know better than that. The only difference between Esperanto and a natural language is that Esperanto was stitched together by a Pole from scraps of natural languages and provided with an exception-free grammar. It is used exactly the same way French or English is, and you can be as illogical as you want in it. There is zero chance of lojban being widely adopted.

    I do not think that one cannot be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. … I'm not actually into constructed languages, but the philosophies that many constructed languages are based on seem to be rather prescriptivist ones when you really take a look at them.

    I don't think you've really grasped what is meant by "prescriptivist"; once again, the salient feature of prescriptivism is that it privileges a certain "correct" form of language as the only valid form and claims that others should not be used. This is incompatible with descriptivism.

  56. john riemann soong said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

    languagehat: I was referring to the idea presented in http://xkcd.com/191/.

    It contains a bit of the idea of linguistic determinism (whatever the merit of the idea may be), and thus logic then goes a bit like: if language imposes certain determining factors on culture, then prescribing ideals for language may allow the prescriptor to design such determining factors.

    Of course the obstacle is: what would be the incentive to adopt the prescriptor's ideal in the first place? (Additionally, languages belong to that weird sort of class where utility increases with the number of users.)

    "once again, the salient feature of prescriptivism is that it privileges a certain "correct" form of language as the only valid form and claims that others should not be used. This is incompatible with descriptivism."

    Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on prescriptivism (non-authoritative as it may be) has been saying for years that prescriptivism is not incompatible with descriptivism.

    To me (maybe I'm the only one who thinks this), the salient feature of prescription seeks to prescribe (*ahem*) what should be, whereas the salient feature of description is that it seeks to describe (*cough*) what is. They are not necessarily incompatible actions.

    It so happens that the most useful advice for a user of language is to comply with the natural conventions already in force, and that it's often unhelpful to go against them, since miscommunication is rarely useful. Thus, what *is*, is often what *should* be.

    However, *some* adherents of linguistic determinism may see merit in changing such conventions for some perceived benefit.

  57. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    June 14, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    "…the philosopher who has most to teach us about this is not Nietzsche, but Hayek"

    For what it is worth, Hayek's position is a particularly clear descendant of Hume's criticism of Hobbes' and Rousseau's contractualism in Book III of the *Treatise of Human Nature*.

  58. Alan Pagliere said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    It seems that I, too, have been stung by the Wrath of Kevin S. On June 14, I received a direct personal email from him which was full of, shall we say, disdain for an article I wrote back in 1999, about descriptivism vs prescriptivism and from what I could tell, for me too.

    I see that his message to Mark was on June 9, and so I feel pretty good about being only a mere 5 days behind this august blog on K's hit parade.

    He tells me what he thinks of my "cherished little ideology" with a quote (identical to the one at the start of this post, beginning with, "At the end of the day" and ending with "Post hoc, ergo hoc melius", minus the Emily Bender bit).

    In his email, he does apologize for quoting himself. I figure we should cut him some slack because though it's a tough job, who else is going to do it? Then again, I suppose I have just done so, and for the second time in this one blog entry! Clearly his street cred is mounting.

  59. Kevin S. said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    To all here, especially the victims of my vicious e-mail assaults this past Summer ;-) :

    Sorry to be so late to this party, but I just discovered this thread. I doubt that anyone is still reading it, or will read it, but who knows?

    It is fascinating to read the commentators' projections, assumptions, and speculations regarding my character and my personal views. You do realize that the basis for your judgment is nothing more than a brief quotation posted here from a private e-mail, one that I did not give Professor Liberman permission to make public? I could belabor the obvious–that your assumptions and personal rushes to judgment say far more about you than they do about me–but is there really a point?

    It would be nearly impossible to address every issue raised here, even if I were to confine myself to Professor Liberman's remarks. Even then, my response is much longer than I had intended, which I regret. Perhaps a few of you will indulge a poor "degenerate" and read all of it, anyway. ;-)

    1. The "slave morality" allusion was hardly the major point of my e-mail to Professor Liberman. It was illustrative only, shorthand for a particular idea, which, unfortunately, seemed a little too subtle for the professor's apprehension, at the time. The idea is that creating rules and values is a prerogative of those in power, and that fact will not change. Bishop Lowth, or Strunk and White, have exercised persuasive power over teachers' and students' minds for many years. Descriptivists attacking prescriptivists seem to resent the historical power that prescriptivists have exercised. (I write "seem to resent" because of the often nasty, unscholarly tone of their remarks regarding prescriptivists–about which more, below). Now, as a result, descriptivist linguists are making a power grab of their own, which is fine. They should not, however, pretend to be doing anything other than making themselves new arbiters, and on the basis of a different set of
    values.

    2. It astounds me that the best that Professor Liberman can do in rebuttal of my general position is to engage in an extended sophistical and philosophically erroneous analysis of the roots of Nietzsche's concepts of slave morality and master morality, complete with misleading selective quotations.

    3. That said… while language usage is very important to me, it is not worth getting oneself worked up and into personal quarrels that involve abusive language. At the time that several of you heard from me, I was, as you may guess, researching descriptivism versus prescriptivism online. As I discovered the comments of each of those whom I contacted, I contacted them. Because the errors and the general obnoxiousness I observed (from my perspective) were similar, I saw no need to re-invent the wheel. For that reason, several of you did receive substantially similar comments from me.

    Now, however, I want to apologize sincerely and personally to each of you for whatever intemperate language I may have used in my own communications. There was neither need nor excuse for it.

    To put the matter more into perspective, however, look at the posts here, attacking me, such as slawkenbergius' calling me "degenerate" (He, like Professor Liberman, also completely missed my point in alluding to Nietzsche). Look at the very title of the section of this site–"Prescriptivist Poppycock". Look at the language used toward prescriptivists in "Language Hat's" posts, and in Pagliere's essay. Look at the language and tone adopted by several descriptivist heroes, such as Pinker and his comparison between the tradition of prescriptive rules for grammar and that of female genital mutilation in Africa, or Pullum and his reference to Strunk and White's guide as a "toxic little compendium".

    When you yourselves engage in, tolerate, and even tacitly encourage such intemperance, should you really feel justified in your surprise when someone on occasion repays you in your own coin, and sometimes with interest? Again, though, I should not have descended to level of the likes of Pinker and Pullum, and for the tone of what I wrote (not the ideas), I do apologize.

    P.S. Read the writings of Mark Halpern, if you dare. He guts descriptive linguists the way a fisherman guts a perch!

    [(myl) Note: Kevin S. sent this to me by email, as well as posting it as a comment, on 1/24/2009, saying that "I am sending my reply to you separately because the thread is so old that I am not sure you will see it." When I went back to look for his comment later on, I couldn't find it — perhaps one of the other Language Log editors deleted it due to length or for some other reason. But it seems to me only fair to let Kevin have his say at whatever length he likes, so I've restored the comment by cut-and-paste from his email.]

RSS feed for comments on this post