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.