Sure, I'll take a stab at it

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In a comment on Ben Zimmer's post about two linguists being among this year's MacArthur "genius" grant winners (one of those going to my UC San Diego colleague Carol Padden), a reader identifying themselves as "Pflaumbaum" writes:

Off topic, but I wonder if any of the profs will comment on Emma Thompson's prescriptivist rant:

http://in.news.yahoo.com/139/20100928/906/ten-emma-thompson-says-youngsters-poor-l.html

Apparently "ain't", "like" and "innit" make you sound stupid, and we need to reinvest in the idea of, um, as it were, articulacy, as a form of human freedom and power.

Well, at least Pflaumbaum warned us that it was off topic. Anyway, go ahead and follow the link to read the story about Emma Thompson. It's very, very short. I'll be here waiting, below the fold.

It may surprise Pflaumbaum (and perhaps other readers as well) to find that I am not in the least bit disturbed or troubled by Thompson's "rant". It seems perfectly reasonable to me. Here's what I hear Thompson saying:

  1. that certain elements of teenage speech bother her (that it "drives [her] insane", she says, which is perhaps a little over the top but not an uncommon use of hyperbole in these sorts of circumstances),
  2. that she is probably not alone in her opinion, at least among folks of a certain age and with a certain status (and I'm inclined to trust her on that one, given her age and status),
  3. that talking with your young friends is not the same as talking with people of a certain age and with a certain status (this is just self-evidently true),
  4. that teenagers should consider the following: "There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you're going to sound like a knob".

OK, the "knob" part is again a bit hyperbolic — but crucially, she says "you're going to sound like a knob", not "you're going to be a knob". If there's any doubt of the distinction I'm making here, consider this quote from Thompson: "it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid". Clearly, what Thompson's saying here is that there are social implications to the choices we make when we speak, and that we're all well-served to consider those implications — even though they don't match up with reality. This is descriptivism, pure and simple, and not a "prescriptivist rant" at all.

(Note that I did file this under "Prescriptivist Poppycock", and I believe that's still appropriate.)

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72 Comments »

  1. Ed said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    Sounds like someone needs to listen to The Who classic Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere on repeat for a day or two.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNMB88gxCTE

    Specifically, "I can talk anyway and get along, I don't care anyway…"

    Being a rebellious teen is a god-given right and while Ms. Thompson may not be being prescriptive she is being a knob.

  2. jack said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Bravo, Ms. Thompson. What strikes me in her rant is the deference and respect that is paid to the legitimacy of colloquial speech, while imploring the recognition of the importance being able to use standard speech when that is more appropriate.

  3. Allison said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    It's a perennial complaint from the older generation to the younger generation – I wouldn't be surprised if Emma Thompson herself had once been the subject of someone's linguistic ire.

    Many non-linguists think we're finished learning to talk somewhere around age 8. The phonological system is fully acquired, we no longer over regularize tenses, we know all the irregular plurals. But pragmatic acquisition continues and develops almost until general cognitive decline in old age. Complaining about teenagers inability to use and switch registers is like telling a three year old, "You fell down, you didn't 'falled.'"

    And it's like that in two ways 1) she's totally correct that part of a fully acquired grammar is the understanding that there are different appropriate registers and that the teenagers are not doing it "right" ("right" in this case meaning a fully developed adult grammar). 2) You can't "teach" them "right," Correcting a child's morphosyntax doesn't seem to speed along their development – in fact, they generally have absolutely no idea what you're referring to when you say they said it wrong; pointing out a teenager's failure to properly switch and acquire the necessary registers doesn't speed that along, either. They, inevitably, eventually become adults and either the appropriate registers for their particular dialect changes or they acquire the previous ones and begin complaining about teenagers and their slang.

  4. Rubrick said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Ed: I think you may have scored an own goal. Pete Townshend could certainly write lyrics like "Don't try'n dig what we all say," but he has always been famously cerebral in interviews (and in many songs as well). He spoke both Flatbush Punk and Art-School Intellectual quite fluently.

  5. Ed said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Rubrick: Just because Pete Townsend is an ass doesn't mean he can't be right on occasion.

  6. Xmun said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    "Knob"? What's that supposed to mean? Where does it come from? I can guess the meaning (selecting the fifth of the six senses given in Chambers Dictionary: "a stupid person") but let me just record that it's a new one on me and I note that it is labelled "slang". Well, if Emma Thompson can use her slang, why can't the teenagers use theirs?

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    I have no idea what the lady means by "sound like a knob." Louder or softer depending on which way you're rotated? Why can't she speak proper English without affecting weird slang in a transparent attempt to seem hip and with-it? And I'm slightly confused by Rubrick's reference to "Flatbush Punk." Is Shepherd's Bush the Flatbush of London?

  8. David L said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    I believe a knob, in British, is what Americans refer to as a dick. With similar penumbra of meaning, as Justice Scalia might put it.

  9. Eric Baković said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    David L is exactly right; I shouldn't have presumed people knew this. And Xmun, the point of my post was to point out that Thompson *didn't* say that teenagers can't use slang — only that they might want to acquire another register for speaking with others.

  10. Faldone said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I wonder what Ms,. Thompson thinks about the subject-verb agreement in the headline on that article. Or is language plural in Commonwealth English?

  11. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    I though the slang "like a knob" seemed out of place, and using slang inappropriately while complaining about others using language inappropriate to the context seemed ironic. Then I looked up the term in a couple slang dictionaries, and it evenmoreso seems out of place. For those who haven't looked it up, it seems to have the same range of meanings as "dick".

  12. CS Clark said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    Language Log ok with what seems with prescriptivist poppycock while BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11426737 – contacts honest-to-goodness experts to defend the use of like? Has the world been turned upside down?

    The original – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11420737 – does sound rantier to me, and also points out that Ms Thompson has written a new version of the musical My Fair Lady, which I suppose ends with Eliza falling on her knees and begging forgiveness for being so low and dirty. So no harm to have a bit of linguistic peevishness in the news.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    I see David L beat me to it on explainging the meaning.

  14. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    It is certainly not prescriptivist to say that if you dress like clown to your job interview at the Yale Linguistics department you probably won't get the job. It's just good advice.

    Most people adjust their register when they move from one community to another. Very few young men speak to their parents or priests in the same way they speak to the lockerroom buddies. What may not be clear always is when they have moved to another community, and what what the characteristics of an appropriate register might be.

    There is a lot of prescriptivist poppycock, but I think at least some of it originates with good-faith advice on how to survive in a variety of social situations. A person who attains adulthood without mastering a sort of "neutral" register will have fewer opportunities than one who has. That's just reality.

    So whose job is it to teach that?

  15. Ed said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    Ellen: not sure the use of knob was meant to be ironic, since at that point she's speaking to teens. Seems more like a way to show off her own register viruousity: "hey look at me, I'm a hip old lady, I can say 'knob'."

  16. Xmun said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    @Eric Baković
    You're quite right. I got so interested in the new word I'd learnt ("knob" meaning stupid person) that I became one. That's to say, I forgot the point of your post, which I had read before becoming distracted by that word's funny range of meanings.

  17. Xmun said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    I particularly like the sixth sense: "a small group (of wildfowl)". I don't think "dick" can mean that.

  18. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    I didn't say, nor mean to imply that the use of "knob" was meant to be ironic. On the contrary, I assume not.

    Also, I believe she wasn't talking to teens, but talking to the Radio Times (whatever that is) about a talk she gave to teens.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    Well, if one were giving sound advice to the young in general, one might say" "As a a general rule, ignore all advice on how to live your life offered by movie stars. They are highly unlikely to have a clue what they're talking about." Although to be fair perhaps Miss Thompson might have some hands-on experience in how using different varieties/registers of speech helps establish character?

  20. John Lawler said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    @Faldone –
    It must have been that persnickety -s' suffix on youngsters' that unhinged the headlines' writer's attention. Loose apostrophes can be dangerous.

  21. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    The article concludes with "Thompson's hard talk may disappointment the youth" (or at least it does as of this moment).

    Was it machine-translated from Japanese or Chinese, I wonder?

  22. Diane said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    I'm with Eric. I think what she said was perfectly sensible. And, Allison, I don't know why you think that correcting teenagers wouldn't help them learn how to switch registers. I take a steady stream of college-age interns and trainees, and I consider it one of my duties to give them explicit (albeit gentle) guidance on how to dress, act, and, yes, talk in a professional environment if they need it. Some kids just don't pick up on these expectations by themselves and they benefit from having them spelled out. Telling a teenager not to use slang when talking to their boss is really not the same as teaching a three-year-old grammar.

  23. Timothy Martin said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    I agree that this is descriptivism if Emma Thompson is saying only the things you think she's saying.

    But I'm not convinced that she is. It seems that there is a mix of quotes talking about using the wrong register, and quotes about using the "wrong language." I think telling teenagers "just don't do it because it makes you sound stupid," and alluding that such speech makes you inarticulate both fall in the category of complaining about the slang itself – not just how it is used. After giving Thompson's quotes several reads through, I get the feeling she really does think there is something wrong with slang, but she's pulling the argument of "hey, it's fine if you want to talk wrong with your friends, but don't do it with the rest of us, okay?"

    I tend to think that someone who understands descriptivism would word her arguments in a way that makes more clear the distinction between using the wrong language and using the wrong register.

  24. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    @Xmun, the distinction between men and wildfowl is that wildfowl can whistle through their peckers.

  25. Bloix said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    Teenager's speech is concerned in large part with: (1) expressing emotional reaction (surprise, disdain, enthusiastic approval, boredom), (2) demonstrating one's own membership in an in-group. It does these things well. Teen speech virtually requires the speaker to communicate the speaker's emotional state and personal loyalties, and to do these emphatically.

    Adult speech typically requires the speaker to modulate or mask his or her emotional state and personal loyalties.

    The reason adults don't like teenaged speech is not that there's something intrinsically unpleasant about innit and like. It's that the adult really doesn't want to hear about the teen's immediate, unmediated, adolescent emotional reaction to everything. If a manager asks the sales clerk, "what did the customer say about the return," she wants to know what the customer actually said. She's not looking for a two-character play-acting recital with each part introduced by like, and mimed with emphatic gestures, whose point is what a clueless tool the customer is, and none of which can be taken literally for what actually happened.

  26. Thomas Thurman said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Ellen K.: the Radio Times is the BBC's listings magazine (whose original purpose was to give the times of radio programmes, hence the name).

  27. Dan said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    Point number 4 ("There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you're going to sound like a knob".) reminds me of David Foster Wallace's review of Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (officially at http://www.harpers.org/archive/2001/04/0070913, also at http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html).

    Wallace says roughly the same thing as point number 4, although characteristically, he takes rather longer to do it.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    Well, thanks for taking a stab at it, Eric, even if you thought I was being a knob.

    I do think the combination of 'drives me insane', 'make you sound stupid' and 'sound like a knob' easily qualify it as a rant, at least as far as the word is used down my way.

    A search reveals that Prof. Pullum has had a crack at 'like' peevery before:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/000138.html

    Though Prof. Liberman disagreed:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000141.html

  29. Dave said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    The idea that "invest[ing] in articulacy" has anything to do with avoiding "innit", I think, marks the rant as plain old vanilla prescriptivism. Bloix put their finger right on it: kids' speech is as articulate, for what kids care about, as adults' speech is for what adults care about.

  30. David Fried said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    As a regular reader of Language Log, I would be really grateful if we could give two topics a rest–ignorant prescriptivism in general; and Strunk and White in particular. As for the first, we all get it; and it's not surprising that a fine actress and Shakespearean, for example, who has lived with great English in her mouth and worked hard at diction and projection should be irritated at others who don't value what she values.

    As for the second–it may be off topic, but there is a parallel point to be made. E.B. White was one of the finest prose stylists of the 20th century, and knew a thing or two about writing. As an act of nostalgia and filial piety, he revised his old English professor's pamphlet. I have a feeling that Andy really learned something about writing from Professor Strunk–unfortunately whatever it was is not to be found within the pages of The Elements of Style. But Mr. White surely did not intend for the "little book" to acquire the status of a scripture and bears no responsibility for its rather bizarre ascendancy. On this blog, however, he's regularly abused as if he did. As a penance which is also a pleasure, let's all go read some E.B. White today.

  31. Mr Punch said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

    Oh, okay, British slang. But if you sound like a knob, then you sound like you sound like a nob – huntin', shootin', fishin' don't you know.

  32. Mark F said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    I think "avoid slang" isn't quite the advice she's giving. Calling somebody a knob may mark you as British (or at least non-US), but it doesn't mark you as uneducated in the same way that routinely using "ain't" does.

  33. Anthony said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:22 am

    Complaining about teenagers inability to use and switch registers is like telling a three year old, "You fell down, you didn't 'falled.'"

    Almost all teenagers are perfectly capable of correctly using and switching registers. And of deliberately failing to do so for the specific purpose of irritating their elders.

    On the other hand, corrections like the example actually do get through to my three-year-old after a few repetitions.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:49 am

    The odd thing is that while perhaps "like" skews generationally in the UK the way it's perceived to skew over here (although the kids of the '70's and '80's are now middle aged, of course), her other examples of "innit" and "ain't" aren't teenage slang at all — they're standard features of non-prestige dialects of BrE spoken by people of all ages. Now, I suppose teenagers who naturally (given their parents, neighborhood etc.) speak a prestige dialect might adopt features of a non-prestige dialect just as an affectation. Teenagers have been known to do such things. But we don't know what sort of teenagers she was dealing with. Her "old school" may, per the wiki article on her, be the Camden School for Girls which, perhaps significantly, in between her student days and the present apparently stopped being a "grammar school" and instead "became comprehensive," which, if I understand the UK educational system, means it may now have rather a different sort of student body than it did in her day, with perhaps implications for how many of them speak prestige dialects natively. Telling girls who natively speak non-prestige dialects that speaking the way their own family and neighbors do makes them "sound stupid" is not necessarily productive. There's presumably a way of explaining to them how being able to talk posh in appropriate contexts will be advantageous to them without being insulting. I'm all in favor of promoting codeswitching and in encouraging children who natively speak non-prestige dialects to develop the ability to function in a higher-prestige dialect in order to improve social mobility etc. But using "stupid" as a synonym for "not successfully socialized into the local elite via formal education" does grate on me a bit.

  35. Stephen Nicholson said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:11 am

    The idea that people need to taylor their speech to their audience isn't, to mind, very controversial. To use another example, say an expert on Widget making is giving a talk to lay people about Widgets. The Widget maker shouldn't use a lot of jargon or terms of art in his talk. Those he chooses to use should be explained and defined when he uses them.

  36. Picky said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    I think Camden School for Girls still has far more than it's fair share of nobs. It's a rather posh comprehensive.

  37. Picky said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:08 am

    Its

  38. Will said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:34 am

    I agree completely with J.W. Brewer's comment just above.

    What Emma is saying is mostly correct, but the way she says it makes her sound like a knob.

  39. Cecily said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:37 am

    To be fair to Emma Thompson, she also said

    "We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power."
    and
    "There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity."

    From http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11420737

    [Both of these quotes are in the article that Pflaumbaum originally linked, and I myself cited the second explicitly in my post (under point 4). What's your point? Was I not being fair to Thompson? I rather thought I was. -- Eric]

  40. Mar Rojo said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:49 am

    Wouldn't Ms Thompson's use of RP make her sound like a knob in certain discourse contexts? I wonder if she ever drops her RP?

  41. Mar Rojo said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:53 am

    Indeed they have: http://www.linguistics.ucsb.edu/faculty/bucholtz/articles/MB_JLA2001.pdf

  42. Mar Rojo said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Apologies, that link was in response to what J.W. Brewer said (September 29, 2010 @ 1:49 am) about teenagers adopting non-prestige dialects.

  43. Mar Rojo said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:59 am

    Be sure that Emma's use of RP would make her sound like a right knob down at my local watering hole. Do you think she would switch to another "language" ( dialect, accent, etc.) when among the regulars at the Dog and Duck, Grimsby?

  44. groki said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:00 am

    @Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds: The article concludes with "Thompson's hard talk may disappointment the youth"

    well, their loose talk clearly does vexation Thompson.

  45. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    Yeah, I know two families where the elder sibling has a similar accent to their parents (not as posh as Emma Thompson's RP, but the 'BBC' accent of middle-class North London and the Home Counties), while the younger sibling has a West-Indian influenced Cockney common among young working-class Londoners both black and white.

  46. Alan Palmer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    Most of what I'd have said has already been pointed out by earlier commenters. Youngsters don't tend to be able to switch registers so easily as can most adults. At work I use (close to) RP when speaking to colleagues, but when I'm in the local pub I'll use my native south London dialect.when chatting to regulars.

    Teenagers have always been rebellious and have spoken their own sociolect, partly in an attempt to baffle and annoy the like of Ms Thompson.

  47. Cecily said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:56 am

    @Alan Palmer: Re "Youngsters don't tend to be able to switch registers so easily as can most adults."

    Really? In my experience, even quite young children can be surprisingly adept.

    Perhaps the answer is in your second paragraph, "Teenagers have always been rebellious…".

  48. outeast said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    Somehow all this 'knob' talk puts me in mind of the old Not The Nine o'Clock News item on Prince Charles' use of the word 'knackered':

    'Prince Charles has apologized for his use of the word "knackered" to describe his condition, and says that next time he feels shagged out, he'll keep his gob shut.'

    It also echoes the equally plummy-voiced David Cameron's on-the-air use of 'twat' in discussing Twitter ('Too many twits makes a twat').

  49. Alan Gunn said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 8:24 am

    Once upon a time my law school had a speaker who delivered his address in Italian, a language few if any in his audience understood. It was surely not prescriptivist to ask that this sort of thing not be done regularly. Ms. Thompson is just making the same sort of request, I suppose, although speaking only Italian wouldn't get you regarded as a knob.

  50. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    It would be the same sort of request if she didn't understand words like "ain't" and "like". But she understands them perfectly. She just doesn't like them.

  51. Cecily said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    @Alan Palmer: Cambridge Assessment has looked at non-standard English amongst teenagers and found that overall, teenagers’ recognition of non-standard English (NSE) and the ability to turn NSE into standard English was good. Girls scored slighter higher than boys and independent school students fared better than those from state schools.

    You can read the report, startin on the third page (numbered page 2) of this: http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/ca/digitalAssets/183955_Rearch_Matters_9_2010.pdf

  52. thomas said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    I apologize for also being off topic, but I must know, why do you put the punctuation after your closing quotation mark?

    examples:
    It may surprise Pflaumbaum (and perhaps other readers as well) to find that I am not in the least bit disturbed or troubled by Thompson's "rant".

    OK, the "knob" part is again a bit hyperbolic — but crucially, she says "you're going to sound like a knob", not "you're going to be a knob".

    In both of these situations I'm almost positive the period, comma, whatever should be inside (or before) the closing quotation mark.

    [See http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001445.html -- Eric]

  53. Ken Brown said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    @J.W. Brewer …"innit" and "ain't" aren't teenage slang at all — they're standard features of non-prestige dialects of BrE spoken by people of all ages…

    Yes, definitely. I'm a year or two older than Ms Thompson and used "innit" as a child (in Brighton) and still do now, though I suppose I'm more likely to in the pub than I am at work.

    Though as far as I can tell the extension of the range of "innit" into a sort of universal tag question is new – but that might be a recency illusion of course.

    In my speech it is pretty much an alternative to "isn't it", or "ain't it". I don't think I had "ain't" when I was a kid. I used to think the word was American because I mostly heard it on films or TV. I suppose that my childhood version of the word had the KIT vowel rather than the FACE vowel. Maybe our "innit" is a sort of merger of "ain't it" (perhaps ultimately derived from "amn't it" and "isn't it" (via "i'n't it", with the /t/s realised as glottal stops as is normal in much of England – Fanny Burney wrote "i'n't" rather than "isn't" for some of her characters in the 18th century so I guess it must go at least that far back)

    "Ain't" seems an oddity to me. It looks like a perfectly normal piece of English and as far as I know exists in all the major regions where English is spoken, and has done since the 18th century at least, as an alternative to "amn't" (which is very rare outside Scotland I think) and to "isn't". But it seems to be deprecated everywhere. An outcast word. What did it do to annoy so many people?

  54. john riemann soong said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    I dissent. The new generation sets the new rules for the language. The older generation should conform to /us/.

  55. john riemann soong said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Cecily: It's not rebellion. It's liberation. Language is freedom and expression. Why should we conform to the older generation's repressive, outdated conventions? We exercise the liberty to speak as we like, out of principle, and refuse to speak like /them/, in all their stale and conformist expressions.

    If adults find this frustrating, it's entirely their fault; perhaps they should admit they have lost their despotism and inform themselves of the new consensus. We will not be cogs in the machine; not in /their/ linguistic machine anyway.

  56. Robert Coren said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    @J.W.Brewer: My (possibly faulty) recollection is that kids were using the particle "like" when I was one, which considerably predates "the '70's and '80's".

    @Bloix: Teenager's speech is concerned in large part with: (1) expressing emotional reaction (surprise, disdain, enthusiastic approval, boredom)

    Often all at once.

  57. John said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    It's not prescriptivist to say "you need to understand when to use a formal register", and it's not prescriptivist to say "I personally hate these language features and so do many of my peers". It's prescriptivism to say "such and such features are wrong/are always incorrect/are bad English". She doesn't. There's clear judgementalism there, but she seems aware that it's just her opinion.

    And the use of knob is more bathetic than ironic, in an "I'm ending my rant on the subject of appropriate language with a slightly inappropriate epithet" kind of way. Those Footlights types love their bathos.

  58. Bloix said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    "Innit" is used to demand assent. It's tagged onto a declarative statement to mean, "I am right, aren't I, and if you disagree with me you're a tool/an eejit/not one of us." It's either smug and self-satisfied or defensive and belligerent, and it is designed to shut down the possibility of discussion and to allow only for in-group affirmation or out-group confrontation.

    Although it's part of adult speech it's a kind of adult speech that hasn't moved past adolescence, and that's why Thompson hates it.

  59. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    But I notice you missed out 'don't do it" and "it makes you sound stupid" from your gloss, John. She said, according to the Telegraph:

    "I told them, just don't do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid."

    Instructing people not to talk the way they do when they're not policing themselves – and that to do so sounds 'stupid' – is surely the essence of prescriptivism, no? You have to work quite hard at paraphrasing to make it sound otherwise.

    [And I think you have to work quite hard to ignore the surrounding context to take this quotation at face value. The "just don't do it" is clearly modified by something like "in any official capacity", not "anywhere", because she also says that "There is the necessity to have two languages - one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity." Also, the "and you're not stupid" part of the quote is absolutely key: she's (descriptively) saying that incorrect judgment will be passed on them if they don't learn to use another register. -- Eric]

  60. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    Bloix, that's a very narrow interpretation of "innit". Often – I suspect much more often – it's used less aggressively. For instance, it can be used in a similar way to, "right", "you know", or "know what I mean?" Among people of Indian and Pakistani descent, it can be tacked onto all sorts of sentences where "isn't it?" in Standard English wouldn't make sense at all, and is often answered by "is it?" – meaning something like, "oh really?"

  61. latinist said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    I think the clothing analogy, which a couple people have mentioned, is the right one. A suit isn't more physically practical for interacting with a prospective employer at an interview than, say, a leotard. And the fact that a suit is more formal than a leotard is pure social convention. But (a) it is still the case that employers (for most jobs, anyway) are less likely to hire you if you show up for your interview in a leotard, and (b) that's not because employers are irrational. If an employer meets an interviewee in a leotard, she's going to reasonably assume that the interviewee either has a very, very poor grasp of well-known social conventions or doesn't care enough about the prospective job to bother changing between gymnastics practice and job interview; either way, likely not a good candidate. (And if a speaker pointed out this obvious general tendency, I don't think she'd be attacked on Clothing Log for neglecting the perfectly legitimate uses of leotards.)
    So, similarly, if an interviewer takes off points for your use of "ain't," it could be because she's a hidebound prescriptivist, but it could also be because she thinks you're either incapable of matching your register to your situation, or too lazy or indifferent to bother.

  62. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    My interpersonal experience with the "innit" quesiton tag is limited to regular dealings with one employee (age somewhere between 40 and 50) who grew up in England and has a nonprestige BrE dialect (this not in a situation where I particularly need or want someone to simulate a prestige dialect as a signal that they're taking the job and/or our relative hierarchical positions seriously). I would agree with Pflaumbaum over Bloix that (in my experience) the usage need not be at all hostile or defensive or assent-demanding or adolescent. It's a way of asking a question while communicating what the questioner believes the answer to be while remaining open to further information. "That's scheduled for next Tuesday, innit?," said non-truculently, means something like "My recollection is that this is scheduled next Tuesday, but this is your opportunity to either confirm I've got that right or tell me no, it's Wednesday instead." I don't really know French at all, so I don't know if "innit" is perfectly congruent with the "n'est ce pas" question tag, but there's certainly some overlap, and I take it that usage can be deployed in French w/o the user coming off as a sullen hostile teen.

  63. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    Just a coda: by pointing out the neutral functionality of the "innit" usage I certainly don't mean to dispute that within BrE it's a signal of a non-prestige dialect which in turn may connote various things about class etc. So I'm not opposed to training ambitious young people who natively speak non-prestige BrE dialects to identify situations in which it might be prudent to refrain from the particular usage and the level of self-awareness/discipline over register to actually refrain in practice. Although as someone pointed out above, if Ms. Thompson comes over to America (or perhaps even worse Australia!) her usage of a posh variety of BrE may lead people to ascribe all sorts of pejorative stereotypes to her in turn.

    But perhaps more broadly, Ms. Thompson is an actress. Thus, she's a professional deceiver. She pretends to be various people she isn't, does so convincingly, is paid for it, and presumably derives psychic satisfaction from her skills in that regard. She may be blissfully unaware that for normal people who don't engage in fakery for a living, there may be a substantial psychic cost involved in presenting themselves to the world as something other than who they are (esp. in terms of family/class background) in order to achieve certain goals in social interactions. This doesn't mean we shouldn't teach people how to deal with the world as it is (which may mean identifying and working around class-snobbery obstacles to your own future success and social mobility instead of complaining about the unfairness of their existence), but we shouldn't lightly presume that learning to code-switch as the price of personal advancement is all benefit and no cost.

  64. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    @john riemann soong
    In an ideal universe, you might be right, and in the long term you probably are right.

    But the middle-aged hiring manager still has the power, and the 22-year-old job candidate does not. If the candidate does not make a good social impression on the manager, the candidate is at a disadvantage. Like it or not, this fact will never change.

  65. john riemann soong said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    In China you can often secure a business deal by identifying the other party's "home dialect" (down right to the original village or city) and breaking away from the prestige dialect that is Mandarin.

    So maybe it only applies to a narrow part of the Western world.

  66. john riemann soong said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    (I really should say breaking away from the artificial construct that is Putonghua)

  67. Chandra said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    @thomas: http://grammartips.homestead.com/inside.html

    Personally, I am fully in favour of doing away with the American "punctuation-always-goes-inside-the-quotation-marks" rule, whose usefulness is obsolete.

  68. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    @ Latinist

    The clothing analogy is fine, but why is the non-standard speaker analogous to a leotard? It's jeans and a T-shirt. And while it may be a good idea to tell kids that jeans and a T-shirt isn't the best attire for all circumstances, you ideally wouldn't tell them they 'look stupid' and 'drive you insane'.

  69. john riemann soong said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

    who doesn't dress up or change register for an interview anyway?

    but when I go for my everyday classes, I do not want to dress up for school, or the lab, or the office. (Scientific offices that is.) Neither do I want to change my register.

  70. John Faben said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    @J.W.Brewer, I think a French word that comes closer to being equivalent to "innit" than "n'est-ce pas" would be the (more colloquial?) use of "quoi" at the end of a sentence, eg:

    "Il faut qu'on parte, quoi."
    "we'd better go, innit."

    It's basically just an interjection, and doesn't seem to have any questioning aspect at all. However, "quoi" definitely doesn't have the same prestige implications as "innit" (one of my professors used to use it regularly when I was at university).

    It also seems to be pretty much equivalent to the Canadian "eh" (based on my, admittedly limited, experience), or the Wodehousian "What!".

  71. Zythophile said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    Back in the days of yuppies (whatever happened to them?) and Sloanes (who grew up and moved into No 10 Downing Street), in the 1980s, the English upper-middle class equivalent of "innit" was "yah?", always preceded at the front of the statement by "OK", as in "OK, we're all going to Samantha's parents' place in Devon this weekend, yah?" I don't recall that usage being denigrated the way "innit" is, presumably because, although saying "OK … yah?" suggested you were stupid, there was the further implication that you were monied stupid, rather than poor stupid.

  72. E. Pyatt said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    For a "prescriptivist rant", it actually displays a sophisticated understanding that slang is a sign of being too casual rather than low intelligence. Her comment "Because it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid" makes that point.

    Although I deplore linguistic discrimination, I do note with irony that most children of English speaking linguists use the educated form of English. Until linguists start giving presentations entirely in Appalachian English or AAVE…I don't think we can legitimately claim that there is no advantage to learning standard English as Ms. Thomson states. How it's approached is a different story.

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