Bad language

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I recently objected to Louis Menand's assertion that "[P]rofessional linguists almost universally, do not believe that any naturally occurring changes in the language can be bad" ("Menand on linguistic morality", 10/22/2008).  And I was quickly taken to task in the comments by Steve Dodson, who is the erudite and broad-minded author of the Language Hat blog. Hat (as he's called in the blogosphere) asserted that

I personally am happy to sign on to the Descriptivist position as "caricatured" and state that there is no such thing as bad language change. [...] To say any form of language change is "bad" is to be ipso facto unscientific.

He also suggested that my acquaintances and I belong to "a small sample of linguists who have … weirdly quasi-prescriptivist views about language".

Despite these bracing sentiments, I think that Hat and I are not very far apart on this issue, in the end. But before we pass the peace pipe around, I'd like to take up the question of what bad means, and what language means, and to whom.

Prof. Menand clearly means bad in the OED's sense 2, "Lacking good or favourable qualities; unfavourable, unfortunate, untoward; that one does not like; not such as to be hoped for or desired". And by language he means not just the structure of spoken language, but the whole culture of communication, as indicated by these passages from his essay:

[Crystal's] conclusions are predictable: texting is not corrupting the language; people who send text messages that use emoticons, initialisms (“g2g,” “lol”), and other shorthands generally know how to spell perfectly well; and the history of language is filled with analogous examples of nonstandard usage. [...]

A less obvious attraction of texting is that it uses a telephone to avoid what many people dread about face-to-face exchanges, and even about telephones—having to have a real, unscripted conversation. People don’t like to have to perform the amount of self-presentation that is required in a personal encounter. They don’t want to deal with the facial expressions, the body language, the obligation to be witty or interesting. They just want to say “flt is lte.” Texting is so formulaic that it is nearly anonymous. There is no penalty for using catchphrases, because that is the accepted glossary of texting. C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” had a vocabulary of eight hundred and fifty words. Most texters probably make do with far fewer than that. And there is no penalty for abruptness in a text message. Shortest said, best said. [...]

[T]exting has accelerated a tendency toward the Englishing of world languages. Under the constraints of the numeric-keypad technology, English has some advantages. The average English word has only five letters; the average Inuit word, for example, has fourteen. English has relatively few characters; Ethiopian has three hundred and forty-five symbols, which do not fit on most keypads. English rarely uses diacritical marks, and it is not heavily inflected. Languages with diacritical marks, such as Czech, almost always drop them in text messages. Portuguese texters often substitute “m” for the tilde. Some Chinese texters use Pinyin—that is, the practice of writing Chinese words using the Roman alphabet.

In this sense of bad and this sense of language, there's no question in my mind: most linguists, even when they're wearing their professional hats, believe  that some real or hypothetical changes in "language" are or would be "bad".  For example, the web page for the LSA's Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation clearly presupposes that language death is a Bad Thing.  I know many linguists who work on literacy projects, and I'm confident that most others believe that illiteracy in modern societies is generally a Bad Thing.  Linguists who work on discourse coherence universally believe that essays, narratives and conversations can be more coherent or less coherent, and I'm confident that most of them believe that reduced coherence is a Bad Thing.

Of course, that doesn't mean that most linguists would assent to Prof. Menand's particular views about the cultural and stylistic evaluation of texting. Some would, some wouldn't — and most, I believe, would respond in the way that David Crystal did, which is to ask, wait a minute, what are the facts here? That was the main point of my original post on this subject: "we believe that moral and aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts, not on ignorant and solipsistic gut reactions".

But suppose it really were true, as Menand might be taken to suggest, that pre-adolescent texting causes a pathological inability to manage "the facial expressions, [and] the body language" required to have "real, unscripted conversation" in "face-to-face exchanges".  In the face of credible evidence that texting leads to mass autism, it would be absurd to assert that as scientists, we must only describe the epidemic's progress, not evaluate its consequences and consider alternative measures for prevention or remediation. In fact, such an attitude would be not only foolish but also profoundly unscientific.

The thing is, though, examination of the facts shows that no such epidemic is underway. A central point of David Crystal's book was to debunk a whole list of similar sky-is-falling fears about texting, by looking at the facts of the case — and a central point of Louis Menand's review was to undermine Crystal's arguments on the grounds that those professional linguists, you know, they never met a language change they didn't like.

This leads us back to a rhetorical problem in the culture of modern linguistics. When one linguist says to another "Was that good for you?", at least in a professional context, the phrase usually means "was that sentence consistent with your personal grammatical norms?" We don't mean "was it clearly expressed?" or "was it appropriately punctuated for publication in Language?" or "what is your moral or political opinion of the people who characteristically use such expressions?", or "how would you suggest re-phrasing it?"

This is because linguists mostly use language in the narrower sense of "grammatical system" rather than in its various broader senses — "means of communication", "manner or style of expression", "vocabulary or phraseology", etc. There's nothing wrong with this choice, from a scientific point of view — speech really is different from writing, words really are different from gestures, syntax really is different from a set of word-association norms, and so on. But when a non-linguist uses changes in the language to include a decline in "the obligation to be witty or interesting", and uses bad to mean "I regret this, and invite others to join me in bemoaning it", then it's time to step out of the disciplinary box.

Depending on personal and professional opinions, linguists can choose from a large set of scientifically appropriate responses to (say) the claim that texting is making people less witty and interesting: "This is serious if true, and to check whether it's really happening, we should …"; or "OK, witty and interesting is good, but I seriously doubt that texting is actually making people more bland and boring, because …"; or "Actually, what you call 'witty and interesting' is mostly covert hostility, and society is better off with less of it, as is shown by …"; and so on. But among them is not: "We're scientists over here, and so as a matter of principle, we refuse to be bothered with your evaluative attitudes: whatever is, is right."

That's not the view that geophysicists take about climate change, for example, or the view that microbiologists and epidemiologists take about AIDS. Nor, in fact, is it the attitude that linguists take about language death, or literacy, or aphasia, or foreign language teaching. The problem with most so-called prescriptivists is not the presence of evaluative attitudes, but the absence of coherent analysis and accurate description. In some cases, the evaluative attitudes also express regional, class or ethnic prejudice; but again, this just means that they're the wrong evaluative attitudes, not that evaluation itself is out of bounds for scientists.

[Update: As I should have explained, there are senses of language and bad in which Hat's position is tautologically true, for everyone and not just for linguists. If language means "the lexical and grammatical norms of speech community C", and bad means "outside the lexical and grammatical norms of speech community C", then a "language change" could be "bad" only if the lexical and grammatical norms of speech community C changed in such a way as to become outside themselves.

However, this is not what people like Prof. Menand mean by these words. Linguists often focus on the question of whose norms are the basis of evaluation -- obviously, for example,  "kids these days" often develop ways of talking that are outside the lexical and grammatical norms of some old guy like me, and we need to keep teaching people that this is not, like, the burning of the library of Alexandria, but rather an inevitable side-effect of human creativity and freedom. But an equally common reason for misunderstanding is equivocation about what language is, as discussed above.]

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56 Comments »

  1. Stuart said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    I am still struggling to understand how "aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts". I have always thought that aesthetic judgments were subjective, and so I would be very grateful if someone could explain how they can be based on facts. I think Tamizh is a prettier language to listen to than Hindi, and think that Urdu sounds more flowing than Sanskrit. These are my aesthetic judgements and because I've thought of them as subjective, I've never seen a need to defend them. Instead, I simply concede that they are entirely subjective, not based on anything other than my own perceptions. How can I develop aesthetic judgements based on facts?

  2. Ellen K said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    Based on facts as opposed to based on fiction. Based on what actually happens out in the real world, not about what one imagines is happening. That is what I take it to mean.

  3. Brian Hurley said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:22 am

    Ed Battistella recently wrote the book on bad language. It's called "Bad Language" (OUP 2007).

  4. Steve said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    @ Stuart, hoping he will be 'very grateful' – granted that aesthetic judgements are subjective, they must nonetheless be subjective judgements about things that are true, or 'facts' as they are known. If I make the aesthetic judgement that Shakespeare is a better writer than Dan Brown, then, even though I might find many people who agree with me, and might back up my case with all sorts of literary and textual analysis, it remains a subjective judgement, and I can never assert it as a proven scientific fact. Nonetheless, it is based upon certain facts that I assume to be true, such as that Shakespeare wrote 'Hamlet' and Dan Brown wrote 'The Da Vinci Code'. If it could be proved (as many believe) that 'Hamlet' was written by Marlowe or Bacon or Oxford, then my subjective aesthetic judgement that Shakespeare was a better writer entirely collapses, because in that case the fact is that he was not a writer at all, but merely a convenient cover, or pen-name for someone else.

    To put it briefly, aesthetic judgements are necessarily subjective, but may well be correct, but if they are not based on facts, they will be equally subjective, but are likely to be wrong.

  5. Cephi said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:40 am

    Analog of the role of prescriptivist fictions in aesthetic judgments (for Stuart):

    "Eww, I think this painting is garish in its constant shifting of colors from one moment to the next" (said of a chromatically static painting).

    = dumb aesthetic judgment, dumb because based on fictions about the object of judgment.

  6. jamessal said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:40 am

    I think another difference between descriptivists and prescriptivists is that the former recognize that it only makes sense to form value judgments about BIG language changes; e.g., above (languages dying, people becoming less witty, etc.). It's like this show I was watching the other day about dogs on PBS: at one point one of the scientist start ranting about the modern bulldog, and how it had become a cute abomination. He had a point. Because of breeding for cutesy features, the dogs now die earlier and generally have trouble breathing. That's bad. At the same time, though, it wouldn't make sense to single out any one trait (short legs might be useful in a different dog). Same thing with languages: a language can (according to Mark, at least) become less coherent — which is bad — but to complain about a single changing pronunciation or instance of semantic drift is always silly, because no one change on its own can reduce coherence or anything like that. Is that true? Is that analogy helpful at all? I'll admit, my head was spinning after reading the last thread, and for better or worse this is where it touched down.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:44 am

    Stuart: I am still struggling to understand how "aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts".

    If your moral and aesthetic judgments are simply of the form "I like X" or "I don't like Y", then as long as X and Y exist, the only real matter of fact involved is whether you're telling us (and yourself) the truth. (This is not always a trivial matter: I'm skeptical, for example, about elaborately-justified preferences for brands of vodka and brands of water, because I'm not convinced that their authors can actually tell the difference in a blind tasting.)

    But aesthetic judgments are generally much more highly structured, and involve assertions not only about the sign and magnitude of subjective moral and aesthetic reactions but also about the facts of the world being judged. For example, Louis Menand objects to (what he believes to be) an intrinsic and necessary lack of wit in texting. My limited experience suggests, in contrast, that witty people text wittily. Wittiness is of course a subjective quality, but there's still a matter of fact here: if we look at transcripts of conversations and logs of texting exchanges, will people like us agree that the first is on balance witty in a way that the second isn't?

    For a more consequential example, consider Camille Pagia's complaints about the deleterious effects of television, computers, and video games. Her arguments are mainly psychological and historical, but also include a substantial dose of her own moral and aesthetic reactions. The trouble with the whole enterprise, I argued, is that the world is mostly not as she feels it to be, and therefore her moral and aesthetic judgments are chimerical.

  8. Peter said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    "Wittiness is of course a subjective quality, but there's still a matter of fact here: if we look at transcripts of conversations and logs of texting exchanges, will people like us agree that the first is on balance witty in a way that the second isn't?"

    A second matter of verified fact is the prevalence of sequences of witty text exchanges between work colleagues, which I have often experienced myself, and which have been reported by others, e.g., Lucy Kellaway in her column on workplace life in the London "Financial Times" newspaper.

  9. bianca steele said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    When Menand talks about “managing facial expressions” and so on, I didn’t think he was talking about teenagers. He was still referring to the husband who texts his wife that the flight is late instead of calling her on the phone and having a voice conversation. It seemed he was psychoanalyzing the husband, diagnosing him as emotionally stunted because he merely transmitted “flt lt” and presumably avoided the warm human conversation he would have had, with all its phatic “how are things going there?” and “love you honey” and “is that the baby I hear crying,” if he had used traditional technology. Why would Menand do that? I don’t know, so maybe I’m wrong. It just seems to me unlikely that Menand’s audience cares about prepubescent behavior and nothing else.

    But I’m curious whether what he says about the rudeness, in everyday texting, of any delay responding, is actually true.

  10. Drew said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    Wow, nice post. God bless Language Log.

  11. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    Mark: This is not always a trivial matter: I'm skeptical, for example, about elaborately-justified preferences for brands of vodka and brands of water, because I'm not convinced that their authors can actually tell the difference in a blind tasting.

    This assumes, of course, that the only criterion for preferring one beverage to another is taste. A linguistic analogue would be someone who can't distinguish a recording of someone speaking Tamil from one of the same person speaking Hindi and yet insists that they prefer Hindi to Tamil. This may still be true for them even despite the fact that they justify their preference by saying that "Hindi sounds more pleasant" or "Stoli tastes smoother". They may be selecting the form of their arguments based on what are commonly perceived to be primary criteria even if these may not be the actual criteria they use to arrive at their judgments.

    I'm reminded of the vociferous opponents of "New Coke" who couldn't distinguish it from "Classic Coke". The new formula had soundly beaten both the existing one (and, more importantly, that of rival brand Pepsi) in blind taste tests. But the consumer backlash revealed that taste was not the sole–and perhaps not even then most important–criterion when it came to people's preferences among colas. Were millions of Coke drinkers lying about their aesthetic preference? Or did they simply have a broader basis for it than the normative discourse allowed for?

  12. Ivan said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

    Stuart:I am still struggling to understand how "aesthetic judgments about language should be based on facts". I have always thought that aesthetic judgments were subjective, and so I would be very grateful if someone could explain how they can be based on facts.

    The aesthetic judgment itself is subjective, but it's still an aesthetic judgment of facts – and the "facts" in question may well be wrong. Judgments about text messages are nearly always based on two premises that I find questionable:

    (1) How often do real text messages look like the stereotypical mish-mash of abbreviations and telegram-style incomplete sentences without punctuation and capitalization? I don't communicate with teenagers much, but I do use SMS a lot, and I always send, and usually also receive, more or less properly spelled, punctuated, and capitalized messages from my friends and colleagues. This includes even messages from my girlfriend, who is in her early-to-mid 20s and doesn't have any unusual peeves about grammar or spelling.

    Thus, there are at least some people who write their messages the old-fashioned way. How many exactly, I don't know, but in any case, "SMS implies telegram-style language" is not necessarily a correct assumption.

    (2) The idea about SMS being a cold, impersonal, emotionless form of communication is totally false. All the usual games people play with status, coolness, wittiness, teasing, romantic attraction, etc. are still very much a part of the communication, and it's still very easy to do a social faux pas with this medium. If you're dealing on formal terms with a random stranger, then yes, perhaps an SMS can save you the formal social protocol of courtesy, but when it comes to people with whom you have some sort of a personal relationship, you'll have to fulfill more or less the same expectations in your SMS conversations as when talking face to face.

    True, if you're shy or slow-witted, you have more time to think between the messages. However, so does everyone else, and thinking won't help you much anyway if your social instincts suck, so natural differences in social skills aren't even nearly neutralized.

    Also, Prof. Menand is factually wrong that "a mobile-phone message can’t have more than a hundred and forty bytes, which is usually enough for a hundred and sixty characters." All new phones I've seen in the last 5-6 years can handle messages longer than that by automatically splitting them and recombining them at the other end.

  13. Faldone said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    @ Daniel von B:

    A linguistic analogue would be someone who can't distinguish a recording of someone speaking Tamil from one of the same person speaking Hindi and yet insists that they prefer Hindi to Tamil.

    In Stuart's instance I don't believe this is the case.

  14. Bryn LaFollette said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    I think this is a really brilliantly insightful and lucid description of the real heart of the matter about what exactly people are talking about when the say they are talking about Language. This brings back memories of being in undergraduate Syntax and trying to elicit judgements on sentences from friends who hadn't had any Syntax or Linguistics experience. Inevitably the response would be something along the lines of "Well I wouldn't say it like that" or "It's not very poetic" or something else along the lines of evaluating the utterance on popular "Grammar" or aesthetic grounds. The frustrating thing for me was that I was always at a loss to explain why what they were saying wasn't relevant to what I was looking for.

    The fact that when many people claim to be talking about Language that they're really talking about the much broader associated cultural or historical issues, clearly it's because these things are indivisible from the grammatical system aspect in their minds. This I think is clearly why in many cases people use "Language" as a proxy for discussing (or more often railing on) the people or culture associated with it. I think one could easily argue this is the case for most discussions of use of "Ebonics" or Spanish (the latter especially by English Only advocates). This association is a basis that allows discussion of "language" to be the last, publicly acceptable form by which to voice racist, classist or other discriminatory feelings without being charged as a bigot.

  15. Catanea said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    I'm mystified. We (my husband, me, my mother-in-law, our daughter) use our mobile 'phones almost exclusively for texting (we all hate talking on the telephone, so texting is our salvation). My husband is astoundingly terse, and I believe the opportunity to use the most limited number of characters (glyphs?) possible has offered him a forum in which he can be wittier. Well, until we all post examples for some contest, this will never be resolved.

  16. Jonathon said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    The problem with most so-called prescriptivists is not the presence of evaluative attitudes, but the absence of coherent analysis and accurate description.

    This is really what it all comes down to, in my opinion. John Algeo wrote an article in College English in 1969 in which he said, "The problem is not that some of us have prescribed (we have all done so and continue to do so in one way or another); the trouble is that some of us have prescribed such nonsense."

    Good prescription has to rely on an accurate view of what's going on with the language. If you're ignorant of the history or the facts of current usage or the real grammatical rules underlying an issue, you're going to prescribe nonsense, and the people who really understand what's going on have every right to call you on it.

  17. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    Seeing as I wouldn't know the aforementioned Stuart from his murine namesake, I'll defer to your greater knowledge in the matter, Faldo. I've got no opinion one way or the other; it was simply a convenient example with which to illustrate my point.

  18. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    I suppose this is rather off-topic, but since nobody else has brought it up…. The "average" Inuktitut word may be 14 letters, but I would also wager that the "average" Inuktitut word carries as much information as an entire English sentence. Since the language is extremely polysynthetic, overt NP's, adverbs, etc. are very rare, as in many polysynthetic languages. Thus it would probably be more useful to txt in Inuktitut; abbreviating that 14 letter word would get you a lot more than abbreviating an English 5 letter word.

  19. Stuart said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:12 pm

    Thank you all. I am very grateful, and will now examine some of my aesthetic judgments about language to see if they are based on facts or or distorted misconceptions. This has been a very helpful post and comment thread, and I state that as a matter of fact.

  20. language hat said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 5:27 pm

    Just saw the Hatsignal, but I have to rush off to dinner, so at the moment I will just say I have no problem with the position presented in this post. In particular:

    Nor, in fact, is it the attitude that linguists take about language death, or literacy, or aphasia, or foreign language teaching.

    I certainly am willing to sign my moniker (either one) to a petition against language death, illiteracy, or aphasia, and I fully support the teaching of foreign languages! What I had in mind was what people usually mean when they talk about bad developments in language, which tend to be semantic change and the like.

  21. bulbul said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:18 pm

    Prof. Liberman,
    Prof. Menand clearly means bad in the OED's sense 2
    To me, this is far from clear. The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that Menand used the generic "bad" instead to avoid scrutiny. Had he used something more specific like "corrupting", his argument would be much more, dammitcantfindtherightenglishword, durchschaubar, not only to his readers, but perhaps to himself as well.

    As for the aesthetic judgement and facts, I accept your point. But that's not all there is to it. To use my example from the previous thread, I find the apparent loss of the palatal lateral approximant [λ] in my mother tongue unsettling, mostly for aesthetic reasons. When it comes to words like "ľahko" = "easily", I prefer the pronunciation ['λaχkɔ] to ['laχkɔ] and find the latter ear-grinding. But how are the facts about this phenomenon involved in the aesthetic judgment I make/made? I can certainly tell the difference between [λ] and [l], even with my sinuses clogged the way they are now. I am of course aware of the motivation for that particular judgement – the dialect I grew up with has retained [λ] and so for me, [λ] has all the connotations associated with a (moderately) happy childhood, down home, mom, apple pie strudel and so forth, while the [λ]-less pronunciation is foreign, strange, unfamiliar. But that's all about me, the person doing the judging, not the thing being judged.

    Compare that to my preference for Cuban cigars over Dominican or Honduran cigars. I am certainly not entirely objective in the sense that the coolness factor associated with Cuban puros definitely plays a role in my aesthetic judgement. Yet there is an objectively measurable difference between tobacco grown in Cuba and tobacco grown elsewhere (soil composition, chemical contents as seen in the color and composition of the ash etc.), the general consensus of experts and my personal experience with both Habanos and cigars of non-Cuban provenance – all objective facts concerning the thing being judged supporting my aesthetic preference.
    I believe the two types of aesthetic judgements ([λ] vs. Habanos) are substantially different. I submit your example with wittiness falls into the latter category – the consensus of experts you cite is one of the indicators. But the linguistic choices self-appointed usage experts object to fall into the first category. People who object to dialectisms and slang and g-dropping and things like that do so not because of what those phenomena are, but because of who they are – where they were born, what schools they went to, who they imagine themselves to be.
    Now please don't get me wrong: I fully agree with your insistence on checking the facts before decrying the corruption of language or the vulgarization of communication. But in my view, that is not an aesthetic judgement. That kind of thinking is an extension of an already made aesthetic judgement made in the solipsistic belief that if I dislike something, everyone else must do so too. The bottom line is that these people – prescriptivists, as we like to call them – mistake their own petty likes, dislikes, preferences and prejudices for at least some sort of general principle everyone must subscribe to. Or perhaps even God's word.

  22. bulbul said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

    And re language death and literacy: I'm not sure those are linguistic changes. Wouldn't they be more aptly classified as political / societal changes?

    [(myl) Yes, linguists would probably call them cultural or societal changes, though of course they are related to language use, and both literacy and language loss tend to have correlates within language itself, at least in a statistical sense. But if you'll read Prof. Menand's review, you'll see that such things are well within the range of what he considers to be "language change", and in this respect, I think his usage is the usual one. ]

  23. bulbul said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

    Ivan,
    How often do real text messages look like the stereotypical mish-mash of abbreviations and telegram-style
    That is an excellent point. With the spread of the predictive text input technologies (T9), even teenagers like my sister are texting in complete sentences AND with diacritics. And as for emoticons, except for the smilies, there's only the occasional LOL and ROFL, a number of WTFs and a whole lot of <> . Don't ask.

  24. Aleksei said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

    I found this a very elucidating text on the "pre- vs. de-" issue, showing how subtle things are; people should be really thinking about this rather than simply repeating that prescription is wrong because they were told so in their "introduction to linguistics" class.
    I think that the formulation "aesthetic judgments based on facts" is a bit confusing (as evidenced by the discussion in the comments); maybe it would be better to formulate it along the lines of "aesthetic judgments based on careful examination rather than superficial (and potentially incorrect) impressions", because not all aesthetic judgments can be made explicit in the sense of showing which element of a particular language is beautiful or not, but an aesthetic judgment based on consequent observation (e.g. going through a balanced sample of text messages) is much more valuable and reliable than one based on a few anecdotes and one's own intuitive experience of texting.

  25. Mark P said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    I don't see how anyone can seriously argue the tenets of prescriptivism. It's like thinking that the current mode of dress in the western world is the goal toward which all dress modes have been evolving, and now that we have reached it, no one will every dress differently again. All men will wear ties, until the end of the world.

  26. Stuart said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

    "maybe it would be better to formulate it along the lines of "aesthetic judgments based on careful examination rather than superficial (and potentially incorrect) impressions""

    Thank you for this rephrasing, Aleksei. In the examples I gave about my aesthetic preferences, I can explain the reasons for those preferences. I know that Tamizh uses certain consonant sounds less than the Hindi does, and it is the decreased frequency of those sounds that I find aesthetically appealing. Similarly with Urdu, it has fewer extremely polysyllabic words than Sanskrit does, and that fits my personal preferences. Your rephrasing of the concept helps because I know that I have exanmined the reasons for my aesthetic judgments and know that they are based on examination rather than superficial first impressions.

    Daniel gave this linguistic analogue: "someone who can't distinguish a recording of someone speaking Tamil from one of the same person speaking Hindi and yet insists that they prefer Hindi to Tamil." I can't tell Tamizh from Telugu (or even Malayalam) with confidence when listening to them, but have absolutely no problem distinguishing Dravidian languages from Indic. I really appreciate the help I've received here in examining my preferences and judgments.

  27. language hat said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    The fact that when many people claim to be talking about Language that they're really talking about the much broader associated cultural or historical issues, clearly it's because these things are indivisible from the grammatical system aspect in their minds. This I think is clearly why in many cases people use "Language" as a proxy for discussing (or more often railing on) the people or culture associated with it.

    But I think linguists, of all people, should be fighting this tendency and trying to keep discussion of language separate (to the extent possible) from discussion of "the much broader associated cultural or historical issues."

  28. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

    @ language hat:

    But I think linguists, of all people, should be fighting this tendency and trying to keep discussion of language separate (to the extent possible) from discussion of "the much broader associated cultural or historical issues."

    That's a rather prescriptivist view. (Not all that far removed from the alleged descriptivist calling out some mid-century peevologist who uses the word "grammar" in its vernacular meaning as opposed to the meaning preferred in linguistics jargon. "Let's keep an open mind about how people actually communicate until they start infringing on our sovereign turf.")

  29. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

    @No one in particular, but since the topic of unified opposition to language death has been raised: I actually have no problem with language death, in itself. If people begin (of their own volition, of course) preferring a new language to an old one, even to the extent that the old one is threatened with complete loss of speakers, then that's just fine by me; people's feelings trump the nonexistent ones of abstract concepts, after all.

    The only regrettable loss I see is of a potential case for linguistic study, which is unfortunate, I suppose, but if a thoroughly documented language goes by the wayside, what is the problem?

  30. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    By "new" and "old" I only meant, of course, "new/old to that speech community"; the 'age' of the languages involved is of no concern to me.

  31. Nathan said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

    @Sridhar Ramesh:

    Is there any such thing as "a thoroughly documented language"?

  32. Nick Lamb said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 6:46 am

    It's a shame if we can't manage to do better in understanding the distinction between the death of irreplaceable individuals and the gradual change measured over a larger population that we call "death" of a language. I don't think anyone reading Language Log believes it makes sense to try to exterminate languages, but the fact is that they die out naturally, even if it takes longer than when governments forbid the teaching of a language or whatever. To lament such a natural process when it harms no-one seems overly sentimental. To fight this natural process, and often with public funds, seems perverse, and in practice seems very often to happen as a result of despicable attempts to divide people for political gain.

    Now, from a purely academic point of view I understand the feeling of loss. To an academic interested in parasitic worms perhaps the Guinea Worm will be a tremendous loss too, but they've had the good sense not to pretend that this academic interest ought to make a difference to our actual international policy — which far from actively promoting this species or being indifferent to it, is to eradicate it, making the species utterly and permanently extinct.

  33. language hat said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    That's a rather prescriptivist view. (Not all that far removed from the alleged descriptivist calling out some mid-century peevologist who uses the word "grammar" in its vernacular meaning as opposed to the meaning preferred in linguistics jargon. "Let's keep an open mind about how people actually communicate until they start infringing on our sovereign turf.")

    With all due respect, I think this is a straw man. Yes, of course we should be aware of ordinary usage and take it into account in communicating, but to say we should just accept it and pretend the science of linguistics does not exist would be an absurdity. Physicists are aware of the lay use of terms like "relativity," but that does not mean they give up on trying to explain the theory of relativity. There has been far too much conflation of language with other social/personal phenomena; it is, or should be, the business of linguists to say "Wait a minute, the fact that a person doesn't pronounce a word the way you think they should doesn't mean they're stupid or don't deserve the vote."

  34. Alissa said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 11:53 am

    Is it possible that prescriptivism has more to do with how preferences are used than about having them? I would guess that everyone has preferences about language (I certainly do), but a prescriptivist would take those preferences and say that there is something innately better about what they like and that everyone should agree with and conform to those preferences.

  35. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    I agree with what Sridhar and Nick said above about death of languages. I hesitate to sound cynical or fatalistic, and I understand how people can be emotionally attached to a dying language, but at the same time, if the individual speakers don't use their language or put effort into preserving it, then it may die out, and if no individual is being coerced or stifled, then it's hard to classify the dying of a language as a Bad Thing.

    Nobody speaks Latin as an everyday conversational language, nor Middle English, and this doesn't make us cry.

  36. andy J said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

    @languagehat. I had to smile to myself about the last part of your most recent post: "it is, or should be, the business of linguists to say "Wait a minute, the fact that a person doesn't pronounce a word the way you think they should doesn't mean they're stupid or don't deserve the vote."
    Change the penultimate word to 'your' and think back to all the LL posts about Sarah Palin et al, and consider how attentive some linguists have been to 'business'! Who says Americans don't do irony?

  37. Irene said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    Hat said – But I think linguists, of all people, should be fighting this tendency and trying to keep discussion of language separate (to the extent possible) from discussion of "the much broader associated cultural or historical issues."

    I have a related question for you real linguists. What about the use of the term linguists to refer to bi or multi-lingual folks, for example, in saying that the military needs to have more linguists?

  38. S Hawkins said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    I agree with the assertion that language death is not necessarily a "bad" thing. Indeed, the biological metaphor itself (we also see it in talk of "endangered" or "extinct" languages) is not always helpful. The implication is of something being utterly snuffed out entirely, as opposed to a transition from one set of practices to another. With this is mind a whole realm of scholarship uses the term "language shift," precisely because it engages with changing practices and patterns. Note that none of this is to imply that these changes are always the result of benign forces. Often (but not always) coercive exterior pressures plan a crucial role in these changes, but that is not the same as suggesting that the fact of the shift or change itself is inherently bad.

  39. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    @Stuart, belatedly: I feel most prescriptivist gripes to fall in the category of "Cars are bad because their seven wheels summon pixies". They make value judgments based of fictious consequences of phenomena that are not, in fact, happening at all. Hence the need to ground opinion in facts.

  40. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    Skullturf,

    Nobody speaks Latin as an everyday conversational language, nor Middle English, and this doesn't make us cry.
    Apples and oranges. Neither Latin nor Middle English died, in fact they live on in Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Occitan etc. and Modern English. To use Sridhar's comparison (languages as people), Latin and Middle English are no longer with us, but they led a long and fruitful life and died at the age of 140 surrounded by their children and grandchildren. In contrast, Natchez. Wiradjuri and Polabian were murdered in their prime in concentration camps.

  41. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:21 pm

    Prof. Liberman,

    re literacy and language death: you're right, Menand does specifically mention literacy and literacy is indeed in the top ten list of the concerns raised every time someone complains about how language is going to hell in a hand basket. Still, I'm with hat: the bulk of the complaints which can be summed up under the 'prescriptivist poppycock' heading consists of semantic change, changes in pronunciation, non-standard morphology becoming standard, neologisms and alike.

  42. language hat said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

    Change the penultimate word to 'your' and think back to all the LL posts about Sarah Palin et al, and consider how attentive some linguists have been to 'business'! Who says Americans don't do irony?

    I'm not following you. Could you rephrase for this irony-deficient Yank?

  43. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    Sridhar, Nick, Skullturf, S Hawkins,

    let's try this small exercise: close your eyes, take a deep breath. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. Relax.
    And now try to imagine you're the last speaker of your language, the language you grew up with. Think of the sound of your mother's voice, calling you to dinner. No one will ever hear those words again. Think of the stories your grandmother used to tell you. No one will ever hear those stories again. Think of how your father taught you to fish and the names of the parts of the fish and the names of the different types of lures and hooks and which to use when. No one will ever hear them again and in fact, no one has for quite some time. You have half-forgotten most of them and there's no point in remembering, since your children grew up speaking the new language. You had to learn it in your teens, on the job, and that's only if you were lucky. If you weren't, it was beaten into you in school and every time you said a word or two in your mother tongue, you had your mouth washed with soap. But that's all in the past and no one seems to care. You're an old man now and once you die, which could be any day now, your language dies with you and with it, you family, your nation and your culture.

    Now tell me, how does that feel?

  44. andy J said,

    October 24, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

    @languagehat (I don't feel I know well enough to call you hat)
    Sorry that wasn't clear. If your words are re-cast:
    "it is, or should be, the business of linguists to say "Wait a minute, the fact that a person doesn't pronounce a word the way you think they should doesn't mean they're stupid or don't deserve your vote."

    and one then considers the many column inches expended on LL about various prominent politicians and their 'verbage', accents, pronunciation of nuclear, etc
    - I just found it all amusing. But then I am easily amused.

    [(myl) But perhaps not so easily instructed. I may be misunderstanding you, but if your point is that all those LL posts have been making people out to be stupid or undeserving, then you need to read the posts in question again, going back to our coverage of Bushisms and forward to my discussion of "verbage" and "g-dropping". Because if you believe that Steve's remark is somehow ironic in the light of those posts, you've badly misunderstood one or the other. ]

  45. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    @bulbul: When my mother dies, I'll never hear her voice again, no matter what (except via recordings). A child being beaten and soap-mouthed is always a bad thing, sure. But these are appeals to emotion which aren't really intrinsically about language shifts. As for the stories my grandmother told me, if I want to re-share them, no one's stopping me from translating them. Etc., etc. And it's bombastic to tie the extinction of my ancestors' language to the death of my family; my kids are still right there, they just happen to speak a new language, as is their right.

    Yeah, I might feel sad that some elements of a culture I was exposed to are no longer present. But what of it? I could just as well be sad at the loss of discos and bell-bottom jeans, or of flappers and speakeasies. But I am not inclined to call these shifts objectively bad; they may just be in conflict with some individuals' personal romanticized attachments.

  46. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 1:31 am

    In case it wasn't clear, at the end of the first paragraph above, I was taking the perspective of the old man in bulbul's hypothetical; I am not personally one of the last speakers of any language (well, I suppose it's theoretically possible…)

  47. Aaron Davies said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 8:19 am

    @Aleksei: maybe it would be better to formulate it along the lines of "aesthetic judgments based on careful examination rather than superficial (and potentially incorrect) impressions"

    Not to evoke Strunk & White (boo! hiss!), but isn't that kinda wordy? How about just "aesthetic judgments based on evidence"? ISTM that "evidence" shouldn't imply the sort of baggage that "facts" does in this context.

  48. Aaron Davies said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 8:20 am

    @bulbul: this is the sort of thinking that leads to balkans (and caucasians, etc.) spending centuries feuding.

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    October 25, 2008 @ 8:56 am

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  50. Nick Lamb said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    bulbul, the death of every individual is a loss. That would be no less true if every single person spoke a single dialect of Chinese with the same accent. Or if we communicated only in textbook ASL. The language aspect to previous (and existing) abuse of minority groups is just that, an aspect of abuse, and should be separated from our feelings about the natural process of change in the absence of such abuse.

    Do you remember at school, you had secret societies, codes and languages, complicated social interactions, that would last a single lunch hour? And then they faded away, unmourned. I think the wider culture, the culture of adults isn't so different, it's just on a larger scale. It will change, no matter what we do, our children will not be like us, won't like the same music, won't talk the same way.

    When I was a boy, a Saturday was the day when you went shopping. You had to drive to a town or city to buy things. But now Saturday is the day when you "post some fucking cats". And you buy things by clicking on them from a web page. Good for you, youth of today, don't let me bullshit you with my nostalgia, the past is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

  51. Mark Liberman said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:04 am

    Language death is complicated, and so are the possible responses to it; and attitudes should take account of the facts. Thus punishing (American) Indian kids for speaking their native language in the schoolyard was part of a well-intentioned effort to bring them into the mainstream culture, but most people these days think it was a terrible mistake at best. On the other hand, perhaps some efforts at language maintenance have failed because they're contrary to the interests of the individuals affected — and some attempts to rescue these efforts by coercive means might be seen as elitist attempts to force people to serve as unpaid museum exhibits.

    Some of the discussion here seems to me to be inappropriately general. Other things equal, anyone who appreciates linguistic diversity will deplore any linguistic loss — including the loss of antique standards that is felt so acutely by your typical prescriptivist. But there are always other factors to consider in particular cases; and general trends can be evaluated as well. Thus the extinction of biological species is normal and inevitable; but it's argued that it's now happening at an accelerated rate, and that this is not only a loss for biologists, but perhaps a danger to the planet's ecosystems. So one might conclude that we should try to intervene to slow the rate of loss; or at least take steps to document the diversity before it vanishes. (By storing frozen DNA in the case of species diversity; via language documentation in the case of linguistic diversity.)

    I'm not arguing one side or the other of these questions, but rather urging people to evaluate particular cases on their own terms.

    In the context of this post, though, the point is just that most linguists feel that loss of linguistic diversity is to be evaluated as good or (more likely) bad, not just noted and described.

  52. bulbul said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

    Sridhar,

    But these are appeals to emotion

    'Attempts to evoke empathy' is how I would describe them, but I freely admit that I was indeed trying to tug your heartstrings.

    I might feel sad that some elements of a culture I was exposed to are no longer present

    Except we're not talking about certain elements of a culture, but perhaps the defining element. And Nick, that's also a response to you. You may not agree with my above definition of the role language plays in a society, but I assume you would agree that at the very least, language attrition is a sign of deeper cultural and societal change. And that type of change is rarely a positive one and definitely not comparable on whatever scale to dissolution of school cliques, changes in weekly routines or cancellations of TV shows.
    I hate to be snide, but I can't help but wonder if you would display the same cavalier attitude to other types of societal / cultural changes, say if the dominant religion wherever you live were replaced by another one, perhaps one with a reputation (deserved or not) for violence.

    And finally, Nick,

    secret societies, codes and languages, complicated social interactions… And then they faded away, unmourned.

    Oh but they are – not always, but every now and then. Especially on a rainy Saturday afternoon like this one.

  53. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    It's a big topic for sure, and there have been some interesting points made all around. I'll just throw in one more brief comment: there are clearly some practical disadvantages to humanity speaking thousands of different languages, the vast majority of which are completely incomprehensible to one another.

    Frankly, I'd like there to be fewer religions, too.

  54. S Hawkins said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

    Is language THE defining component of a culture? Given the general hostility expressed on this site toward Whorf and Sapir, that seems a rather strong statement. But yes, it would be foolish to say that language changes are not connected to cultural changes. And yes, often those changes are the result of horrific brutality. In such instances one condemns both the abuse and the loss of the language and so many other aspects of culture.

    However, the culture may also be the force that leads to a language's disappearance. There are instances in which people choose not to use a language, not to pass it on to their children. We may find their choices sad, but it is patronizing to assume that we know better than them with regard to what languages they should speak. Kulick described such an instance in "Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction : Socialization, Self and Syncretism in a Papua New Guinean Village." To make a long story short, the Gapun of Paupua New Guinea continue to speak their language (Taiap) amongst themselves, but do not do so to their children, to whom they speak Tok Pisin. As a result, this rising generation cannot speak Taiap. Although external influences play a crucial role in this, there is no pressure that forces the Gapun to change. Rather, the changes are driven by their understanding of the nature of languages and the process by which children become fully human.

    That being said, it would be disingenuous of me to assert that the transformation is not, at some level, disturbing. The parents are sad that their children no longer speak Gapun. There is a sense of loss. Yet it is also important to note that the culture is not destroyed. Indeed, the logic of the culture plays a crucial role in driving the change.

    As to the possible disadvantages to thousands of languages, the problem seems to be not the number of languages, but the tendency of some people not to learn more than one language. (Even the young generation of Gapun end up learning more than just Tok Pisin.) For much of the world, multilingualism is the norm. But that is a separate issue.

  55. James Wimberley said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

    Mark: "When one linguist says to another "Was that good for you?", at least in a professional context…"
    Reminds me of the classic joke about the behaviourist: "I know it was good for you, but what was it like for me?"
    This fits pretty well the stance of radical descriptivists like Hat, who are forgiving of everyone else's aberrations but demand much of themselves.

  56. Discourse Analysis at Sur College » Discussion 1: Bad Language (Group 1) said,

    February 15, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    [...] your first discussion, please read this articlefrom LanguageLog.com.   Language Log is an online forum where a group of prominent linguists [...]

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