The politics of "prescriptivism"

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I applaud Mark for taking on the question of left- and right-wing linguistic moralism. It encourages me to add some snippets from the disorganized drawer of Thoughts I have on this topic, some of them from stuff I wrote but never published. I leave the insertion of transitions as an exercise for the reader.

In the first place, doesn't make sense to think of this question other than historically. The distinction between "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism" is a twentieth-century invention, and an unfortunate one, I think, since it implies that this is a coherent philosophical controversy with antique roots. In fact both terms are so vague and internally inconsistent that we'd be better off discarding them, and to impose those categories on the eighteenth-century grammarians, say, is gross presentism. So let me talk about "language criticism," both because it's closer to the mark, and because what linguists describe as "prescriptivism" in most of the Western languages is by-and-large just a stream of the critical tradition. (Language criticism, it has struck me, is the dream-work of culture.) And the politics of both have always been in flux.

That said, before the 1950's, writers rarely described positions on usage as "conservative" and "liberal," and then only as a narrowly metaphorical way of describing attitudes toward language change. It's true that has always been a strong conservative strain in a lot of language criticism, but it was generally aligned with the interests of social and cultural elites, not opposed to them, which makes it very different from the populist criticism of the modern cultural right.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, in fact, many writers on the left also found it entirely natural to take the language as a matter for critical concern. There's a line of radical language criticsm stretching back to Priestly and Cobbett — I think of Cobbett's Grammar of the English Language, "intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in general; but more especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-boys." When Cobbett came to giving "specimens of false grammar," he chose extracts from the Prince Regent's address to Parliament, a letter of the Home Secretary Lord Castlereagh and a dispatch of the Duke of Wellington. After tearing apart the grammar of these examples, he appended caustic comments — "Do you understand what this great Statesman means? . .—. You can guess; but you can go little further"; "all is vulgar, all clumsy, all dull, all torpid inanity." And he ended by saying, "Thus it is that the mass of mankind have been imposed upon by big-sounding names."

So for Cobbett, the method of linguistic criticism was a tool for dispelling false consciousness, and as such this was an important element in a certain strain of Left universalism. The theme was continued through Dwight Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg, and Orwell — and the grammarians of the Third Republic, and Gramsci, for that matter — and in fact you can hear it even now in critiques of the language of political and corporate life and of sexist language, one of the few instances in recent years when genuinely critical questions about language have seemed to have a systematic public significance.

But from the 1960's until recently most of the important language critics in the Anglo-American tradition were political conservatives: William Safire, James J. Kirkpatrick, John Simon, Joseph Epstein, and William F. Buckley in this country and Roger Scruton, Kingsley Amis, and Enoch Powell in Britain. This association really began around the time of Webster's Third — Jacques Barzun called that dictionary "the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party." By 1982, Newsweek could write of "a new conservatism, an outbreak of right-wing linguistic commentary in books, newspaper columns, and underground pamphlets. It's the Verbal Minority, with a message tuned to the times: what's good for Merriam-Webster is good for America." And shortly after that, Simon Jenkins made a similar observation about Britain: "[G]rammar is the fastest-rising topic in the Tory firmament, now almost on a par with hanging and dole fraud."

Not surprisingly, the politicization of grammar and usage has radically changed the significance of the issues. A few years ago the British conservative Roger Scruton describes the controversies over usage as a debate between

those prepared to accept that there ought to be authority and obedience in matters of grammar, and those who think that any such conception is arbitrary and tyrannical. The dispute is in no way trivial. It is as deep, and as difficult, as that (of which it is a special case) between the conservative and liberal in politics.

This is a weirdly ahistorical way of formulating these issues. "Obedience" is a new word in these discussions, and so for that matter is "authority" as Scruton is using it — not the way you'd talk about the authority of the OED, but the way you'd talk about the authority of a headmaster. And in the course of things the subject was inevitably trivialized. As John Simon puts it: "There is, I believe, a morality of language: an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us." And in the editor's introduction to the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which was originally conceived as a direct response to the "permissiveness" of Webster's Third, William Morris wrote that the dictionary's editors "approached their task imbued with a deep sense of responsibility as custodians of traditions in language."

How very untraditional this all is! Certainly H. W. Fowler felt no obligation to "preserve and nurture the niceties" of past ages. On the contrary, he wrote: "Is it absurdly optimistic to suppose that what the stream of language strands as it flows along consists mainly of what can be done without?" For that matter, Fowler wouldn't have recognized the phrase "traditional grammar," either. That expression only arose in the period after the Second World War, around the same time that people started applying traditional to things like houses, furniture, weddings, families, and values. In each case the notion of the "traditional" was a direct response to the word modern and all it implied. To describe furniture styles or values as "traditional" is to suggest that they were generally and uncritically accepted before the modern began to subvert them — it turns them into things like ballads or pumpkin pie recipes, which have no known origin but have simply been handed down from one generation to the next. (Which is increasingly the status of the rules that people cling to most obdurately.)

Some of this is just misplaced nostalgia for a time when "grammar" was regarded as a God-given instrument for instilling schoolchildren with a sense of moral discipline. In recent decades, in fact, there has been a tendency to blame the deemphasis of grammar in the schools for an astonishing range of social evils, particularly in the UK. Here's the Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, for example:

If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, people turn up filthy at school . . . all these things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards there's no imperative to stay out of crime.

It's true that many nineteenth-century educators saw the study of grammar as an ideal instrument for achieving social control; as Lindley Murray wrote, it provided the student with "an employment calculated to exclude those frivolous pursuits, and that love of ease and sensual pleasure, which enfeeble and corrupt the minds of many inconsiderate youth, and render them useless to society." But earlier writers rarely confused the disciplinary benefits of grammar instruction with the critical justification of language values. The study of grammar might provide a excellent occasion for the inculcation of discipline, mental or otherwise, but that wasn't its reason for being. Nor did nineteenth-century writers interpret these questions as having an essentially political significance — there was no such thing as a Tory view of usage. That would have been self-defeating. After all, once you appropriate a concern for standards of usage as the property of one party, you can no longer regard them as the ground rules for our common conversation about politics and everything else. If only conservatives cared about speaking properly — or beyond that, if speaking properly itself were to become a badge of conservative views — then it would come down to little more than another tic of partisan speech, like referring to the "Democrat party."

In fact I sometimes think we're getting close to that, when I see critics appealing defiantly to the "the lonely and diminishing minority" who care about usage. (Though actually solicitude for the state of the language is like love of country: everybody believes he has good deal more of it than most other people, which is a good thing for the Lynn Trusses of this world.)

Actually my sense is that the whole business of language criticism has degenerated since then, particularly on the right. (I mean criticism as such, not just usage advice.) With a few exceptions, serious younger conservatives haven't made any effort to hold high this pennant — some have told me that they don't consider it an important cultural enterprise. It's telling that Mark finds no one better than to personify the conservative attitude on language than Mark Halpern, an obscure character who dilates in a webzine on things like the origin of language or the End of Linguistics armed with nothing but the sense God gave him. When you read what he has to say, or for that matter any of gazillions of other grammar enthusiasts who pullulate on the web, you're struck by how thoroughly this whole critical discourse has come detached from the larger enterprise of literary culture that gave it life. Buckley, thou shoulds't be living at this hour!

When you think about it, in fact, most of the best critics writing about language now in major public venues are actually rather liberal-minded in their attitudes about language — I think of Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe, John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun, Robert Lane Greene and the other Johnsonians at the Economist, not to mention various of our own Language Loggers and a number of others. But this stuff just doesn't have same cultural oompahpah that it used to. As I noted in a piece not long ago in the New York Times Book Review recalling the brouhaha that erupted exactly fifty years ago over of the publication of Webster's Third: "The furor over Webster’s Third also marked the end of an era. It's a safe bet that no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains."

Anyway, it's silly to suppose that a concern over usage is the exclusive property of the right. It isn't as if writers for The American Prospect and The Nation take fewer pains about the way they use the language than writers for Commentary or National Review — for one thing, they probably all had the same English teachers. And there are plenty of people of all political persuasions who have a passing concern about usage but don't find the diatribes of the right-wing critics particularly compelling (or the ones of the linguists, either, in my experience) — people who are genuinely attached to the distinction between disinterested and uninterested, but who are uncomfortable about using words like "permissiveness" and "the erosion of standards," and who are affronted by the condescending derision of minority dialects. As Lionel Trilling once put it, "I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language." But it's difficult to make a case for language criticism nowadays without irony — you wind up saying things like, "Well, I personally don't use disinterested to mean "uninterested," and I'm sorry that this one is going by the boards, since at a certain point I can't use disinterested with any assurance that most of my audience will get what I mean, but I for sure don't think it signals the end of civilization as we know it. What's for lunch?"

Frankly, I'm always saying that sort of thing myself. I'm not sure where that leaves me, but I don't think it's a a bad thing. As Fowler teaches us, good language criticism should always be ironic. And that's supposed to be what we liberals are best at.


  1. Angus Grieve-Smith said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 12:34 am

    A lot of this was covered in 1995 by Deborah Cameron in her excellent book Verbal Hygiene.

  2. Fiona Hanington said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 1:30 am

    Looks like a new edition of Cameron's book is coming out in April.

  3. maidhc said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 4:00 am

    That British chap who has been discussed here before, whose name I can't be bothered to look up, combines political conservatism with prescriptivism. But there doesn't seem to be an American equivalent any more.

    The old-timers like Buckley and Safire came from the New England Republican tradition, which had an Ivy League connection, but the Republican power base has migrated to the South. However, it has not really connected with the Southern intellectual tradition. You can see the change by contrasting the elder and younger Presidents Bush.

    Buckley did go to Yale, but his Catholicism and the antipathy he expressed toward genteel (Republican establishment) liberalism in God and Man at Yale make it odd to think of him as belonging to a Republican tradition. To apply any of those terms to the Jewish New Yorker and Syracuse University drop-out Safire is just bizarre.

    The discussion makes me think of H.L. Mencken. He would be hard to place on today's political map. I suppose people would take issue with some of his ideas about language too, but there's no doubt that he was passionately interested in the subject.

    Perhaps it's a good thing that discussion of language has been decoupled from politics?

  4. dan said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 4:21 am

    @maidhc Do you mean Simon Heffer? His "Strictly English" is a horrible hotpotch of nostalgia for 1950s morality and deluded, back-to-Latin prescriptivism. At one point he even advises his readers on how to address Lieutenant-Generals in HM Armed Forces who have been knighted. Always useful to know…

    It's a terrible load of old cobblers really, as various reviewers have commented.

  5. C Thornett said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 4:28 am

    Surely one significant category is language being used as a proxy for the complainer's dislike of or distain for the ethnic or social group the language is associated with. These groups range from 'young people today' or 'management' to groups defined by factors such as class, region and race. The recent flurry of exchanges regarding Americanisms in the UK is one example. Changes in the relative status of groups seem to add fuel to the peevish fire.

    A member of one's own perceived group who uses language associated (rightly or wrongly) with the disliked other then seems to have committed a kind of betrayal of the group.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 5:14 am

    "But from the 1960's until recently most of the important language critics in the Anglo-American tradition were political conservatives: William Safire, James J. Kirkpatrick, John Simon, Joseph Epstein, and William F. Buckley in this country and Roger Scruton, Kingsley Amis, and Enoch Powell in Britain."

    What about E.B. White, Edwin Newman, Dwight Macdonald, and the many other left-of-center Americans who have positioned themselves in one way or another as language critics? And in Britain, Orwell counter-balances quite a few others.

    Of course, this issue illustrates why projecting political opinions onto a one-dimensional scale is problematic. William Cobbett's politics are another good example.. During the 1790s in America he agitated on the far right wing of the Federalist party, decorating the windows of his Philadelphia bookstore with portraits of King George III and King Louis XVI, and filling the bookstore with royalist as well as Federalist propaganda. His "Peter Porcupine" persona as a pamphleteer was more like Rush Limbaugh than anything else on the current American political scene. When Cobbett returned to England in 1800, he operated as a Tory before becoming a Radical.

    (See "All verbal assassins speak in the passive voice", 10/13/2005, for more on Cobbett.)

    GN: I mention Orwell and Macdonald as belonging to a tradition of Left criticism, but they were writing before the "outbreak of right-wing linguistic commentary" that Newsweek spoke of — in fact that's another sense in which the W3 furor was the end of an era. As for Cobbett, his grammar was published in 1818, after he began publishing the Political Register; both are unambiguously radical, as the passage I quotes suggests (he wrote the grammar in the US, where he fled to avoid arrest for sedition). His views of 20 years earlier aren't relevant, though I suspect that there's more than a dollop of presentism in comparing the views of the Federalists or loyalists to those of the modern American right, particularly in Cobbett's case.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 6:23 am

    @maidhc: I think the political and linguistic division among American conservatives is largely the establishment Republicans vs the populist, Tea-Party types (the anybody-but-Mitt group).

  8. Sandy Nicholson said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    At a slight tangent, but relating to content in this post, I note that the term ‘Anglo-American’ is used to refer to a tradition of language criticism. Oddly, while the UK-based OED and Chambers dictionaries (descriptively, it could be argued) permit the Anglo- prefix to refer to Britain as a whole rather than just England (as the etymology would suggest), the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edn) treats the prefix as referring simply to England or English (prescriptively?). It so happens that the British commentators mentioned are in fact English (I think!), but the ‘in this country’/‘in Britain’ parallelism suggests to me that the prefix was used here in the more inclusive sense (which grates for many Scottish and Welsh people).

  9. Picky said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    Although Chambers, of course, isn't English.

    The thing is, it's no use many Scottish and Welsh people finding it grating (and I agree with you, Sandy, it causes a hiccup in my English brain, too). The problem is that history has left the inhabitants of the British Isles (that's just a geographical term, by the way) in a total mess with their topographical and national terminologies. If we were happy with "Brito-American" or "Americo-British" or something there would be no problem. But we're not – whether Scots or Welsh of English or Irish. As it is I favour Fowler's words on the use of "English" and would ask our fellow Britons (and, as Fowler said, that word Briton brings always a sneaking sense of the ludicrous) for patience.

  10. Mark Etherton said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    Norman Tebbit (incidentally a peer, not an MP, since 1992) would get on well with de Quincy:

    "If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination."

    I should have made it clear that Tebbit made his comments on the Today program in 1985, about ten years after James Callaghan launched the "great education debate" in the UK. Yes, it was Labour who started it, but the Tories made it their own; by 1979 they were campaigning with the slogan "Educayshun isn't wurking."

  11. Sandy Nicholson said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    @Picky: I deliberately chose Chambers as an example of a Scottish dictionary taking a descriptive line (because the Anglo=British usage is certainly out there; I don’t deny that).

    And I do agree that in these islands we are saddled with a rat’s nest of terminological confusion. The British Isles do of course include the Republic of Ireland, being the southern part of the island of Ireland, the northern part of which (logically called Northern Ireland) is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain *and* Northern Ireland (the UK), though many citizens of Northern Ireland would (correctly from a legal perspective) call themselves British, despite not living in (Great) Britain. And of course, the long-standing ‘Troubles’ in twentieth-century Northern Ireland were addressed in part by the so-called Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, in which ‘Anglo-’ here means British (i.e. pertaining to the UK – not Great Britain and certainly not England), and Irish refers to the Republic of Ireland. Why it wasn’t called the British–Irish Agreement or better still the UK–Eire Agreement, I don’t know. By the way, I do say ‘British–American’ (no need to invent a prefix!) – and I’m not the only one to do so.

    You mentioned favouring Fowler (a notoriously prescriptive text) on the use of ‘English’ as a term. I see that in the 3rd edition, under ‘England, English’, Burchfield (editing Fowler) acknowledges both the strict use of ‘England’, referring to one of the four constituent parts of the UK, and also the looser use of the term meaning ‘the whole of Great Britain’ (which seems to be used here synonymously with the UK!). Burchfield explains the loose usage as arising from the expectation that people who speak English must be from England (clearly not having noticed that quite a lot of people outside the UK also speak English). He also says that people in the UK are ‘taught English history as one continuous set of events from Alfred to the present day’. Not true. It may be true that pupils in English schools are taught this, but in Scotland (at least in my day), we didn’t learn very much English history at all – and the fact that we learned about Scotland before and after the Unions of 1603 and 1707 didn’t lead us to conclude that Scotland=Britain.

    Apologies for straying so far off-topic (particularly to American readers for whom British politics must be even more off-topic than the usual excursions into US politics).

  12. Kylopod said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    but it was generally aligned with the interests of social and cultural elites, not opposed to them, which makes it very different from the populist criticism of the modern cultural right.

    Yeah, that's what I had in mind in my comment in the last thread, when I talked about the American cultural right's defense of figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin not known for the sharpest attention to the fine points of grammar. It's a tendency so strong that even the organs of elite conservative opinion have been coddling it for some time.

    Here is one example. It seems to me that the classic right-wing prescriptivists would be more likely bemoaning the OED's embrace of the errors of the masses than gloating about how the inclusion of this Palinism is going to "infudiate" the left. Obviously part of this springs from fealty to partisan politics. But that in itself is an indication of how deeply the influence of cultural conservatism is felt. You wonder how Buckley would have responded to this example. Like Palin, he was known for using words no one's ever heard of, except his could all be found in older editions of the OED.

    On a slightly tangential note, I have an aversion to describing anything in the American right wing as "populist," since unlike the populists of old there is absolutely nothing about today's conservative American economic policy that could be even remotely described as geared toward the common folk. Certainly, most people who have been described as conservative populist don't seem exactly eager to embrace the term. You don't become populist just by disdaining book learning and bashing "elitists." The populist tone and rhetoric of the Tea Party, as opposed to its policy views, is one of the more curious features of the American right today.

    GN: In his influential 1995 book The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin defined populism rhetorically, as " a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter." Some historians have disputed that characterization, but it accords with the way the word is widely used nowadays.

  13. RP said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    I find "Anglo-American" an acceptable term, though this may be because I am English… The term "British-American" would imply to some people Americans of British origin, which isn't what is meant; however, I gather than "Anglo-American" can have a similar meaning, even though I've never had cause to use it that way myself. I'm afraid when we're talking about an Anglo-American tradition (of language criticism, of politics, or almost anything) "British-American" is really no more accurate anyway, because what we call the Anglo-American tradition actually spans Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand…

    I must admit, and perhaps this is inconsistent of me – although I sometimes tolerate the loose usage of the prefix "Anglo", I would never use "England" or "English" to refer to Britain or the British, and would actively discourage other people from doing so. I know it was common practice in times gone by to use these terms loosely (and is still common practice to some extent, especially outside the UK), but I think it is better avoided.

  14. Cosma Shalizi said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 8:54 am

    Mark: Notice that your quoted sentence begins with "But from the 1960s", i.e., mostly or entirely after the active period of the figures you name. (Macdonald and Orwell were name-checked in the previous paragraph.)

  15. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    @Picky (and Fowler?)
    'that word Briton brings always a sneaking sense of the ludicrous'

    I wonder if that's why we now call ourselves 'Brits'.

    A British person; = Briton n. 2.Only occasionally found before the second half of the 20th cent.; in early use not a self-designation.

    Me (in one of my silly essays: a rant about English 'Ethnodeficiency'):
    …take the word "Brit". Brit is universaly used on several different sides of the Atlantic to refer (so it seems) almost exclusively to the English (as distinct from the word "British" which seems to be used everywhere for the Scots, Welsh and a small majority of the Northern Irish, as distinct from the English). Brit is, I think quite a recent word, at least I seem to remember a time (when I was young and the world seemed to have a future) when it didn't appear anywhere and then, a bit later, a time when it did appear almost everywhere, mainly in the plural and on walls, almost always associated with the word "OUT". Yes even we English have come to refer to ourselves by a term that owes its origin to the fact that people who didn't want us to be in various locations around the world, and possibly would have been happier if we'd been kicked out of Britain too, were in so much of a hurry and valued paint so highly that they abbreviated us. And now this apparent term of rejection is used as the standard way of referring to us by, for example, Americans who would never dream of calling the Japanese 'Japs' or even the Germans 'Germs'. So why this obtuseness?? One simple little word—ethnodeficiency. We just get left out; we are overlooked; we don't count.

  16. Picky said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    I think many descriptivists would have a more nuanced view of Fowler than to call him "notoriously prescriptive", and if David Crystal can see his value, so can I. Burchfield is more of a new text than an edition – although the lovely (but, as you say, of course, no longer true) line about being taught history as "one continuous set of events from Alfred to the present day" is one of those places where he quotes HWF directly. Just to clear this internal nonsense out of the way of American readers can I say that I entirely agree with RP that to use English instead of British is now bad manners (at least from the mouth of an Englishman). What I liked about Fowler's view was that it was essentially a half-apologetic plea for tolerance from our non-English fellow-British when we or (especially) others get it wrong. That's would be my wish, too.

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    Kazin's definition of populism is fine, I think. What Kylopod is reacting to is that "populism" is a rhetorical strategy, not a substantive position, absent some non-rhetorical means of determining who are the "ordinary people" and who are the "elites." In the U.S., Republicans skew wealthier than Democrats. (Pew Research in 2008 found that Republicans' annual family income was $18,000 higher than Democrats'. That was three years ago, but the phenomenon has been pretty robust.) It's a notable characteristic of U.S. cultural conservatism that it has so successfully branded the party of folks with (on the whole) less money and less education as the "elite" one.

  18. Kylopod said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    @Jon Weinberg

    That's exactly the problem. Since we're on the topic of prescriptivism, what bothers me about the notion of "conservative populism" is not so much that a word's meaning is changing from its historical definition, but that it's being used to mislead by hijacking the historical definition for something it doesn't apply to. Populism may refer to language, but it's an empty concept unless it's directed toward people-centered policies, something the populism of the past (e.g. William Jennings Bryan) could genuinely lay claim to.

    So-called conservative populism thrives by selling itself as a people vs. the powerful philosophy, when it is in fact pursuing policies that primarily or exclusively benefit the powerful, from reductions in America's safety net to regressive taxation schemes. These are rationalized through a variety of devices, usually some variant on "trickle-down" theory, as well as speaking vaguely about "cutting your taxes" without specifying who the real beneficiaries will be. Calling this "populist" implicitly concedes what it masquerades as, rather than what it actually is.

    You really can't understand American politics without recognizing the role this sort of rhetoric plays on the right, and why not only defending traditional grammar but a great deal of book learning in general is out of step with much conservative commentary today. But it's more about culture than income. After all, it isn't as if most of the left-wing professors who have become such a bugaboo on the right are to be found in the Forbes 400. That's why there is no essential contradiction between celebrating Palin's coinages and pursuing the pro-corporate agenda of today's GOP. I just don't like calling the end result "populism." I am not interested in cooperating with the con game the business community tries to play on lower-income white voters in this country.

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    It's amusing to see Brits (or whatever they wish to call themselves) fret over a simple case of toponymic and ethnonymic synecdoche as though it were an "ethnodeficiency". Calling a country by a part of it, or by a larger region containing it, has been going on for ages. It was much simpler to speak of the conflict between Russia and America than between the USSR and the USA. (It's interesting that the commenters focus on the imprecision of using "Anglo" but not that of "American"!) And before that, "Prussia" stood for "Germany (not including Austria)", "Castile" for "Spain", and so on.

    On the topic of GN's post: it's interesting to compare the politics of "prescriptivism" in the domain of a single diasystem with the politics of preservation of regional languages as against the imposition of a single standard. Before 1920 or so, the former was a "conservative" position, championed by, among others, the Catholic Church, while the latter was "enlightened" (Emperor Joseph II) or even "revolutionary" (Abbé Grégoire). As Dauzat wrote about Breton in Brittany in the 1920s [my translation], “the socialists… are rather lukewarm if not hostile, not to mention that their internationalist views, in general, mesh poorly with regionalism. Conversely, all conservatives are ardent supporters of Breton among the peasants, whether to keep the latter tied to the land or for the sake of social conservation.” But the Austrian socialists, around 1900, took up the banner of cultural autonomy for minorities, and Stalin (a Georgian) took it from them, so that it became a part of Communist language policy. Perhaps as a reaction, right-wing dictatorships hoisted the "one-nation-one-language" flag, and opposition to such things as bilingual education remains a right-wing cause, while the preservation of endangered languages has become a liberal one.

  20. Richard Hershberger said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    On the topic of "traditional grammar", I think there is more going on here than this post suggests. By the mid-20th century there was a body of work laying out a "traditional grammar" which was distinct from what linguists of the day had in mind when they talked about "grammar".

    Look at school grammars from the early 19th century and they are quite different from what would come later. The basic layout is familiar, but many of the details would change. You can follow various school grammars through the rest of the century following these changes, up to the 1890s or so. By that time the grammars look nearly identical to what would be taught through the 20th century, to the extent that grammar that it continued to be taught at all. So after a century of continual change, school grammar became ossified. This would come to be considered "traditional grammar".

    The study of grammar hardly stopped at the fin de siecle, but its practitioners shifted. The 19th century grammarians typically were teachers, often at the secondary level. The school texts they were writing were themselves the cutting edge publications. In the 20th century the study of grammar moved to the college level to people who weren't writing primary and secondary school texts. I suspect that this also ties in with when "linguists" moved away from historical linguistics more to the study of modern languages, including English. The grammars these guys were using and producing continued to develop. I'm not talking about Chomsky and that crowd, but rather about developments long before Chomsky came along. Pull out George Curme's English Grammar and you will find analysis with a solidly traditional foundation, but also talking about determiners and sentence adverbs and even a rudimentary stab at phrasal verbs.

    This material never filtered down to the school text level. So when, in the 1960s, some curmudgeon happened to notice the sentence adverb usage of "hopefully" he was completely unequipped to analyze it, not having any clue that there was such a thing as a sentence adverb. He concluded instead that this was an abomination and a sure sign of the coming fall of civilization. In the meantime the handful of academics who knew something of modern grammar wondered what all the fuss was about, since the usage was unremarkable.

    Throw in transformational grammar and the like and you have a complete disconnect between usage mavens raised on 1890s grammar and modern linguistics. But that isn't really the point. There is a similar, albeit smaller, disconnect between usage mavens raised on 1890s grammar and linguists raised on 1930s grammar.

    The problem of modern usage mavens defending "traditional" (i.e. 1890s) grammatical analysis is that this assumes that nothing has been learned about grammar since then. One need not be a Chomskyite to appreciate the absurdity of this. One need merely note that 1890s grammar is at a complete loss to explain why "Bob put on the shirt" is grammatical while "Bob put on it" is not: a trivial problem once one allows more recent developments into the discussion.

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    btw that essay was an essay in humour. It obviously failed.

  22. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    For me too, British-American would be parallel to German-American, an American of British descent. I sidestep the whole problem of Anglo-American etc. by referring to anglophones who live in anglophone countries that jointly constitute Anglophonia (cf. francophonie) or somewhat grandiloquently the Anglosphere. In most of the Anglosphere, for example, what is called the common law is in force, which might reasonably be referred to as anglophone law to an audience not familiar with it. This all makes me sound a bit Canadian (as does my systematic use of North American to mean 'American and/or Canadian'), but there are many, many worse things for a Yank than sounding a bit Canadian.

    Now obviously there are borderline cases: probably 95% of the population of the Netherlands over the age of ten speaks English very well, but that does not make them anglophones in the sense I intend here. By the same token, Abba Eban was far more of an anglophone than Henry Kissinger, as Eban was born in Cape Town, brought up in Belfast, and educated at (not in) Cambridge — but only one of them was the foreign minister of an anglophone country. India probably also counts as an anglophone country, having its own tradition of English-speaking, even though the bulk of the inhabitants are in no sense anglophones. And there are countries where English is official (as it is not in most of Anglophonia unless it is co-official with other languages, as in Canada, Wales, or South Africa) whose membership in the Anglosphere is dubious at best.

    I think this is a usage that everyone can easily adopt and nobody can sensibly complain of, any more than we anglophones complain (habitually, at least) of calling the common language English, though most of us have likely never set foot in England.

  23. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    Richard Howland-Bolton:

    "I’m always very proud of the fact that I was brought up as a WASP [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant]. It means that I belong to the only group in [Canadian] society that it is entirely safe to ridicule."
         —Northrop Frye, "The Critic and the Writer", radio talk for the CBC

  24. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    @John Cowan: But, of course, there was a reason for that. At the time Frye made his statement, Clement's Canadian Corporate Elite study reported that between 85 and 90% of Canadian "economic elites" were WASP, as were more than 80% of the folks running Canada's big media companies. When a group near-monopolizes money and power, it finds a little ridicule pretty tolerable.

  25. Pat Hayes said,

    November 21, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    As an Irish-Welsh brit educated in Scotland, I can attest that 'brit' as used as a convenient classification term here in the southern US certainly does not mean English to the exclusion of other parts of Blighty. And in support of Cory's point, I used to call Americans 'yanks', which I have slowly learned is a term that some southern folk are not entirely happy with.

  26. Randy E said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    "In fact both ["prescriptivism" and "descriptivism"] are so vague and internally inconsistent that we'd be better off discarding them."

    I would say the same about "left" and "right" in politics.

  27. Andrew B. said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 3:40 am

    As a conservative this article strikes me as strange on two fronts. On the one hand you seem to be critical of conservatives for having been prescriptivist while simultaneously lamenting the fact that we no longer are. So, what, Bill Buckley had no authority to speak on language matters but, oh, how lovely was his prose? Or something

    The second thing I would say is that the left's form of prescriptivism is as strong or stronger than the right's, and it certainly has more cultural cachet, or oompahpah, as you called it. It's popularly known as "political correctness" and occurs any time a conservative says anything that is then accused of being racist or "hate-filled." While I abhor racism, the statements in question can be harmless, and the liberal writers who accuse face no consequences for being wrong. I'm thinking of Paul Krugman's column "Climate of Hate," or Frank Rich's new column in which somehow the marxist Lee Harvey Oswald becomes a product of the right wing. Or Bill Maher's "denying racism is the new racism."

    You tell me which I should be more concerned about, the right's qualms over dis/uninterested, or the fact that I cannot open my mouth in some liberal circles without being a "racist" producing a "climate of hate" that could cause death and murder. To reiterate, your Tory says language produces uncleanliness. These writers say mine produces murder.

  28. LDavidH said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    I'm confused. I always thought "Brit" referred to all inhabitants of Great Britain (and Northern Ireland?), for the very reason that the Welsh, Scots and Irish are not English. I'm Swedish, but my wife is English and we live in England, where the distinction between England and Britain has always been somewhat blurred, so maybe I've got it wrong?

  29. Picky said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    No need to be confused, LDavid, of course British means pertaining to either Great Britain or the United Kingdom (or at least it does these days – there was a time when the meaning was wider). And Brit is simply a contraction. I think what's behind Mr Howland-Bolton's piece (which of course was in joke) is a pair of phenomena: firstly that Brit has widely been used pejoratively by those who happen to dislike, or have a political reason for opposing, the British (e.g. Brits Out!); and secondly that there is (we English believe) a tendency for the world to think that the non-English British are charming folk with fascinating minority languages, a romantic history and attractive modes of dress, and that therefore the sins of the British are down to the English. In those circumstances the pejorative Brit has been particularly applied to things English. (Although now that the British seem to have adopted the term themselves, this may change.)

    So this "amusing … toponymic and ethnonymic synecdoche", of using England to mean Britain or Brit to mean nasty English, has the power to offend the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish who feel their particular identities are being elided, and the English, who feel they are carrying the whole weight of opprobrium for a nasty imperialist past when they would dearly like to share it with their fellows.

  30. Rod Johnson said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Andrew B., while I take your point, it seems to be expressed a little melodramatically. It is really the case that you can't open your mouth without being labeled a racist? Has someone literally accused you of murder by speech?

    It would probably be worth comparing the bases on which these ascriptions are being justified. If one side bases its prescriptions on appeals to authority, often without much of a basis in fact (e.g., the split-infinitive "rule"), whereas the other side bases its on ethical or political principles, whether you agree or not, are they really comparable? You can at least articulate and argue with the principles; how can you argue with "it just *is* that way"?

  31. Andrew B. said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 11:23 am

    @Rod Johnson

    I don't think I understand your second paragraph. If I had to have a conversation with two people, one of whom was willing to rationally debate with me whether I was a racist who wanted people to die, and the latter who would not even consider my use of the split infinitive to be correct, I would choose the latter. I think you probably would too. Both are irrational, but the former would also be a fundamental attack and slander of my character.

    The problem with politics and political correctness is that even by having the discussion, by considering it as within the realm of possibility, you are actively losing the argument. "Crazy man shoots Gabrielle Giffords, is a cross hair from an obscure Sarah Palin pamphlet to blame?" That is a flabbergastingly absurd question.

    As for me personally? Well, read those articles I mentioned and try to find some way in which opposing Obama is not an accusation of murder by speech. But even in personal conversation, the left view of the welfare state is such that if you want to reform social security or the healthcare system you basically want grandma to die.

    The possibility that I believe, in good faith, that the policy I stand for could bring about better results for seniors, the poor, and the sick is outside the realm of consideration. It's more money, or you want people to die. There are exceptions, and God bless them, but they are few and far between.

    Has it happened to me face to face? Of course it has. And it can happen to you, too: next time you're at a cocktail party or otherwise amongst strangers try role playing as a conservative, to the best you can. You can even model yourself on a moderate conservative, someone you find reasonable, maybe Jon Hunstman or something. Bring up affirmative action, or the individual mandate. See what happens.

    GN: Well, you raise a number of points that should be grist for further discussion here. One thing, though: can you give examples of words or phrases you've personally used that have led liberals to call you a racist or sexist — not just for what you've had to say about topics like affirmative action or health care, which wouldn't be relevant to the linguisitic question, but for using expressions that have been stigmatized for what you'd consider PC reasons?

  32. languagehat said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    Andrew B.: While I take your point, and have tried to defend conservatives who were being shouted down in liberal forums, it is absurd to equate political accusations of racism etc. with language peeving, and I'm not sure why you're doing it except as a way to shoehorn your political views into this discussion. You might as well say "You're complaining about a little language peeving? WHAT ABOUT HITLER??" You're dragging the discussion into a direction that promises neither comity nor enlightenment.

  33. RP said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    Andrew B,
    Whatever the merits or demerits of the objections people have to speech that they rightly or wrongly perceive as racist or otherwise offensive for whatever reasons, this has nothing to do with "prescriptivism", which is a separate topic. If we were to expand the definition of prescriptivism in the way you're suggesting, we'd also be opening the topic up to discussion of essays that have been banned, censored, or criticized for being libellous, blasphemous, seditious, etc.

  34. Kylopod said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    While some of Andrew's complaints would seem to be veering this discussion off course, I think the topic of "political correctness" is quite relevant to the subject of prescriptivism and politics. Being a liberal I'm likely to disagree with Andrew's perspective. I happen to think conservative complaints about political correctness are overblown, and often used as an excuse for irresponsible speech.

    Nevertheless, the topic does point to some important ideas that have been so far overlooked in this discussion, apart from brief mentions of singular "they." I have in mind the movement over the last several decades to reform language to be more sensitive to women, minorities, gays, and so on. Coinages from "African American" to "little person" are examples of the movement's success in shaping the way we speak today.

    I believe it is a form of prescriptivism with distinctly left-wing roots. It differs from traditional prescriptivism in that it is an attempt to change language rather than keep it static. But it shares with the traditionalists a conviction that there is a kind of moral imperative on how people ought to speak, combined with an almost superstitious belief in the transformative power of language usage.

  35. Martin said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    "shoulds't"? I realise it's late in the day to be picky about the second person singular, but really…

    GN: What surprises me is not that I put the apostrophe where it doesn't look like anything is being apostrophized. This is not my forte among marks — I mean, before i corrected it, there was a possessive "it's" in this post. But I'm heartened to discover that I have so much company. Google Books turns up a number of hits for "thou shoulds't be living at this hour," in modern works of scholarship, including a mention of the poem in a work called The Wordsworth Chronology: The Middle Years, published by Harvard in 1975, the introduction to a collection of Milton's prose and a critical work on Harold Bloom, among others. And there are hundreds of hits for "thou shoulds't," from editions of Milton, etc. published before 1900. Which if I were a descriptivist I would take as vindication.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    What Kylopod said, with the proviso that, if you go back a bit further, various prescriptivist warhorses from Dryden to Fowler didn't claim to be keeping things static but admitted they were trying to improve the distasteful mishmosh they found around them. The other obvious parallel between "PC" language (I'd be happy to use a less loaded descriptive term for the phenomenon if a standard one existed) and other sorts of prescriptivism is the way in which a particular speaker's use or non-use of various identifying shibboleths can serve as a marker of social class / cultural affiliation. And it similarly can work both ways, because class distinction is rarely an entirely one-way street: users of feature X can feel superior to the knuckle-dragging ignoramuses who don't use it; and non-users of feature X can feel superior to the prissy snobs/teacher's pets who do. Presumably at least some speakers can code-switch, turning "PC" feature X on or off depending on what fits their immediate social context .

  37. Lane said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    I'd say it tells us something (empirically) that Andrew B was the first avowed or apparent conservative to enter this conversation, and his comments have provoked many others. Among Language Loggers the political mix is not even, no? So there is still something to the idea that descriptivists (sorry, but I don't have another great term to hand) tend liberal. Not quite true the other way round: a perfectly liberal English teacher can nonetheless blow her stack over the shibboleths of traditional grammar. This is something I tried to get into in my book, which is that running people down for the way they use language remains one of the more acceptable forms of public prejudice. Malcolm X said he felt liberated when he abandoned "slang" (ie Black Vernacular English), almost on par with his conversion to Islam. David Foster Wallace, author of that very misguided essay against descriptivism, was certainly no conservative. Other stickler leftists have already been named in this thread. Sticklerism isn't limited to the right.

    But I would say that descriptivism is surely left-leaning. Descriptivist language thinkers tend to be highly educated types who know what "descriptivist" means. All of those qualifiers (highly educated especially) now tend to make an American much more likely to vote Democrat. Obama took 53% of the national vote, but 58% of the vote of those with graduate degrees. I can't find the number, but surely the PhD vote was even more heavily pro-Obama.

    Finally, an side note: of public "liberal-minded" language commentators, some of the more prominent are libertarians, hard to place, or at the very least often irritate liberals. Steve Pinker and John McWhorter are in this company. John McIntyre seems to be a very cranky moderate Democrat, though I've never heard him say so. You can roughly guess my politics from the fact that I work at The Economist, which has endorsed Obama (2008), Kerry (2004), Bush (2000), Dole (1996), Clinton (1992), etc., and thinks gay marriage, legalising drugs and the flat tax were all worth front-page support. I emphasise "roughly" my politics. And yet we have a terribly sticklerist style book, which makes me a bit of an in-house hippie, grudgingly tolerated.

    So yes, politics and language attitudes don't line up perfectly. But does anybody know of a spitfire conservative who's a card-carrying linguist, descriptivist, "liberal-minded" on language or anything else of that ilk? I can't think of one, but those of you in the academy surely can think of a few.

  38. John McIntyre said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    Spot on, Lane.

  39. Andrew B. said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

    @languagehat hard for me to see how I've shoehorned my political views when I've only alluded to them and not actually discussed them. I don't really understand the Hitler reference or its relevance. Language peeving, to my knowledge, is the idea that some cognoscenti can declare what can or can't be said based on some arbitrary rule. This article suggested that when it comes to grammar rules, they have typically been the purview of the right. My suggestion is that the left attempts to control usage as well, especially through PC. If I seem indignant about the way that tactic is exercised by the left, it's because I am. There is, after all, quite a lot at stake. Apologies for not being disinterested (wink.)

    @RP I will admit that PC, in toto, is too large a topic to be discussed here. But as with Kylopod I can think of examples of PC that I, at least, cannot distinguish from prescriptivism. I'm thinking of, say crippled vs. handicapped vs. disabled vs. differently-abled. Or using the word Oriental (has ever a word been banished from otherwise innocuous usage as rapidly? I doubt it.) This article suggests that the right is concerned with prescribing "traditional" grammar. I'm adding my take, which is that the concern of the left is "correct" vocabulary. Moreover, PC is the nuclear option of prescription. People will keep ending sentences with prepositions, but some of these words they dare not use for fear of ostracism despite a long history of innocuous, non-racist usage.

    @GN The most recent personal example I can think was last week. I ran into a group of friends discussing the sexuality of another friend, whether he was gay/bisexual etc. Without any hint of malice I said he was "queer." It seemed to be the only word left that could describe this friend of ours, without more information. My use of the word was met with silent glaring, broken by a friend replying only with "You can't say that."

    Of course we have to take into account the knowledge base of the individuals or any other factor; this is, after all, a personal anecdote. But I've run into it often enough that, for me at least, anecdote becomes evidence.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    I'm not sure what counts as a "spitfire" conservative, but I should probably hope to qualify while simultaneously taking the descriptivist side of these things. Indeed, I would never have heard about the quite interesting panel discussion at CUNY grad center on language policy that Mr. Greene moderated earlier this fall were it not for my spitfire-like overlapping social connections with his Flemish participant. Descriptivism can be promoted quite easily in Burkean/Hayekian terms comprehensible to conservatives and prescriptivism can be derided quite easily in terms comprehensible to conservatives (buncha crackpot Jacobin rationalists / bureaucratic central-planners trying to impose their idiosyncracies / 5-year-plans on the honest common folk / decentralized wisdom of the market). I will admit that no one has given me either a nationally syndicated column or an endowed chair to make these points more broadly. One widely-read and overtly right-of-center blogger who consistently takes a LL-sympatico view of language issues is Eugene Volokh, although of course he's also a libertarian sort and perhaps thus ineligible for spitfiredom.

    Within the narrower world of linguistics-as-such, there are the SIL types who do fieldwork on underdocumented languages around the world but sometimes tend to freak out secular-liberal academics in linguistics departments on account of their wanting the results of that descriptive fieldwork to be used to preach the gospel to the unconverted. I doubt they're prescriptivists. And every descriptivist out there who wants to be able to do quick online corpus research to disprove some bogus factual assertion being made by some stupid internet prescriptivist owes a debt of gratitude to the not-particularly-liberal folks at Brigham Young University for hosting such awesome and free resources for that purpose.

    But the trouble with Mr. Greene's larger point is that it seems to have been documented over and over again on LL that the 99% of America's supposed educational elite who got credentialed without ever taking a course in a linguistics department are at least as likely to have their heads full of clueless prescriptivist poppycock as other strata of society, if not more so. Even if access to some sort of elite academic environment were a necessary precondition to being exposed to the descriptivist way of thinking about things, it is most assuredly not a sufficient condition. (The frequently-repeated factoid that holders of graduate degrees trend more Democratic in their voting patterns than holders of only bachelor's degrees is, btw, said by some to be an artifact of the very large number of Democrat-leaning unionized public school teachers with master's degrees in "education." It is debatable whether M.Ed. holders should be viewed as more of an elite intellectual or social stratum than, say, humanities B.A.'s working as baristas or writers for the Economist, and those M.Ed's are very much Part of the Problem because they are the Miss Thistlebottoms who are even now retransmitting zombie rules to hapless eighth-graders who will be stuck with them for the rest of their lives.)

  41. Jon Weinberg said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to have four-year college degrees, which is consistent with their higher median income. Without regard to the M.Ed. holders, though, I'd be quite surprised if the smallish group of people with Ph.D.s weren't mostly Democrats: people in this country generally get Ph.D.s because they want to be academics, and U.S. academia skews Democratic.

  42. Kylopod said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 8:17 pm


    I think this goes back to GN's point about the difficulty in defining prescriptivism and descriptivism. It's true that descriptivism is commonly associated with a knowledge of historical linguistics enabling an understanding of how language is ever-changing. But prescriptivism is also quite common among the well-educated; it dominates academic fields outside of linguistics (particularly education). Truth be told, prescriptivism and descriptivism are essentially both elite philosophies that most blue-collar folks have little use for in their lives. The point I made earlier was that American cultural conservatism often frowns upon excessive attention to the fine points of usage–though many of the same people (in my experience, at least) are highly scornful toward "Ebonics." On the other hand, I'd be interested to know if there are any doctrinaire conservatives who accept descriptivism. I've long thought of McWhorter as coming the closest, but he recently described himself as a "cranky liberal Democrat."

    (P.S. I happen to have read your book a couple of months ago, and I enjoyed it a lot. I'm a junkie for books on linguistics.)

    @Andrew B.

    Being in my 30s, the disappearance of "Oriental" from respectable English was my only direct experience with having to stop using a word I was originally taught was perfectly innocuous. At the time, many commentators spoke about the move from "black" to "African American" as representing the same shift. But "African American" merely came to supplement, rather than replace, "black." "Oriental," in contrast, suffered the same fate as "Negro" and "colored" a generation earlier: it came to be viewed as offensive, even though it was once widely considered neutral. I've heard explanations for why "Oriental" is unacceptable (mostly dealing with its Eurocentric origin), but I haven't found them very convincing. I also found the adoption of "Asian" a little confusing, because it effectively excluded many people indigenous to the Asian continent (Arabs, for example). The ambiguity can even have practical consequences; I once read about a study on interracial marriages, which didn't count, say, a marriage between someone from Vietnam and someone from India, since both are called "Asian." Nevertheless, I believe that groups should generally get the final say in what they want to be called. If most Asians see "Oriental" as demeaning, that's a good enough reason for me to stop using the term.

    With regard to "queer," when I was a college tutor a young woman came to me with a paper for a course titled "Queers in Cinema." I was taken aback by the use of the term "queer," but she told me that in the academic world that's the accepted term for gays. I don't understand the reason for this, as academics tend to be highly sympathetic to gay people and gay rights, and I cannot see how "queer" could be anything but a slur. How did you come to use "queer"? Why not just say "gay"?

  43. Lane said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

    Kylopod, thanks. For what it's worth, I don't think prescriptivism is (entirely or even mainly) an "elite" phenomenon, depending on what you mean by "elite". Based on many a regional NPR interview for the book, I can tell you that many non-"elite" types called in asking me to rule on their peeves. It's hard to say over the phone, but they seemed like educated but not hypereducated-intellectual types. In other words, to me there is a very distinct, large and engaged middle-class prescriptivism out there. Even Mark Halpern distinguishes his purportedly brainy prescriptivism from the "letter-to-the-editor types" writing in about split infinitives. He claims they're few and his braininess represents real prescriptivism. I disagree; there's a much broader base than he allows, and it's the default attitude towards language for most people with a BA who give it much thought.

  44. Mark F said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 11:26 pm

    Kylopod – What makes a term a slur is how frequently it is used that way. If you have several options about what to call a people, and you choose the name their enemies use, that says something about your attitude. Other factors, like whether the term is a clipped form, are secondary.

    I think "oriental," like "negro," was just used too often by people who were obviously only pretending not to be racist. I have the sense that the taboo on "oriental" started on the west coast and spread across the country. I remember in the 80's going to college on the east coast and being chided by a non-Asian from California for using the term, while my Chinese-American roommate, who was from Texas, didn't see anything wrong with it.

    "Queer", on the other hand, I think is a conscious political co-opting of a hostile term, in the same way that the pink triangle is a symbol of pride.

  45. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    @Mark F

    I totally agree. But it's important to remember that the movements to eliminate these words usually spoke in more absolute terms about what was wrong with them. "Oriental," for example, was said to be unacceptable because its etymological root ("to rise") was based on the Eurocentric perspective that the sun rises in the East. This is pedantic and unconvincing. (What's more, the term Asia, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, is speculated to have a similar origin.) You have basically offered a descriptivist explanation for why the word is regarded as offensive (it acquired offensive connotations over time as more people used it that way), whereas the commoner explanation is prescriptivist, suggesting there's something fundamentally improper about the word from its very beginnings.

    As for "queer," while a lot of slurs have been reclaimed for certain contexts (bitch, dyke, nigga, etc.), I've never heard of another one becoming the standard, "neutral" term in the academic world. The academic use of "queer" is nothing short of puzzling.

  46. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 12:19 am

    Also, in modern reclaimed use, "queer" seems to me to be a deliberately broad term that can refer to anything outside of traditional straight-cisgender norms, not just strictly to homosexuals. (There's also "genderqueer" which refers slightly more specifically to the whole range of nontraditional gender identities.)

    To some extent the use is a play on the old common meaning of the word.

  47. RP said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    It would have been odd if the commentators Kylopod mentions had been right about "African-American" replacing "black", as how would Americans then have talked about black people from countries other than the US or other than the Americas (depending on your interpretation)? Even if expressions such as "African-British" or "British African" were to catch on, how then would one have referred to a black person of unknown nationality, and why would nationality have been a central part of a black person's label but not always of a white's?

    Andrew B's example is interesting, and I can see why he used the word "queer" because, as Matt said, it has a wider meaning than "gay". In the 80s and 90s I would have seen "queer" as unequivocally a derogatory term, but from the mid-2000s onwards I've been aware that it has been reclaimed by activists (it is possible the reclamation started earlier than that; I would not necessarily have noticed right away). (I've also heard of the term "queer" being used in academe as someone mentioned.)

    So, when Andrew B's friends objected to his term, this could be for any of two reasons. Perhaps they were unaware that the word has been reclaimed and is not always derogatory any more – or perhaps, knowing that Andrew B had conservative leanings, they decided that he was not entitled to use the reclaimed sense or (a slightly different reason) that he was likely to be using the term in its original derogatory sense.

  48. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 7:15 am

    Also, isn't "black" itself a reclaimed term? It may not have been a slur, but it wasn't the preferred term in 1960. I think it got reclaimed so completely by the 1970s through the efforts of black activists (mostly, activists thought of as relatively radical!) that we don't remember it ever had derogatory connotations.

  49. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:25 am

    It would have been odd if the commentators Kylopod mentions had been right about "African-American" replacing "black", as how would Americans then have talked about black people from countries other than the US or other than the Americas (depending on your interpretation)?

    That's really a side point. While the terms "black American" and "American black" had existed before, AA was coined mostly as a substitute for "black," since Americans using the term "black" are in practice usually talking about American blacks. Of course AA doesn't apply to blacks outside the U.S., but because of how people were habituated to the term, you occasionally see non-U.S. blacks being mistakenly referred to as AA.

  50. Picky said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:29 am

    If we did accept the successful race/gender language campaigns as examples of prescriptivism, we would of course have to revisit that oft repeated mantra about prescriptivism being inevitably futile.

  51. languagehat said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    "If we did accept the successful race/gender language campaigns as examples of prescriptivism, we would of course have to revisit that oft repeated mantra about prescriptivism being inevitably futile."

    That's exactly why it's a bad idea to conflate them. Prescriptivism, when restricted to its original sense of grammar peevery, is indeed futile, because while a few people may be shamed into at least making the attempt to change their grammatical habits (though they inevitably fail, as do the Strunks of this world, in whose works the very constructions they deprecate can be shown to abound), the vast majority of people will go on speaking in whatever way comes natural to them, and the peevers will be left to sulk in the dustbins of history. The use of respectful terms for groups of people, on the other hand, can be and has frequently been successfully propagated, which is one indication (apart from simply thinking logically about the comparison) that it is absurd to call it prescriptivism. It's a cheap rhetorical trick to conflate something you're struggling against with something unrelated that you think you'll have an easier time getting people upset about. (Feminazis!)

  52. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:23 am


    I already explained that it isn't exactly like traditional grammar prescriptivism, in that it consciously seeks to change the language rather than make it adhere to some standard of the past. If anything, I think the prescriptivism of this reform movement is part of why it has succeeded. If the reformers had said, "'Oriental' was a perfectly innocuous term ten years ago, but since then it has acquired derogatory connotations and we should therefore stop using it," I doubt the movement would have met with the same success. It had to convince the public (and especially the press) that the conventional words were not just falling out of fashion but inherently and eternally defective, and that anyone who used the words innocently before didn't know any better.

    When you look at these language shifts realistically, it becomes clear that the problems with any of these words are relative and cyclic. Even the replacement terms can come to seem vulgar, after their novelty wears off. I was once watching a documentary about hate groups, and at one point a young skinhead started bashing a race he called Asians. When you have neo-Nazis casually using the term "Asian," it's safe to say it has advanced from PC terminology to common speech. It's still relatively neutral, but it could eventually become as problematic as "Oriental," if enough people use it that way. Both "Negro" and "black" underwent similar evolutions. But the reform movements won't ever acknowledge this fact, because it goes against the way they've marketed their suggested improvements of the language.

  53. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    I'm not sure about that. Do terms for racial/ethnic groups that fall out of fashion usually do so because of a claimed folk etymology?

    I've heard of cases in which people really did try to eliminate a word or phrase because of an offensive folk etymology (e.g. the false claims about the origins of "rule of thumb" and "picnic"), but these campaigns tend not to be very successful; those phrases are occasionally avoided but are far from gone, in part because people learned the etymologies were not true.

  54. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

    >I'm not sure about that. Do terms for racial/ethnic groups that fall out of fashion usually do so because of a claimed folk etymology?

    I wasn't talking about folk etymology. The Eurocentric origin of "Oriental" is true, as far as I'm aware. It just doesn't provide a convincing explanation for why the term has come to be seen as offensive. Most Americans continue to use other, equally Eurocentric terms (the Middle East, Western Civilization, etc.) without reservation.

    One of the arguments against "black"–or "Negro," for that matter–is that it describes blacks with a color that in our culture is strongly associated with badness and negativity. This is actually a pretty compelling argument. The problem is that nobody's come up with a viable alternative so far. "African American" was an attempt to do that, and it has had some success–but only as a supplement, rather than a replacement. Maybe it's just got too many syllables.

  55. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    Who says that prescriptivism never succeeds? Is this an application of "if it prosper, none dare call it treason"? Is it really the case that there has never, ever in the history of English been a deprecated/stigmatized usage that was successfully driven out of actual use (or at least out of appearing in edited prose)? If and when it *has* succeeded on a particular point, then descriptivists should presumably accept the results and no longer peeve about the peevers, but that's a different issue than the process by which that end point was reached.

    OTOH, well before modern PC concerns there were certainly historical processes by which previously non-taboo words became taboo. E.g., the verb "piss" appears in the King James Version but subsequently became understood as too vulgar for use in Bible translation. Whether the process by which that word became more taboo is usefully described as a mode of prescriptivism requires more historical knowledge than I have, and Prof. Nunberg was warning against retrojecting our modern categories in any event.

    Just on the timing of "Oriental" falling out of favor, I was noticing the other day that it's used non-pejoratively (indeed in a way that portrays the "Oriental man" as superior to the "Western man," although, as will happen with well-meaning white liberals, it could certainly come off as patronizing to the intended beneficiaries of the comparison) in the song "Ride the Tiger," which was a hit in '74 for the Jefferson Starship. Since the band were rich leftie hippies from the San Francisco Bay area you'd think that they would have been a leading indicator of any move away from the word, but it was cool with them as of that point in time. (The original says "Chinese man" at one point and "Oriental man" at another; lo-fi youtube footage of a performance by some extremely elderly version of the band this past July seems to have "Chinese" both places.)

  56. Picky said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

    Yes, LH, if you restrict prescriptivism to "grammar peevery" – is that really and exactly its "original sense" by the way? – then you stack the cards the way you suggest. With the other stuff, "political correctness" does the same job. But telling people to change those parts of their language that are counter to some authority looks to me like prescriptivism. Of course there is a difference of worth between an objection based on an understanding of grammar or semantics and an objection based on the sensitivities of those whose suffering entitles them to be sensitive. That is not, I hope, the point at issue.

  57. Rodger C said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    @Richard Hershberger: Your explanation of how my generation's school grammar came into being is fascinating and explains a lot to me. But it invites a question. Given that "traditional" grammar is for specific cultural reasons that of the 1890s, why did the Bloomfieldian linguistics popularizers of my boyhood rail against it while by and large taking it at face value as something that had existed since Aristotle or thereabouts? To me at the time, they seemed to be undermining their own case; they came across as a bunch of breezy mid-twentieth-century American wiseasses trying to knock down the accumulated knowledge of the centuries. But I guess the key word here is "popularizers."

  58. Jimbino said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    Good words you can use to communicate with the conoscienti while leaving hoi polloi behind are:

    A comprises B
    oral agreement

    though the discriptivists among them will understand your use of:

    at risk of
    he dived
    to each his own
    militate against
    the reason is that

  59. Jimbino said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    I find that the controversy over Descriptivism vs Prescriptivism to miss their possible points of agreement, which I think are:

    There is no "right" or "wrong" in English usage.

    Many people judge you by the words you use.

    Ability to discriminate is always a virtue and never a vice.

    Careful use of words ("dived" instead of "dove") will enable you to be appreciated by a discriminating audience without causing you to be misunderstood by hoi polloi.

    Careless use of words ("decimate" instead of "devastate") will brand you as hoi polloi and make your discriminating audience barf or at least pass you over for the job you want.

  60. Kylopod said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

    I was noticing the other day that it's used non-pejoratively (indeed in a way that portrays the "Oriental man" as superior to the "Western man," although, as will happen with well-meaning white liberals, it could certainly come off as patronizing to the intended beneficiaries of the comparison) in the song "Ride the Tiger," which was a hit in '74 for the Jefferson Starship.

    It was used non-pejoratively in mainstream media well into the '80s. One example I dug up when I was looking into this matter during a sociolinguistics course was a 1985 New York Times article that described Haing S. Ngor as "the first Oriental actor to win an Oscar." I also found an early use of "Asian" in the narrow modern sense from a journal article in 1979, though this article still unhesitatingly used the term "Oriental." The research I did pretty much confirmed my memory that the press treated "Oriental" as an unremarkable expression until about the early 1990s.

    You still occasionally see the term "Oriental Jew" in scholarly publications, a relic of when "the Orient" referred to what we now call the Middle East.

  61. J. Goard said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:35 pm

    @Picky 1:12:

    telling people to change those parts of their language that are counter to some authority looks to me like prescriptivism.

    On my conceptualization of the term, "prescriptivism" requires some sort of appeal to logical or otherwise objective reasoning, as opposed to true sociolinguistic facts. "Dude, don't say a cool song is 'radical' — we're not living in the '80s" isn't prescriptivism. I think Kylopod is on the same page here, with compelling arguments that at least a good chunk of PC argumentation is in fact prescriptivist. (Pointing out that nobody's skin color is strictly "black", thus the racial label is inappropriate — that would count as a prescriptivist argument, and I've heard it a lot.)

    @Kylopod 8:17:

    I once read about a study on interracial marriages, which didn't count, say, a marriage between someone from Vietnam and someone from India, since both are called "Asian."

    Jeez, really? That's utterly insane. Are they really that mystified by a broad geographical term?

    Here in Korea, I've experienced — not once but twice — Indians presenting on the commonality of "Asian culture" and arguing for a sense of shared mission. The real kicker is that this Asian cultural entity is also supposed to include Australia and New Zealand! As you might expect, the talks were chock full of Forer effect gems. Apparently, "Asians" share a love of family, respect for nature, respect for traditional holidays blah blah blah. It basically amounted to: "we're all humans with empathy, living in some kind of culture, and BTW we're also from the same third of the globe." Meh.

  62. RP said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    What has been called the "narrow modern sense" of "Asian" isn't universal. "Oriental" has dropped out of use in the UK too, but "Asian" isn't the accepted alternative (it would be "east Asian" or, more often, a specific term such as "Korean" etc). Over here, "Asian" usually refers to people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage.

  63. Picky said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 3:32 am

    The "notorious prescriptivist" Henry Fowler certainly thought the use of race and gender words was part of his remit. He discussed the terms English and Scotch and has a rather shocking entry on the n-word. He is a contrarian on feminine occupation nouns, arguing that more women will enter the professions and therefore more such words are needed. He is particularly keen to urge the introduction of "doctoress" on the grounds that we feel the lack of the word.

    Seems to me no more or less prescriptive than the rest of his usage advice. Just that we wouldn't recognise it as being of the Left.

  64. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    Some of the peevingest grammar prescriptivists I know are speakers of English as a second language, who first encountered English in a classroom environment and whose concept of correct English grammar comes from the formal rules they were taught there. This seems to be more or less independent of their politics.

  65. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    I definitely remember the deprecation of "Oriental" and its replacement by "Asian" as happening in the 1980s. I don't remember any specific justification for the change; it was just a matter of calling people what they wanted to be called, with the understanding that these changes can seem completely arbitrary.

    There's a transatlantic difference; in the UK, "Asian" is more likely to refer to anyone from Asia, whereas in the US it tends to refer to East or Southeast Asians, with people from other parts of Asia referred to with more specific identifiers ("South Asian", "Central Asian").

  66. Rube said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    For whatever it might be worth, I can remember well the first time I heard that anything was wrong with "Oriental". In the eighties, watching "LA Law". A character was complaining about "Orientals" being bad drivers, and was sharply reprimanded for stereotyping and for using the expression. I don't recall any reason being given other than something along the lines of "they prefer being called Asian" or "the proper term is Asian".

    I was gobsmacked, because until that point I had commonly said "Oriental" without any idea that there was any objection.

    Mere anecdata, but it fits with the general feeling that the change came in the Eighties, and came out of the American West Coast.

  67. Kylopod said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 9:44 am

    >Over here, "Asian" usually refers to people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage.

    Yeah, I'm familiar with that. It came up in the paper I did for the aforementioned sociolinguistics course, where I tried to trace the evolution of the terms "Oriental" and "Asian" and how they are used today in different countries.

    >Some of the peevingest grammar prescriptivists I know are speakers of English as a second language

    Without any doubt, the most off-the-wall work of English-language prescriptivism I've ever seen is the book Paradigms Lost by the Serbian critic John Simon, whose approach to the subject is so extreme it borders on parody–and is, also, adorned with some good old-fashioned racism. (In his response to Pinker's critique of the book, he attributed Pinker's descriptivism–which he dubbed "permissivism"–to Pinker's being a Jew from an underprivileged background.) Among his many "gems" is the remark, "The English language is being treated nowadays exactly as slave traders once handled the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers." Lovely.

    You'd think an ESL speaker would have at least some appreciation for the arbitrary nature of usage, but apparently not.

  68. Andrew B. said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    The cause of the change from Oriental to Asian, to my understanding is almost entirely the doing of Edward Said's Orientalism. That book is probably the best example of what I mean by prescriptive political correctness.

    He makes claims to the effect that simply by studying "oriental" cultures western orientalists (including ones who were purely scholarly, and whose work is still extremely valuable in the study of, say, Islam, today) were placing themselves in a power structure in which they perpetuated the dominance of imperialism.

    Frankly I think the idea is absurd. It's worse than the kind of stuff that politicians say when they imply, or state, that rap music leads to violence, or that David Starkey BS about how jafraican makes poor brits go rioting in the streets. It's spun in all sorts of Gramscian post-marxist superstructural trimmings, but it basically boils down to "if you say this you are racist, no matter whether you're racist or not."

  69. Rodger C said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    Maybe this is my own stereotyping, but I've long suspected that John Simon's being a Serb meant he may have absorbed some very rigid attitudes toward language standardization while growing up in the then Yugoslavia.

  70. Allen said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

    Was the shift from "Oriental" to "Asian" prescriptivist for most people? I can't recall ever reading or being told the former was wrong. It was just something I picked up from normal social interaction sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. Today, it sounds very old fashioned. In fact, if I hear someone described as "Oriental" I kind of instinctively want to jokingly ask if they were also "inscrutable." It sounds stilted and old-fashioned and seems to harken back to an earlier, unsophisticated age.

    Is it specifically prescriptivist if it matches the way a majority of speakers use it, and if the older term sounds strange to a majority of native speakers?

    [(myl) As I understand it, the (I think undeserved and unfortunate) prejudice against oriental originated with Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism.]

  71. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 28, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    It is my impression the word oriental began to be unacceptable in the late 1970s. I believe some academics were using "queer" at that point, too. But the rejection of oriental took a while to percolate out of academia, and I don't think the use of queer has ever become mainstream.

    For a few years in the 1970s, I edited college catalogs. I think tracking language in course descriptions would provide a pretty good indication of trends for oriental and queer, at least in academia.

  72. Jonathan Pool said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

    Nunberg says: "… Mark Halpern, an obscure character who dilates in a webzine on things like the origin of language or the End of Linguistics armed with nothing but the sense God gave him."

    Well, you, Mr. Nunberg, are not an obscure character, but 99% of the world's population could probably qualify as obscure characters. So what?

    Your ad hominem characterization of Halpern seems nasty. Halpern has written respectfully, and in part admiringly, about your work. If you want your opinions about his work to be considered seriously, I think you should clean up your sneering references and deal with the claims he makes.

  73. Kylopod said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    @Jonathan Pool

    Reread the paragraph. Nunberg wasn't mocking Halpern for being obscure; he was simply commenting on the absence of prominent prescriptivists among today's conservatives, suggesting it has declined in influence.

  74. Kevin S. said,

    December 10, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    I think that Jonathan Pool reads Geoffrey Nunberg's tone and intentions regarding Mark Halpern's work more accurately than Kylopod does. Nunberg writes, "It's telling that Mark finds no one better than to personify the conservative attitude on language than Mark Halpern," The key word here is "better", not "obscure".

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