Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Unquestioned authority and language

In a comment on a recent post, The Ridger asks a question that probably eats at all of us who work with language in a scientific way:
Gosh, why can't people just accept that the -ING form has five functions, including if you insist on Latin terms the gerund and the participle but also forms that Latin just doesn't have? Why is that so hard? Last month I fought for five days with a student who insisted on clinging to the terms he learned in the 1950s ... People let other fields of science advance, refine, and develop. Why must grammar remain unchanged?
That last sentence gets at something about linguistic prescriptions that a lot of people have commented on, like Deborah Cameron in Verbal Hygiene (1995:12):
Within the privileged space of the academy … where it is normally a sign of intellectual competence to broach the question ‘why?’, questioning the minutiae of linguistic conventions is a sign of incomplete or faulty socialization.
Lately, I've taken a new tack with some non-linguist colleagues in such discussions: I've tried stressing that the standard has a real role, that I try hard to use standard forms in formal writing, etc., but … [fill in standard rhetoric]. That's proven stunningly ineffective … on the next linguistic feature that comes up, discussion quickly seems to loop back around "but what's the proper word/form/structure?" Sigh.


Ollock said...

I'm not by any means a linguist, but I respect the scientific study of languages, and it really annoys me when people express misconceptions about it -- particularly when labeling something as "wrong" or saying that something is "not a real word" or "doesn't exist".

Unfortunately, I find that often when I try to correct people they just dismiss me as a know-it-all or yell at me about it. I find that with some people it's best just not to say anything about it -- just smile and nod.

The Ridger, FCD said...

As Mark Liberman once said (April 6, 2004, to be precise):

I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren't constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren't always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.

Mr. Verb said...

Right, that was a brilliant post. If somewhat depressing ...