Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lax societies, lax languages

When this blog was young and curious, we poked sticks at the bizarre stuff language mavens, peevologists and other cranks were leaving on the sidewalk of public dialogue about language. That quickly got old and, besides, the stuff is icky and stinky. Still, every so often, I find a specimen so odd that it warrants passing mention.

Take the Vocabula Review and today's announcement titled "Language Guardian" — a title taken from a piece about them in the WSJ. First, look at that banner … seven flags with this claim below it:
A society is generally as lax as its language.
This makes a clear prediction, but one that's hard to test. How can we gauge the laxness of a language or of a society? I'm happy to gather the data and run the test if somebody can suggest how to measure these things. Is it slackness of the vocal folds (say, measured by muscle activity over a particular utterance) and the corruptness of politicians (measured by the wealth they accumulate in office)? Is it the looseness of the requirement that subjects of clauses be agents (cf. "the dollar doesn't buy much right now") correlated with having loose bowels? (Sorry but that's actually the first definition of lax in Merriam-Webster's.)

I want to know who ranks where – does the wheel on the Indian flag reflect the steady motion of an orderly society where careful usage is respected? Does the amount of spilled beer on Melbourne pub tables compared to that found in Newcastle mean that our friends in Oz are lagging far behind the Pommies linguistically? (Or maybe I'm misjudging barkeeping in those places?)

What does it mean that the more visually appealing flags of officially English-speaking countries aren't represented? I like the flag of the Bahamas and South Africa's bold design. Are those societies being implicitly considered too lax to merit inclusion? If so, I'd protest that pretty vigorously.

Then, consider this, excerpted from the WSJ article about the magazine:
Despite what linguists and lexicographers have been spouting for some years now, people -- including Wall Street Journal readers -- are interested in reading and writing and hearing clear, expressive, inspiring English.
Now, some of my best friends are linguists and lexicographers, and I pay some attention to what they spout. When and where has a linguist or lexicographer argued that people aren't interested in reading, writing and/or hearing "clear, expressive, inspiring English"? Do they even deal with such matters? Maybe the LSA should just own up and start a crusade for muddy, dull, deadening English? (Or did I miss something in the last Bulletin?)

Finally, here's the closing plea to subscribe:
Do you, too, prize well-spoken, well-written language? Do you believe all right is correct and alright is nonsense, that predominant is an adjective and predominate a verb, that blithering politicians ought not to be elected to higher office, that a society is generally as lax as its language?
Finally, we've got examples of usage, and I do love data, but is alright less clear, expressive or inspiring than all right? I'm deeply opposed to blithering politicians, but are we more worried about pols splitting infinitives or lying us into war?

All in all, the substance of the argument looks pretty incoherent and the Vocabula's own prose is deader than Strunk, but it's without a single copy-editing glitch or misspelling that I can find.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, we need a linguistic pooper scooper.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Despite what linguists and lexicographers have been spouting for some years now, people -- including Wall Street Journal readers -- are interested in reading and writing and hearing clear, expressive, inspiring English."

Oh noes!!!1!! They're onto us!

Though I'd rather read "lax" language than the stuff the WSJ spreads over its editorial pages, especially now that Murdoch's in charge.

Mr. Verb said...

Right, I hadn't even thought of the issue of Murdoch's influence and the problem of clear English. Thanks.

Jon Boy said...

I'm constantly surprised by how little most self-professed language fans know about linguists and linguistics. Seriously, where did they get the idea that we are opposed to good writing?

Anonymous said...

Is the Vocabula Review guy another random headcase who's built his bizarre crusade into a living?

Just asking.

Mr. Verb said...

Don't have any clue on that, Anon, but if you find out, let me know.

goofy said...

Robert Hartwell Fiske "writes books, publishes The Vocabula Review (www.vocabula.com), and works as a freelance editor. That is, he struggles to earn a living -- surely, the fate of anyone with a mind of his own and a distaste for corporate life."

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, thanks, Goofy. Well, it's unsurprising that he's a copy-editor, just sad that he doesn't understand the relationship between well-edited prose and how language works as a system. But it's kind of disturbing that a guy who prizes being a free spirit and has a distaste for corporations buys into such an authoritarian view of language. I wonder if somebody sat down and talked things through with him … .

Robert said...

Dear Mr. Verb,

I read your comments about Vocabula's ad piece. I'm afraid you did not read the advertisement carefully, for your comments are full of inaccuracies. I am interested in your knowing more about The Vocabula Review, as Jan Freeman once said, "a big-tent publication" that publishes different sides of language issues; it is not solely a forum for its editor's prejudices.

I will happily give you a free month's subscription if you would care to look around.

Here are what some people have said about Vocabula:

http://www.vocabula.com/popupads/GoodWords.asp

Oh, and since you're curious, here's more about me:

http://www.vocabula.com/popupads/RHF.asp

Let me know if you'd like a month free.

Regards,

Robert Hartwell Fiske
Editor and Publisher
The Vocabula Review
www.vocabula.com

Mr. Verb said...

Thank you, I'll happily take you up on the offer to have a look at the magazine and a member of our team will be in touch directly. But if the post is full of inaccuracies, could you give some examples?

Robert said...

Ok, here are a few inaccuracies:


Take the Vocabula Review and today's announcement of their new issue, titled "Language Guardian" —

The new issue is not called "Language Guardian." That is the name of the article written by Joseph Epstein.

A society is generally as lax as its language. This makes a clear prediction, but one that's hard to test. How can we gauge the laxness of a language or of a society?

Your calling my issue "Language Guardian" is fairly lax I'd say; it's certainly inaccurate, rather, you might say, like Bush's having told us Iraq had WMDs. We might fight over your mischaracterization. I don't shrink from being attacked.

What does it mean that the more visually appealing flags of officially English-speaking countries aren't represented? I like the flag of the Bahamas and South Africa's bold design. Are those societies being implicitly considered too lax to merit inclusion? If so, I'd protest that pretty vigorously.

Now this is just silly. I sent you an ad, and I included the flags of the principal English-speaking countries. If I included many more flags, they would have had to show only a fourth or less of their colors instead of the half or third they now do.

Now, some of my best friends are linguists and lexicographers, and I pay some attention to what they spout. When and where has a linguist or lexicographer argued that people aren't interested in reading, writing and/or hearing "clear, expressive, inspiring English"? Do they even deal with such matters? Maybe the LSA should just own up and start a crusade for muddy, dull, deadening English? (Or did I miss something in the last Bulletin?)

Descriptive linguists are well-known language liberals (I myself am politically and socially liberal -- except when it comes to language use). Read, for instance, this:

http://www.vocabula.com/2003/VRAugust03Fiske.asp

I dare say you won't like it.


Finally, here's the closing plea to subscribe:

Do you, too, prize well-spoken, well-written language? Do you believe all right is correct and alright is nonsense, that predominant is an adjective and predominate a verb, that blithering politicians ought not to be elected to higher office, that a society is generally as lax as its language?

Finally, we've got examples of usage, and I do love data, but is alright less clear, expressive or inspiring than alright? I'm deeply opposed to blithering politicians, but are we more worried about pols splitting infinitives or lying us into war?

"but is alright less clear, expressive or inspiring than alright?" ... I suppose not; they are equally ridiculous misspellings. More laxness, Mr. Verb.

All in all, the substance of the argument looks pretty incoherent and the Vocabula's own prose is deader than Strunk, but it's without a single copy-editing glitch or misspelling that I can find.

I'd say you need to read The Vocabula Review to be able to judge its prose.

goofy said...

Robert says "here are a few inaccuracies" but he only addresses one as far as I can see: the name of the article.

Joe said...

Yes, Goofy, that seems to be right. Of course the original comment was "your comments are full of inaccuracies", implying that these included or consisted of misrepresentations of his magazine. The stuff he lists (even that one error -- from a cut-and-paste gone bad, since corrected) doesn't reflect any misunderstanding of the magazine's content or goals that I can see.

Robert said...
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Robert said...
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Robert said...

These recent posts are hardly worth responding to. No one who does not read The Vocabula Review can accurately and judiciously comment on its contents. It's quite clear to me that Mr. Verb and his minions, few though there seem to be, dislike reading, or dislike reading carefully.

Anonymous said...

God knows I do *not* want to be labeled a minion of Mr. Verb, but this last comment is truly odd. Goofy in particular has been doing some careful reading: He (or she?) points out succinctly that Vocabula guy's complaints don't touch the substance of the issues raised. The original post was about an advertisement as far as I can tell, not what's in the pages of the actual magazine, so reading the mag isn't directly necessary or even relevant. Instead of addressing ANY of the points on the table, Vocabula guy now insults not only Mr. V but also his readers.

By the way, how can anybody conclude from any of the comments here that anybody involves dislikes reading?

Mr. Verb said...

Well, all I really wanted to know was how a lax language correlated with a lax society!