CLIPPY SAYS.

I have just added linguistics grad student Joe Kessler’s blog Language Hippie to my RSS feed; its self-description warms my heart:

Language Hippie is a voice for increased tolerance and celebration of linguistic diversity. This blog marks an objection to the widespread notion that nonconventional spelling, grammar, and word choice are incorrect or shame-worthy. Here instead, those differences are embraced.

I commend to your attention his latest post, The Joy of Language (“Imagine you have a favorite recipe for making cookies. … You understandably take great pride in your baking — but would you insult someone else’s cookies, or denounce their recipe as illegitimate?”) and the previous one on singular they, but what really made me want to post was this one, with its brilliant imitation of “a notification from the old Microsoft Word Assistant, Clippy the Paperclip”; it’s reproduced at All Things Linguistic, which is where I found it. (Thanks, Jenny!)

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    Is this really better than prescriptivism? Any language (and any dialect/variety/register within a language) reflects a tacit social consensus (often much different and looser than the school-taught rules) about an acceptable range of syntactic forms, lexical meanings, etc etc etc. If you position yourself outside that range, you’re not being a wonderful nonconformist free spirit, you’re being a self-centered jerk who is imposing excess costs on people (not prescriptivists, just ordinary competent native speakers who don’t want to work any harder than they have to) reading or listening to you.

  2. dearieme says:

    Does anyone in Linguistics do science? I mean, actually measure such phenomena as ease of understanding? It really ought to be relatively easy to learn whether speakers of unusual dialects, or in exotic accents, are often misunderstood, or required to repeat themselves, or whatever. Then instead of tedious moralising, someone could announce that the dulcet tones of, say, Brooklyn, are measurably more readily understood than those of, say, Boston (by the natives of, say, Arkansas).

  3. If you position yourself outside that range
    People aren’t normally conscious enough of how they speak to justly say they are “positioning” themselves. When I went to Ireland, my speech was outside the range of the “tacit social consensus” of how English is spoken there , and I adjusted myself in certain ways (most obviously in vocabulary — I learned to say I was “on holiday”). But overall I continued to talk like a Yank for the excellent reason that I am one.

  4. dearieme, why would a linguist want to answer a question like that?
    I can imagine that a linguist might conceivably try to answer such a question scientifically (after first formulating it more precisely, of course); but probably not with the goal of proving, once and for all, that one dialect really can be “better” than another.
    Maybe my point is that the word “better” means three rather than different things in the following three statements:
    1. I like this way of talking better than that way of talking.
    2. This way of talking is a better way of communicating with population X than that way of talking.
    3. No language is better than any other.

  5. Is this really better than prescriptivism?
    What on earth are you talking about?

  6. Language Hippie is a voice for increased tolerance and celebration of linguistic diversity. This blog marks an objection to the widespread notion that nonconventional spelling, grammar, and word choice are incorrect or shame-worthy. Here instead, those differences are embraced.
    Cool man, pass the cookies, turn on the black lights and fire up the patchouli incense. Two generations on and today’s misguided youth are still under the hypnotic delusion (ingeniously propogated by conspiratorial Madison Ave) that the 1960′s were some sort of Elysian Field worthy of regurgitation ad nauseum rather than the foreboding advent of relativism’s slackard ways. The post-war “leisure time” adolescents were the perfect fodder, not cannon this time, though that hasn’t shot straight since.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps it’s just that “nonconventional” is such a silly word and a silly desideratum. Natural language is always and everywhere conventional. Non-prestige varieties of English do not defy “convention” in some fatuous hippie way (which will in any event tend to turn into “there’s no youth culture / only masks they let you rent”); they simply follow different sets of conventions that can be and are studied and described by linguists. (NB: as an undergraduate linguistics student in the mid-’80′s I had hair down past my shoulders and I still own a copy of the Worst of Jefferson Airplane on vinyl, so my anti-hippieism is not merely knee-jerk or unreflective . . .)

  8. Dearieme: Yes indeed. The research program called the Lingua Franca Core is all about that: what do all speakers of English distinguish, and consequently, what features of English pronunciation must L2 learners acquire in order to be generally understood? For example, all the consonants are part of the Core except the two th-sounds, and vowel length turns out to be more important than vowel quality (which surprises me and probably most Americans, who don’t make systematic vowel-length distinctions).
    Hozo: Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

  9. “Does anyone in Linguistics do science? I mean, actually measure such phenomena as ease of understanding?”
    I’m not quite following; how likely would it be thtalikely that a speaker of a dialect would not be understandable to a speaker of the same dialect. In other words, what understanding is there to measure?
    “It really ought to be relatively easy to learn whether speakers of unusual dialects, or in exotic accents, are often misunderstood, or required to repeat themselves, or whatever.”
    Ah, I see what you mean – how well is a someone speaking a dialect going to be understood by a speaker of another dialect, one of the “”mainstream” or “standard” dialects. For instanace how well would somene in Chicago understand a speaker of one of the insular English dialects such as BBC English or Scouse. That’s another question entirely. Yes, people measure inter-intelligibility between dialects all the time. Go look at Ethnologue under Zapotec or Mixtec for example, where they list 20 or 30 varieties and under the descriptions of many of them show their inter-intelligibiklity with other varieties.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    dearieme, in addition to hanging out here at LH, you might take a look sometimes at Language Log, which often deals with the things you are enquiring about. The host is a specialist in phonetics and is also an expert at statistical information. (I confess that those two things are not my favourite topics in linguistics, but they are indeed useful for many practical purposes). There are also other hosts and topics. Some of us (including Mr Hat) pop in there once in a while, though not as often as here.

  11. propogated
    Is that your ironic hippie spelling?

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Well, just on cue, it seems, Language Log today added “The New Yorker and the descriptivist specter” which explains the prescriptivist/descriptivist contrast and what descriptivists are actually all about.
    (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3985#comment-201744)

  13. Bathrobe says:

    propogated
    Is that your ironic hippie spelling?

    Hat reserves his prescriptivism for when it really stings! :)

  14. Language Hippie Dude: If your cookie recipe ends up tasting like dog biscuits, I’ll let you know. If your dialect or creative use of language leaves it incomprehensible and your message uncommunicated, I’ll likely just ignore it… and you.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t think LHDude would go as far as James Joyce did, and JJ is hardly ignored (even though his work is not everyone’s cup of tea).

  16. There are excellent reasons for the development of newspaper and magazine style manuals. Among the most important are that readers expect consistency in spelling, in the use of common terms and abbreviations, in forms of address and so on.
    Anarchists of the world, unite!

  17. Wenn man wirklich die Sprachenvielfalt feiern will, soll man lieber nicht auf Englisch schreiben.
    Saya menyarankan bahasa.

  18. dearieme says:

    Thank you, JC, Jim and m-l.

  19. What do dog biscuits taste like? I’ve never eaten one.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    PO: There are excellent reasons for the development of newspaper and magazine style manuals. Among the most important are that readers expect consistency in spelling, in the use of common terms and abbreviations, in forms of address and so on.
    No linguist would disagree with you! The problem arises when some people insist that everyone should “speak like a book”.
    Many magazines print short stories which include snatches of dialogue or conversation, and they also print humorous pieces written in the first person. In such genres, approximations of the way the language is actually spoken are almost always acceptable in context.

  21. Roaming Catholic says:

    LH, I think I get what Brewer is talking about, because I had similar questions myself: isn’t this guy feeding the descriptivist strawman of linguistic relativism?
    I say this as a tried-and-true descriptivist who is constantly having to explain to people that it’s NOT that there is no such thing as incorrect usage; rather, correct usage is determined not by arbitrarily invented rules but by the commonly accepted norms by which speakers actually use their language. Incorrect usage simply means “not how speakers of this language talk.” But I think you know that already.

  22. Thank you for the kind words, Stephen! Although the Language Hippie blog is really aimed at people without any linguistic training (who may have never even thought to question the notion of prescriptivism in language), I love getting feedback from other linguists and language enthusiasts about it.
    J.W. Brewer, that use of “nonconventional” is meant to indicate things that are outside of mainstream conventions. You are certainly right that nonstandard varieties follow their own conventions, and it was never my intention to imply otherwise. I’ve tried to be quite clear in my postings that all language is rule-based and orderly, since one of the main criticisms leveled against nonstandard varieties is the untrue allegation that they are illogical and ungrammatical.

  23. “I say this as a tried-and-true descriptivist who is constantly having to explain to people that it’s NOT that there is no such thing as incorrect usage; rather, correct usage is determined not by arbitrarily invented rules but by the commonly accepted norms by which speakers actually use their language.”
    This. (As they say.)
    You communicate more than your text when you speak. Politicians use regional dialect to make themselves sound down home, Southerners going into the corporate world go to dialect coaches so they won’t (woan?) sound so down home, kids on playgrounds use “bad grammar” so they don’t get their asses beat. And all of that is set by the particular speech community in question.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing: we wear clothes not at random or just according to the weather but according to circumstances. It would be ridiculous to insist that we have to wear formal clothes all the time, or that it should not matter if we showed up for work in pajamas. Without wanting to wear a uniform, we normally adjust to the common standards of those around us, at least in our working lives. These (usually unwritten and even unconscious) standards include some obligatory rules (all men wear pants!), some more relaxed ones (colours, jewellery, height of heels), and some no-nos (no ripped jeans or baseball caps in an office). There are also exceptional occasions which call for specific clothing and language, often following more ancient tradition (weddings, religious ceremonies). In traditional cultures, ethnic differences are often reflected both in clothing and in language. So are some social differences in large cities. Some professions call for special clothing, along with specialized vocabulary (eg in hospitals). Members of teams or clubs often wear identical t-shirts or jackets, and share some in-group words and expressions. Language does change through time, as do clothing fashions.
    Introducing the concepts of internal language diversity and change in this way makes them more acceptable to beginners in linguistics than talking offhand about prescriptivism and descriptivism.

  25. marie-lucie wrote: One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing . . .
    Wonderful analogy!

  26. marie-lucie wrote: One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing . . .
    Wonderful analogy!

  27. Introducing the concepts of internal language diversity and change in this way makes them more acceptable to beginners in linguistics than talking offhand about prescriptivism and descriptivism.
    You’re right it does. It’s a convincing persuasive analogy, and it’s not extraneously confrontational.

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    I see that Mr. Kessler is so terrifyingly young (i.e., may not have yet been in existence at the time I received my B.A. in linguistics . . .) that I don’t have any firm grasp of what constellation of meanings he might find evoked by “hippie.” But his various posts do make useful points for a non-specialist audience. One thing they do point out for me, however, (and I’m using him as an illustration of a much broader phenomenon, certainly not singling him out for criticism), is the way in which many descriptive linguists who in some ways are quite self-consciously scientific and evidence-driven about stuff are also simultaneously language buffs/fans/afficionados in ways that create some tension with the scientific mode of engagement with language because they have trouble keeping in mind the extent to which the majority of the population has no interest in their hobby. The extent of linguistic diversity (or its lack – compare the U.S. to New Guinea) is an empirical fact. The notion that diversity is per se wonderful and to be celebrated is not, and, indeed, the notion that linguistic diversity leads to better social outcomes for all concerned has some trouble accounting for, e.g., the rather bloody history of the Balkans over the last century or more.
    Put another way, sociolinguistics should also be descriptivist. It is, it seems to me, a brute anthropological fact that human beings are extremely prone to be judgmental about the language use of other human beings and to use such differences as taking-off points for class snobbery, reverse class snobbery, ethnic chauvinism, etc etc etc. Maybe this is irrational, but any descriptivist social science needs to account for human irrationality rather than wishing it away. The notion that these phenomena would disappear if only people were properly educated about language seems so naive as to be unscientific. It is like a political science professor inveighing against voter ignorance who is, upon closer analysis, simply expressing a pipe-dream fantasy that if only all voters had the personality and interests of political science professors, their electoral behavior would seem less frustrating to the professoriate.

  29. Breffni says:

    J. W.,
    People will always want to drive fast and eat greasy food too, but it doesn’t mean it’s hopeless to try to mitigate the effects of these tendencies through public information campaigns. Likewise, people have naive physics, naive statistics, etc., which we do our best to modify through schooling. Is there any reason to assume that naive views of language should be more resistant to reason? Widespread education in the scientific approach to language simply hasn’t been tried yet. I doubt Joe Kessler imagines language prejudice will ever disappear entirely one way or the other, but kudos to him for doing his bit.

  30. all men wear pants
    Except for those who wear kilts, “a costume sometimes worn by Scotsmen in America and Americans in Scotland” (Ambrose Bierce).

  31. marie-lucie says:

    JC, You are right, but I meant “in general”. There are not many places in the Western world where most men wear kilts on a daily basis. Here in Nova Scotia you do see kilts on some formal occasions, but it is a minority custom, and I don’t think those kilts are worn as business attire. I don’t remember seeing a kilted man on the bus, for instance.

  32. Eliot Kimber (whom I know slightly) only appears in this picture from the chest upwards, but I’m willing to bet he was wearing a kilt when this was taken. As far as I know he is not Scottish — but he’s certainly not typical, either!

  33. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I’ll have to take your word for it! Of course, when you get close to the top, you may be allowed a few excentricities.
    I have twice been surprised by kilt wearers. A few years ago I was staying in a university dorm in the summer, and many conventions were held there. One week there was a large group of mostly middle-aged or older people practicing Scottish dancing, the women all in long summer skirts, the men in kilts or shorts. One day while walking I saw coming towards me a group of four women, one of whom wore a kilt. As the group came closer, the kilted woman turned out to be a Japanese-looking man! At the end of the week all the dancers dressed up in formal Scottish costumes for a final presentation, and several of the couples in full Scottish dress were Japanese young people! Scottish dancing is (or was) apparently big in Japan.
    Second surprise: the only time I saw a kilted man on the bus (an exception I had forgotten), the kilt was worn by a young man I knew slightly, originally from St Kitt’s, and obviously of African origin. He said he was going to a meeting celebrating some Scottish tradition, and he was entitled to wear this particular tartan, which was his Scottish grandmother’s.

  34. Americans who go in for “Scottish Country Dancing” usually wear kilts for it, if male. On the other hand, my experience is that if you mention this sort of dancing in Scotland people will laughed at you.
    When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, the professor who was the Master of our House, an American with a Scottish surname, used to wear a kilt on ceremonial occasions. He also used to go up on the roof and practice playing the bagpipes. I can’t remember if he wore a kilt for that.

  35. One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing: we wear clothes not at random or just according to the weather but according to circumstances.
    That would imply, at a minimum, each speaker have a wardrobe of “internal variety” from which to cloth themselves. That is far from the case. With thongs and short pants representing the range of individual sartorial expression, life can be an everyday beach but don’t be flummoxed if you’re henceforth addressed as Mr. Dude or Ms. Dudette.

  36. Bathrobe says:

    @Hozo: I assume we are using ‘thongs’ in the Australian sense.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Hozo, are you describing the average male surfer? Perhaps their linguistic range is similar to their sartorial range? I am not sure what to make of the social implications of “Dude” and “Dudette”.

  38. By no means exclusively Australian! This Yank both heard and used thong in that sense as a child, though I’ve pretty much dropped it now.

  39. I believe Hozo is suggesting that there are people who always wear the linguistic equivalent of the most casual beachwear–who don’t have anything even a little dressier than that in the linguistic equivalent of their closet.
    But I don’t know why he thinks that the assertion that “internal variety” is useful to speakers should “imply” that all speakers have a given amount of variety. Nobody is asserting that everybody has the linguistic resources to, for example, do well in a job interview.

  40. Hozo is just trying to stir the pot, as usual.

  41. an American with a Scottish surname, used to wear a kilt on ceremonial occasions
    Did he wear it with an academic gown and a floppy velvet cap? Are there pictures on google?

  42. Here it says he was Scottish (assuming there weren’t two of them).

  43. marie-lucie says:

    “internal variety”: I meant within a language as a whole, not just within an individual’s command of the language. Slang, professional jargons, regional quirks, as well as casual and elevated speech and writing, can all be parts of a language, but no single person is expected to be in command of all, any more than to have clothes for every possible occasion in their wardrobe. In both cases these things depend on the person’s way of life, social status, etc, and personal choices in these matters are dictated by many factors both conscious and unconscious.

  44. marie-lucie says:

    Ø , I totally agree with your comment.

  45. Crown: Good searching. Yes, that was the one, that Dunn. So my memory has failed me (again) and this is evidence for Ambrose Bierce’s definition.
    I have an unfortunate tendency to say “quilt” when I mean “kilt”, though the words are not related, any more than “quoll” and “koala”.

  46. Nobody is asserting that everybody has the linguistic resources to, for example, do well in a job interview.
    There’s the crux. At what point does it become socially or even (de)evolutionary critical, in a cultural sense, if one of the most banal exercises in the human interaction catalogue is beyond the capacity of our underclothed utterers. “Kowabunga” passes for hip when you’re riding the crest but the endless summer of language deterioration doesn’t look as sun-flecked with stringy, bleached hair and smelling of the briny deep.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, I much enjoyed reading about Dr Dunn, professor of Celtic languages and literatures. Of course he must have cultivated a strong Scottish accent. I can just imagine the exorcism ceremony, with bagpipe accompaniment.
    Years ago when living in Victoria I rented rooms in a house where the husband was a member of the Victoria Pipe Band, in which he (a large man) played the BIG drum (worn strapped over the belly). The band often participated in the city’s public events, and were hoping to perform in the Edinbugh Festival the following summer. Once in a while the whole band (perhaps 7 or 8 men) would gather in the living room for practice. Before practicing the pieces they had to tune the pipes to agree with each other, producing interesting but inescapable sounds for a whole hour. The bagpipe as an instrument is not meant for indoor music.

  48. m-l, was that the Victoria Police Pipe Band? Are you saying that they were doing this indoors? It looks like more than 8 or 9, though.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    No, no, nothing to do with the police! They all played bagpipes, except for the one huge drum, that my landlord (a psychologist) wore hanging vertically over his belly, sometimes crossing and uncrossing his arms over the drum in order to hit it from both sides (I mean the drum was in the same vertical position relative to him as if he was going to roll it on the ground). He did not do this at home though! The band was also better dressed than the police band here, when they paraded and performed in public.
    I lived in the couple’s house in 1980-81, and your picture dates from 1998, so the band I am talking about may have disbanded (indeed) in the meantime. The leader was an excellent piper, but he was also the oldest in the band, and perhaps he retired or passed on.

  50. J.W. Brewer says:

    And just to show the influence of regional dialect, in the NYC metro area kilts when worn in connection with bagpipes are not Scottish at all but Irish-American (our small-town Memorial Day parade had two pipe-and-drum groups, one associated with the county police’s Emerald Society; the other with the Int’l Brotherhood of Electrical Workers).

  51. “differently than”? To the galleys! (Pun intended.)

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Here is a comment I copied from a commenter on Stephen Pinker’s SLATE article:
    Hearing prescriptivist complaints is like hearing people complain about kids’ fashion— it’s never getting better, it makes no ‘sense’, and it’s always a sign of slovenliness, stupidity, or worse.
    But the rules they base their judgments on have no inherent point to them; saying “don’t split infinitives” is as logical as “pink is the new black,” no matter how you rationalize it.
    That said, there is a place for conventions of style; people will judge you by how you write and talk, just as they judge by your clothing. Also, you wouldn’t wear fishnets and a thong to a funeral, etc. But that’s not because a suit is inherently more respectful than a sex-club outfit; that’s just how our conventions arose.

  53. The Irish national bagpipe, the uilleann /ɪl(j)ən/ ‘elbow’ pipes, are normally played indoors and sitting down: the bag is inflated using a pumping action of the arm rather than by blowing into it.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Interesting, JC. I met someeone who played a small instrument, based on a bagpipe (I forget the name), but I don’t think it was the Irish pipe as he definitely blew into it. He carried it in a small bag, disassembled, and put it back together when he wanted to play. He said that it was an excellent conversation opener anywhere, as hardly anyone he met had ever seen one and people were always very curious about it.
    In France there are two regions where bagpipes are traditionally played, one of them being Brittany. Before the Revolution at least two forms of bagpipe was played by country people, a largish one and a smaller one. There are still old folk songs which feature shepherds playing one of those instruments.
    The members of the Victoria Pipe Band that I knew were either Scots or of recent Scottish origin, and they definitely played large bagpipes, standing up and often marching.

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