DAVID FOSTER WALLACE DEMOLISHED.

I was attacking DFW’s long Harper’s essay on usage in a comment on MeFi today, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got, and I finally couldn’t resist letting him have it at length. Wallace’s long, long article pretends to be a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but that’s just the pretext for yet another in the endless series of rants about how proper usage is being forgotten and language is going to hell in a handbasket that probably started in ancient Sumer and will continue until the sun goes supernova. Wallace uses cleverer rhetoric than most (establishing a folksy/learned persona that is intended to convince you of both his bona fides and his credentials, and conceding enough of his opponents’ arguments that he hopes to disarm the less truculent of them), but what he’s selling is the same old snake oil: “You’ve got to learn and use all those fourth-grade grammar rules—it’s really important!” He proudly admits to being what in his family is called a SNOOT (his caps), and when he admits that some of those rules are actually silly he says (on p. 51 of the original article) “…people who insist on them… are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong” (again, his caps). Truer words were never spoke. Let’s take it from the top.
p. 41, fn. 3: “SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic…” What does he mean here by “à clef“? A roman à clef is a novel with a key, a key which if you possess it (by being in the know) allows you to decipher which characters represent which real people. This is not how he uses “SNOOT” (if it were, it would be a coded designation for a single person, his mother perhaps); the word is simply family jargon. We are forced to conclude he does not know how to use the French phrase he deploys so snappily.
p. 42, fn. 8: “From personal experience, I can assure you that any kid like this is going to be at best marginalized and at worst savagely and repeatedly Wedgied.” Why the capital W? We go to Webster’s Third and find the answer: Wedgies is thus written. But wait! The definition is “trademark—used for shoes having a wedge heel.” In other words, it has nothing whatever to do with the colloquial usage he is trying to write down (having to do with the malicious pulling up of underwear). He is more intent on proving that he knows how to use a big dictionary than in reading what it says there.
p. 43: “…the notoriously liberal Webster’s Third New International Dictionary came out in 1961 and included such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them.” The lie direct: “heighth” is labeled “chiefly dial[ect]” and “irregardless” “nonstand[ard].” Does he think nobody’s going to check up on him?
Same page, next paragraph: “We regular citizens…” This sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.
p. 44, fn. 14: “q.v. this from the January ’62 Atlantic“: This is the first of at least three occasions on which he misuses “q.v.” as if it were “v.” (vide, Latin for ‘see’). Q.v. stands for quod vide ‘which see’ and is used after a reference to the thing seen.
p. 45: “These guys tend to be hard-core academics, mostly linguists or Comp theorists.” Comp theorists? I Googled “comp theorist” and got three (count ’em) hits, all lower-case and all apparently using “comp” for “composition.” So there are two issues here: why is he using such an obscure phrase (I’m still not clear on what “comp theorists” are or why they are “hard-core academics”), and why does he upper-case the C? [For “comp theorists,” see second Addendum below.]
Next paragraph: “…Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via ‘freewriting,’ ‘brainstorming,’ ‘journaling,’ a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology.” But descriptivism in the relevant sense (describing the observed usage of language rather than prescribing how it should be used) has nothing to do with “freewriting” and the like; you can be “self-exploratory and -expressive” using the most traditional Oxbridge prose style (and indeed many have). He’s trying to tar scientific linguists with any brush that comes to hand.
p. 46, fn. 19: “Standard Written English (SWE) is also sometimes called Standard English (SE) or Educated English, but the inditement-emphasis is the same.” “Inditement” means ‘act of composing, giving literary or formal expression to’; I have no idea how he’s using it here and I don’t think he does either.
At the end of the same footnote: “(Yr. SNOOT rev. cannot help observing, w/r/t these ads, that the opening r in Refer here should not be capitalized after a dependent clause + ellipses—Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.)” Ironically, the Latin words he is here using as an independent sentence are themselves a dependent clause: Horace says “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus,” I am indignant whenever worthy Homer drowses (i.e., allows his attention to flag). All that quotation-grubbing only to show how poor his Latin is!
p. 47: “…Methodological Descriptivists seem either ignorant of this fact or oblivious to its consequences, as in for example one Charles Fries’s introduction to an epigone of Webster’s Third called The American College Dictionary.” This is the lowest kind of ad hominem, this condescending “one”—”some guy called Fries whose opinion we needn’t take seriously.” Charles Fries was a distinguished linguist and a president of the Linguistic Society of America, and he knew more about language than David Foster Wallace is ever likely to; the fact that Wallace is ignorant of him is a reflection on Wallace, not Fries. And matters degenerate from there; Wallace quotes Fries (comparing a dictionary to a book of chemistry or physics recording observed facts) and then says “This is so stupid it practically drools.” I will try to restrain myself and simply point out that that aspersion would be better cast on what Wallace says next:

An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.

The confusion (or drooling stupidity, if you prefer) is evident: linguists describe the observed facts of linguistic usage, not people’s beliefs about it; the comparison would be not to an ethics textbook but to a textbook of human behavior, and what would such a catalog of behavior be worth if it included only behavior the author approved of?
Now, still on p. 47, we come to two of the most glaring patches of nonsense in the whole essay. The paragraph immediately following the quote above begins:

Norm-wise, let’s keep in mind that language didn’t come into being because our hairy ancestors were sitting around the veldt with nothing better to do. Language was invented to serve certain specific purposes: “That mushroom is poisonous”; “Knock these two rocks together and you can start a fire”; “This shelter is mine!”

Need I point out that David Foster Wallace has not the faintest idea how language came into being (nor does anybody else)? And the suggestion that it was “invented” to serve “certain specific purposes”… well, Wallace tries to justify this with the second nonsense patch, footnote 23, which takes up half the page. It begins:

This proposition is in fact true, as is interpolatively demonstrated below, and although the demonstration is extremely persuasive it is also, as you can see from the size of this FN, lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense, so that again you’d probably be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition and forging on with the main text.

The haughty tone is bad enough, but in fact nothing is “demonstrated” in the footnote. The first part is irrelevant maundering about an adolescent pot-smoker; he continues with a deep bow in the direction of Wittgenstein, whose “very complex and opaque and gnomic” argument is summarized to the point of absurdity, and concludes with a grandiose bit of hand-waving about “class, race, gender, morality, pluralism… You name it.” Nothing was delivered.
p. 48: He provides examples contrived to show how important it is to follow the rules:

Some of these rules really do seem to serve clarity, and precision. The injunction against two-way adverbs (“People who eat this often get sick”) is an obvious example, as are rules about other kinds of misplaced modifiers (“There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others”) and about relative pronouns’ proximity to the nouns they modify (“She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day”).

Note that even these made-up examples are not actually ambiguous; say them aloud (or imagine them said aloud) and the meaning is clear.
p. 49: “I am 100-percent confident…” Hyphens are not used in this construction.
p. 50: “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!” This is not a correct use of “bethought,” which occurs only with a following reflexive pronoun and means ‘called to mind, reminded oneself’ (Charlotte Bronte: “I bethought myself of an expedient”). The word Wallace wants is “thought.” (This error is first cousin to “begrudgingly” used for “grudgingly.”)
p. 51: “Part of this is a naked desire to fit in and not get rejected as an egghead or fag (see sub).” Sub is a preposition. The word Wallace is fumbling around for is infra ‘below.’

Same page: “Garner himself takes out after the s.i. rule in both SPLIT INFINITIVES and SUPERSTITIONS.” Doesn’t he mean “takes on” rather than “takes out after”?
p. 52: “…ask ‘s’up, s’goin on,’ pronouncing on with that NYCish oo-o diphthong that Young Urban Black English deploys for a standard o” (there is supposed to be a macron over “oo” and a breve over “o”). I have lived in NYC for decades and have never heard a Young Urban Black, or anyone else, pronounce “on” in such a way. (On the same page he talks about “quadruple Wedgies”; see my remarks on p. 42 above.)
OK, even I am getting tired of this. It should be clear by now that Wallace is punching above his weight. He has no right to parade erudition he has no claim to, still less to condescend to people who know far more than he. But I have saved my favorite bit for last. In a long (and irrelevant, but large chunks of the essay are irrelevant, it’s Wallace’s little mannerism, owing nothing, I am sure, to his being paid by the word) attack on Academic English on p. 56, he mentions “pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition).” How did he manage not to blush?


Addendum. More on DFW (his attack on Philip Gove) here. I should add, for the benefit of those who consider the above points “nitpicking,” that they are no such thing. I can’t hope to teach a basic course in linguistics in the space of a blog entry; all I can do is point to enough errors that you should be thinking “If the guy makes that many mistakes, how can I trust that he knows what he’s talking about?” It would be one thing if DFW were writing about, say, plumbing and I were picking apart his Latin; that would be nitpicking. But he’s writing about language, and his only claim to your attention is the idea that he knows more about it than you do. The more picky points he brings up, the more important it is that he get them right. Sure, it’s a minor matter that he misuses a capital letter in “Wedgied”—except that the only point of his using it (since nobody else ever has or ever will, unless they foolishly copy it from him) is to make a point of his extreme accuracy in the tiniest of matters… and he gets it wrong. That should bother even the most devoted DFW fan. (Imagine him as a guy on a podium promoting his brand of heal-all nostrums, which I, a licensed physician, know to be useless and potentially harmful. I can’t give you my medical education, but if I keep pointing out that he refers to “tibia” when he means “fibula” or talks about nonexistent glands, you might begin to distrust him even though he’s a charming guy with a great line of patter.)

I should also add that I am not attacking DFW as a writer. I’m a big fan of footnotes and asides and parades of erudition, and I enjoy his deployment of the full arsenal of rhetoric American style—except here, where it’s put in the service of a wrong and harmful doctrine. “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.
Addendum 2. June 2005: I have heard from an actual comp theorist, Jay Steichmann, who says:

By my definition, only a very few comp (small c, most definitely) theorists are “hard-core” academics. This is not to say that they are weak theorists, only that our discipline as such still struggles to define itself, research is primarily qualitative, and teaching writing/composition occupies as much time in our thought and actions as does purely theoretical work… Our big conference is the 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). None of the people that I have been reading in composition theory would, as far as I know, describe themselves purely as “composition theorists” without veering off into describing their complementary interests in rhetoric, philosophy, education and so on. However, when we look at the works that try to theorize composition studies, the names most often cited would probably be Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Stephen North, James Berlin, Mike Rose, Geoff Sirc, Victor Vitanza, Victor Villanueva, Cindy Johanek, Joseph Harris—and there are probably quite a few names I am leaving out. But this field struggles to define itself because it is by nature an interdisciplinary, humanistic study. Joseph Williams (whose rules on grammar are those I most often teach) may or may not consider himself a comp theorist and the same applies to Andrea Lunsford… Where comp/rhet theorists and practitioners struggle is that there is no empirical proof that doing “x” will produce good writers/good writing, which is what Wallace and others like him seem to expect. And when we reject teaching rules of grammar as the be-all and end-all foundation of teaching composition, we come under considerable attack from that segment of the public who cannot write two cogent sentences in a row, but whose memory of being taught grammar sticks with them and they think that their children should be made to suffer equally.

I am grateful for the crash course in a field I didn’t know existed.

Comments

  1. He doesn’t know anything about math either:

    ‘As you’ve probably begun to see,’ David Foster Wallace writes in Everything and More, ‘Aristotle manages to be sort of grandly and breathtakingly wrong, always and everywhere, when it comes to infinity…As for Wallace’s book, the less said, the better. It’s a sloppy production, including neither an index nor a table of contents, and after a while his breezy style grates. No one who is unfamiliar with the ideas behind his dense, user-unfriendly mathematical expositions could work their way through them to gain any insight into what he is talking about. Worse, anyone who is already familiar with these ideas will see that his expositions are often riddled with mistakes. The sections on set theory, in particular, are a disaster. When he lists the standard axioms of set theory from which mathematicians derive theorems about the iterative conception of a set, he gets the very first one wrong. (It is not, as Wallace says, that if two sets have the same members, then they are the same size. It is that two sets never do have the same members.) From there it is pretty much downhill. He goes on to discuss Cantor’s unsolved problem, which I mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph. There are many different, equivalent ways of formulating the problem; Wallace gives four. The first and fourth are fine. The second, about whether the real numbers ‘constitute’ the set of sets of rational numbers, does not, as it stands, make sense. And the third, about whether the cardinal that measures the size of the set of real numbers can be obtained by raising 2 to the power of the smallest infinite cardinal, is simply wrong: we know it can. Any reader keen to gain insights into the infinite would do better to go back to Aristotle.

    Here’s the article, but I’ve quoted everything having to do with him. I got it from Maud Newton.

  2. Oh dear. I’ve tried not to let my prejudices run away with me in the matter of DFW, but I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point.

  3. I have been looking for your comments on the DFW Garner essay for over a year.
    I love DFW, but yours is a totally killer demolishing. Or small w “wedgie-ing,” if you prefer.

  4. Why, thank you. I’m particularly glad to have it appreciated by a DFW fan, since I’ve tried to make it clear that I think he’s a good writer, just out of his league on this subject (as is only to be expected).

  5. Rosemarie DiMatteo says:

    Poor David. How I love his writing. There was a time when I thought I could learn so much from him. I was team-teaching a grammar course with him one semester–that year an illness took me out of commission. Anyway, he works a class to the point of suicide. Reading your apt remark (DFW’s stance): “…nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it–” I believe–because I’ve seen him in action–that he’s been the victim of that same dehumanizing “club” in his early life. The damage is clearly evident in his all-too-autobiographical writing, by the way. No big revelation. The saddest thing about all this is that yes, he is one of the most “charming and chatty” guys I’ve ever met. However, DFW’s supreme erudition and mesmerizing charm won’t save him from being forever the loneliest man on the planet. He makes it so.

  6. Thanks for a most enlightening comment. This is why I hate closing comments on old entries. Spammers, spare this thread!

  7. Aren’t you caught in a double bind here? If you choose to attack DFW’s essay on the grounds that his spelling and grammar are poor, then you must surely help to prove his main contention: that correct spelling and grammar – as defined by experts such as yourself – are a major component in the creation of written authority. Had this essay been written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English, and whose writing was therefore full of non-standard usages, ambiguous grammar and spelling, and the incorrect use of Latin tags, would you then approve of it as a representative work of those linguistically-disadvantaged people who are unable to fight back? Certainly it would be hypocritical of you then to criticise it on language grounds.
    (My worry, to reply briefly to Rosemarie DiMatteo, is that by not introducing our own standards of writing to people outside this elite group we all occupy, we are continuing to exclude them. There must surely be a case for saying that the way to chip away at elitism is to bring as many people into the club as possible, rather than to deny that the club exists or that we don’t belong to it ourselves. I’m sorry, I’m using ‘club’ in a different sense from the way it was used in the other comments here – although it seems to me a useful pun.)
    You may delete this comment if you wish, as it seems as though you will have had a number of complaints already that the article is nitpicking. But I had expected some engagement with what he argues, which only appears in your list at the point about descriptivism (which point I think you have misunderstood). DFW may elide some of the argument, but it is familiar enough: a second-hand knowledge of (perfectly justifiable) descriptivism in academic linguistics led to many English teachers choosing to ignore the existence of rules or norms of language and encouraging instead the use of language for self-expression. I don’t think – and I don’t think DFW implies – that descriptivism inevitably results in this kind of approach to language teaching; and he certainly never claims that anyone ever imagined self-expression to be achievable only if language norms were ignored. But it is a verifiable historical corruption of the idea: even if I can only here point to my own experience of being taught no English grammar at school, and to the numerous defences of this method of teaching which were put forward on the basis of misunderstandings of these linguistic terms.
    Still, I accept that you’ve shown DFW to be no professor of linguistics, and to be capable of errors in English and Latin usage (and no doubt more vulnerable to them than he himself believes). But to suggest that this destroys his argument is a mistake. The ‘regular guy’ stance that you so object to was surely intended to make clear his lack of academic qualifications in this area; his qualification to talk about it all may depend on his being a famous writer, and on his self-professed status as a SNOOT, but neither of these implies that he has made a wide study of the subject. What seems strange to me is that you seem to base your decision on whether to believe his argument on his qualifications as a linguist (as evidenced by his grammatical slips) rather than on the cogency of his presentation of the idea. Even an academic paper isn’t treated like this, and the critic who tried to approach one in such a manner would be considered to be avoiding the main issue. No doubt professional linguists are capable of grammatical slips as well.
    As a side-issue, did you know that DFW provides one of the citations (from a different book) for the OED definition of the word ‘wedgie’? There he spells it without the capital letter. Perhaps it is possible that we could blame the Harper’s copy editor for such a slip. Oh, and his examples of ambiguous writing may not be ambiguous if you read them aloud, but only because in reading them aloud you have resolved the ambiguity (that is, you have chosen to stress one meaning or another despite the absence of any evidence for the relevant meaning). In written language his examples genuinely are ambiguous, and there is no way of deciding except from context (“Does this make sense here? Is this a joke?”) which of the meanings is the relevant one. And as I presume you must have noticed, it was the rules of written language that were under discussion.
    I’m afraid I will have taken up all of your front page with this comment, for which I apologise. But I think we all – including yourself and DFW – agree that a high standard of written English tends to make an argument more convincing. Why, then, did this article so upset you?

  8. No need to apologize — I like long comments, and I certainly don’t delete ones that disagree with me. But I’m not sure why you’re wondering why this article upset me; I thought I made myself clear here:
    “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.
    My argument is not with his style of writing (which, as I explicitly said, I enjoy) but the cause he uses it for in this article: presenting the standard prescriptivist case for why certain forms of language are “better,” slightly modified for our more skeptical age with self-deprecating humor and nods in the direction of descriptivism. But basically it’s the same old elitist crap, and I don’t like it.
    I don’t think – and I don’t think I’ve ever implied – that there are no uses for “proper English.” It’s de rigueur for job interviews, formal speeches, and other solemn occasions, and can still be very effective as a literary device. But it is not better than other forms of English; the fact that so many idiots think it is is precisely why it’s important to teach it to those who have not absorbed it at home, so they will not be despised for something that is irrelevant to their qualifications. I never said that it shouldn’t be taught, just that it should be presented as one choice among many; the analogy I like to use is to clothes. Everybody needs a suit to wear to job interviews and weddings, but the suit is no “better” than the t-shirt and jeans they like to wear at home. It’s just different.
    And no, I’m not caught in a double bind. I don’t “attack DFW’s essay on the grounds that his spelling and grammar are poor,” I attack it on the grounds that he’s pretending to an authority he doesn’t have. If the essay had been “written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English, and whose writing was therefore full of non-standard usages, ambiguous grammar and spelling, and the incorrect use of Latin tags,” nobody would pay attention to it. It’s precisely the fact that DFW is a Famous Writer and presumably knows whereof he speaks that makes it dangerous (and it is — I’ve seen it quoted many, many times), and it’s my aim to destroy that presumption.
    (I’ve had it suggested to me before that the cap W may be Harper’s fault, but that makes no sense — no copy editor in the world would make that change, there’s no reason for it. It could only have been made, and insisted on, by the Great Writer on the basis of his presumed authority. I mean, for chrissake, read the article — they obviously let him write whatever and however he wanted!)

  9. I think – as a reader of the (Manchester) Guardian – I have a lower opinion of copy-editors than you do: I have seen them mangle a perfectly sensible sentence so that it becomes totally meaningless; and I wouldn’t put it past them to check ‘wedgie’ in the dictionary and to choose the definition relating to shoes. But this is only a guess, and may just reflect my own prejudices. Certainly DFW uses non-standard capitalisation throughout the article, which makes me think that whatever his claim to authority is here, it is not as an expert user of Standard English (which still seems to me to be the basis of your attack).
    Actually, as I said, the explicit claims to authority he makes – although you dismiss them as disingenuous – are to being a ‘regular guy’ and, I think, implicitly, as ‘a reasonably intelligent and well-meaning SNOOT’ (which is presented as a theoretical example but seems to fit pretty closely with his autobiographical presentation of himself in the article). At no point does he suggest that he should be listened to because he is a Famous Writer, or even because he has been a teacher of English. Perhaps there is an implicit claim to authority – listen to me because I use language so well, which is the one you attack – but it hardly seems the most important, and your attacks rarely affect the points he is making. His Latin and French could be better; but the few solecisms don’t seem to me to undermine his case.
    Despite your answer, though, I am still puzzled as to why you have taken against the article so much. Your analogy of the smart suit is precisely what DFW proposes throughout the article. I’ll give a few quotes, although I have only a printout of the article and so will be unable to give page references:
    “‘Correct’ English usage is, as a practical matter, a function of whom you’re talking to and how you want that person to respond – not just to your utterance but also to you.”
    He then explicitly labels it a dialect, but only one among many, and argues that “may of these non-SWE dialects have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars, and that some of these dialects’ usage norms actually make more linguistic/aesthetic sense than do their Standard counterparts.” Perhaps you think this is just a sop in the direction of descriptivism, but it chimes with the main point he goes on to pursue. The main statement seems to me exactly what you have written yourself:
    “The real truth, of course, is that SWE is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment and an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity. … This reviewer’s opinion, though, is that both students and SWE are better served if the teacher makes his premises explicit, licit and his argument overt, presenting himself as an advocate of SWE’s utility rather than as a prophet of its innate superiority.”
    This is being recommended as a rhetorical technique, but the rest of the article argues exactly the same point: that SWE is a useful dialect to have available, not that it is the best and only means of written communication. (Admittedly the first few pages set out to show that not all the rules of SWE are unhelpful or ridiculous, but again I suspect we can agree that this is true: good writing avoids unintentional ambiguity, and this seems to be the main point of most traditional grammatical rules.)
    So it seems to me you would agree with his spiel to his students, which includes the lines: “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE. … You can believe it’s racist and unjust and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something: If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE…”
    This is perhaps a bit overstated, but it’s surely the same point we are all making. SWE isn’t “better” – says DFW, it is to be defended on grounds of utility (in certain situations) and not because of its “innate superiority” or even on the basis of any linguistic or aesthetic advantages. But as he says – and you agree – it is important to be able to use it so that your arguments will be taken seriously. (As you say above: “If the essay had been ‘written by a student who had never been taught to use Standard English [and all the other things I said]…’ nobody would pay attention to it.”)
    At no point does he argue that Standard English is better than other dialects. He does say that the arguments for why it is worth learning SWE – the ones we’ve just seen – are “baldly elitist,” but he corrects himself in the note: “Or require us openly to acknowledge and talk about elitism, whereas a dogmatic SNOOT’s [prescriptivist] pedagogy is merely elitism in action.” Again, isn’t this what you’ve been saying yourself?
    I don’t know how DFW actually teaches, but I read his article as suggesting that students should be taught that there are advantages in being able to communicate using the dialect traditionally used in elite discourse, so that they can begin to join and open up that elite or even so that they can argue for its injustice in language that will help their views to be accepted. Of course this should be done with every attempt to avoid making other dialects seem intrinsically inferior, and DFW attempts this even if he doesn’t succeed in it. And I’m perfectly willing to believe that his maths is bad.
    I hope you really do like long comments – I shall try to write less in future.

  10. No, no, I really do — as long as you’re making points rather than simply babbling, and you are. Up to a certain point, I can agree; he does indeed make the points you cite about “the dialect of the American elite,” and had he left it at that I’d have had no problem with the thrust of the article (though I still would have enjoyed nitpicking it). But I must insist that that’s put in as a sop to make his argument acceptable to people who instinctively distrust “the traditional SNOOT usage-authority, a figure who pretty much instantiates snobbishness and bow-tied anality.” He wants you to say “Ah, he’s not one of those bow-tied anal fops, he’s a down-to-earth guy like me, so I’ll trust his judgment on these Language Wars I don’t know anything about.” But that’s a lot of crap; his attitude is basically that of the bow-tied brigade, he just doesn’t wear the bow tie. The heart of the whole excessively long article is right here: “Descriptivists are wrong in thinking that the Scientific Method is appropriate to the study of language.” Once you accept that, and accept his appeal to “Trust me,” you’re likely to accept all his dicta on good and bad English, which have no basis in fact except by accident — because the only way to find out how language actually works is via linguistics, which is to say the “Scientific Method” he derides. Since he doesn’t know or understand that, he’s peddling the same old snake oil in a different bottle, asking us to trust him… why? That brings us to this:
    the explicit claims to authority he makes… are to being a ‘regular guy’ and, I think, implicitly, as ‘a reasonably intelligent and well-meaning SNOOT’… At no point does he suggest that he should be listened to because he is a Famous Writer
    Please. Of course he doesn’t explicitly say that; he doesn’t have to. That’s like a corporate mogul saying “I’m just a regular guy…” The fact is, as he knows perfectly well, that his essay is being published and will be read with attention precisely because he is a Famous Writer; if he weren’t, his argument would carry no weight. (Note that my far superior argument is known to hardly anyone, because I’m not a Famous Writer, I’m just another blogger.) He does the “regular guy” thing with panache, and it’s a pleasure to watch him do the dance, but it’s still bullshit. He’s using his fame to try to influence people, which is his right, but his fame doesn’t make his argument right, and it isn’t.
    By the way, I appreciate your coming by to argue, not only because arguing is fun but because I discovered that my link to the article was broken and replaced it with another (not as good, but better than a 404).

  11. Fair enough – I won’t keep prolonging this, because at this rate we will end up colonising the entire internet with our arguing, and I have other work to do besides. Also, it looks like the source of the disagreement is pretty clear now, which is all anyone can hope for in an argument.
    I think you’re right that he takes needless swipes at Descriptivism – and we could certainly do without his ad hominem attacks on professors – but I suppose I’d taken those as relating only to the context of a usage guide. The problem all this is getting at is the question of what a usage guide (far more than a dictionary) is actually for. A descriptivist usage guide is, as you say, a guide to how language actually works, and the equivalent of a sociology textbook. But the fact remains that usage guides are often used, and are often explicitly intended, as the equivalent of ethics manuals: ‘how to write proper’. And this is a useful function. I think dictionaries should certainly describe language; but I think there should be room for books which offer instruction on SWE usage, without claiming it to be an intrinsically superior dialect. This may not reflect any timeless and unchanging standard, and it is almost certainly a ridiculous way to look at language development (as David Crystal likes to point out); but it is a useful practical contribution to modern communications, and can preserve valuable distinctions (like that between ‘refute’ and ‘deny’). I still maintain that this is what the DFW article argues for: in contrast to you, I evidently picked on that as the meat and the question of the correct approach to academic linguistics as the dressing. I guess it’s too confused an article to deserve quite this much exegesis, though.
    I still think it’s unfair and unreasonable to ignore his explicit denial of special authority in favour of the inescapable fact that he is a famous writer: short of writing anonymously, he could hardly have escaped that. Even then, it would only imply that he knew how to write, which is not the same as a claim to understand the language wars better than anyone else. Certainly I’m not inclined to grant novelists any special expertise on the study of linguistics, unless they are Anthony Burgess. I wonder if it is an American thing? I’m surprised when DFW notes the existence of a panel of distinguished writers who comment on the correct use of English – I can’t think of an equivalent in the UK – although it puts me in mind of the American practice of appointing novelists and poets as professors of English regardless of their qualifications for that job (which must surely extend beyond an experience of successful creative writing). This is all speculation, though, and I’m not trying to get at you or anyone else. And as promised, I’ll make this my last contribution (on this subject!) and hope you’ll agree to disagree. Thanks for engaging with the discussion!
    Incidentally, I’m not an English professor, nor even a frustrated one, and I’ve never studied linguistics. But I do speak a few languages, and I teach Latin. If only I were a famous writer too…

  12. Ave atque vale, o Candela! (though I hope you’ll keep visiting)
    You make good points, and it seems the core of our disagreement is in what he intended the core message of his article to be, which only he can say. I confess that I have a hair-trigger sensitivity to any and all arguments of the form “because I say so,” especially when applied to language, so I may have overemphasized that aspect of his piece — but I think it’s pernicious no matter what accompanies it. And sure, usage guides are needed; that’s why I always recommend the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which addresses all the usual points of concern but gives you the historical facts as well as the varying judgments made by other authorities and pseudo-authorities and lets you make up your own mind, rather than saying “Say this, not that.” It’s not that I don’t want people making choices about what to say and write, I just want them making choices based on facts and sensible ways of thinking about them.
    I have greatly enjoyed this dialog, and once again am glad I haven’t closed off all past threads to comments, even though it leaves openings for spammers.

  13. Folquerto says:

    Please tell me, where did Horace wrote that indignor quandoque bonus Homerus dormitat? I am uncertain about it, but I have a suspicion that it must be dormitet when put this way. Moreover, I studied the Classics in a grey past, Latin and Greek, and exactly the variant quandoque bonus Homerus dormitat, without the indignor, is the one I was taught. Anybody can be wrong anytime, but please tell me where Horace said it.

  14. No, I quoted it correctly: Ars Poetica 359. Google is your friend, you know.

  15. Folquerto says:

    verum operi longo fas est obrepere somnum.
    You are right!
    Thanks!
    Folquerto.

  16. The problem with your “demolishing” (though I would call it something more along the lines of “totally-the-point-missing”) is that you have no sympathy with Mr. Wallace, or his personal style of writing; this is a matter of taste, no doubt. I consider Wallace’s writing to have what you might something like “perfect pitch,” and find that I am able to admire almost every fanciful turn of phrase in his work; I don’t generally care if/when he makes mistakes in usage, because I’m more interested in his meaning. There’s quite a lot of fractured French in Infinite Jest, for example. But it’s still one of the best novels of the 20th century because it makes its point, forcefully and very beautifully. This could be said of most of Wallace’s writing. I suppose you can’t bear Nabokov or Waugh, either, because they couldn’t spell worth beans. Your loss, mon ami.
    To take just your first complaint against “Tense Present”: Wallace’s mom is a grammarian, hence the “
    à clef” remark, which is intended to imply, kind of slangily, simply that the term is in use regarding real members of his own family, and/or those known to them. I find it hard to believe that this isn’t really obvious. It’s just a little lighthearted shorthand/slang for a the fairly literary audience of Harper’s. The rest of your quarrels are along similar lines–pretty meaningless, except to someone with (a) no sympathy for the writer, and perhaps (b) unwilling or unable to respond to a joke.
    Presumably a lot of Wallace’s attitudes regarding grammar and usage were imbibed early on, in his learned family … in any case, in “Tense Present” he isn’t setting himself up as an authority, only as an interested longtime student, speaker and writer of English.
    What you’re pouncing on isn’t the man himself, nor his style, but the fact that he is a celebrated writer, as you note above; he can hardly help that.

  17. No, I’m afraid you’re quite, quite wrong. I’m a huge fan of both Nabokov and Waugh, and very fond of stylish writing wherever it turns up. I am not opposed to Wallace’s own style (though I think putting it in the company of those two is unfair to it, and causes its overelaborated fronds to wilt in the sun). This is not about his style or his fame (the latter is not the reason I object to his article, it’s the reason I take the trouble to demolish it — if he weren’t famous, nobody would care what he had to say); it is about the fact that he is mouthing off on things he knows nothing about, and he is wrong, and he is quoted over and over again by people as ignorant as he is to support their own ignorance. You might call him the “intelligent design theorist” of language.
    Now, I feel your pain. You have a tremendous crush on DFW the writer and you don’t like to see him attacked, and that’s human. But references to his mother are neither here nor there. The points I make are no more “meaningless” than his article itself, since it focuses on exactly such points. Come on, admit it, you don’t know or care who’s right about the issues I address, you just want DFW to be recognized as the supreme genius you feel he is. All I can say is that you should pick your venues more carefully, and perhaps force yourself to argue with less passion and more cogency. I care nothing about DFW’s family quirks and (in this context) nothing about his style either; all that matters to me is that in this article he is a fatuous blowhard arguing from an authority he does not possess. You are, of course, free to disagree. But you might read my exchange with Folquerto, just above, for an example of how to discuss these matters in a civilized way, without casting aspersions on the reading preferences of someone you don’t know from Adam.

  18. Holy cow. In what way did I cast aspersions on your reading preferences? What I made was a joke, something it becomes increasingly evident that you are not in a position to follow. This joke was suggesting that anybody afflicted with excessive punctilio in the matter of spelling would be excluded from the company of Nabokov and Waugh, neither of whom could spell. I apologize if you found this joke uncivilized.
    You can’t “feel my pain,” because I am not in pain. Sure I have a crush on David Foster Wallace, but it doesn’t bother me in the slightest when other people can’t stand him (many do not and who can blame them, for he can get as tedious as Nabokov can, which is to say, very.) I just popped in to say that in the case of Wallace, you may think you get it, but you absolutely do not. And it’s just not on to be dissing people for your own deficiency, here. But I really didn’t mean to make you mad, and I’m sorry about that, and I am quite willing to disagree cheerfully with you on the many literary matters upon which you and I are absolutely certain to clash. But as I was saying, you did not understand this article, which is not the law handed down from on high by a self-appointed authority, but rather consists entirely in the ruminations of an interested party whose mom is a grammarian, and who is himself a writer and interested in language, and who has had to teach school for a living.
    I don’t think I would have written on your blog, except that the article or your misapprehension of it went and made you so weirdly (and to my mind, incoherently) mad. And competitively so, in a manner where you have to say–yourself!–that you’ve ‘demolished’ another writer, famous or not, which one would think should be a judgment reserved for others to make. This phrase, ‘fatuous blowhard’! What are you so scorched about? To say you “aren’t opposed” to Wallace’s style but accuse it of having “overelaborated fronds” (?!) Jeeps.
    Doesn’t surprise me a bit that you cite an instance of your correcting an interlocutor as the very last word in civilized discourse. (I kid!)

  19. What am I mad about? The fact that you come in here, tell me I’m completely wrong without addressing a single one of my points (except for the irrelevant remark about his mother), accuse me of having no feeling for style and no sense of humor, and repeat the offense in your second message (where the mask of politeness drops even further). You say “you did not understand this article” when what you mean is that I did not agree with and appreciate the article. Believe me, I understand it all too well. Do you seriously think I would waste my time attacking it if it were nothing more than “ruminations” of a teacher and the son of a grammarian? Life is too short. I’m attacking it because it is an extremely influential manifesto in favor of elitist prescriptions and against the eternal bugbear of descriptivism; I’d go dig up some links to people quoting it as Holy Writ in attacking lexicographers and linguists, but it’s not worth the trouble, since there’s obviously no changing your mind. But since you think Nabokov tedious, there’s really no point discussing the matter with you anyway. And you accuse others of not having an appreciation for style!
    Go, worship DFW in good health, but don’t pretend you understand issues that you neither know nor care about.

  20. Thanks for a great read, and for showing me it’s not necessarily my fault when I don’t understand something DFW writes (e.g. his refutation of the idea of Private Language or Colors). I would observe, though, that some of your attacks do seem sort of personal and ad hominem. And it seems to me presumptuous to think you know another’s motives. For example:
    “He is more intent on proving that he knows how to use a big dictionary than in reading what it says there.”
    “the only point of his using it (since nobody else ever has or ever will, unless they foolishly copy it from him) is to make a point of his extreme accuracy in the tiniest of matters… and he gets it wrong.”
    “But I must insist that that’s put in as a sop to make his argument acceptable”
    I actually thought the capitalization of the word “Wedgies” was a stylistic decision. To me it sort of emphasizes the word and makes more vivid the image.
    My first visit here. I’ll be back. Thanks again.

  21. Glad you liked the rant. But my very use of the word “rant” acknowledges it’s not exactly a detached, scholarly analysis. It seriously pisses me off when people use a soapbox earned for other reasons to spread noxious misinformation about language. Don’t worry, DFW can take it.

  22. Just to keep the comment thread going: I think prescriptivism is more conventionalist than elitist. Most prescriptivists aren’t especially elite; they’re most often badly-paid eighth-grade teachers, junior-college comp teachers, etc. — or those in general whose small upward mobility depended on education, and who are only elite in a very relative sense. (You’ll even see, “A HArvard PhD should know about the split-infinitive rule”, etc.)
    On the other hand, prescriptivists probably are elitists after all. I just thought I’d say something.

  23. Oh, I agree about “most prescriptivists” — my point is that prescriptivism is inherently elitist, and the fact that most people have bought into it is just one more chapter in the sad history of people stampeding directly away from their own best interests. (See: politics.)

  24. Christopher M says:

    Just out of curiosity, is there some source for the claim that Nabokov (or Waugh, for that matter) couldn’t spell? I’ve never heard it before, and the only relevant page I’ve found with Google so far is a New York Times article that says:

    Nabokov is punctilious about spelling.

    I’m not saying it isn’t true, just wondering if it’s documented somewhere. The Boyd biography?
    Based on the chronology of this comments thread, I expect a reply circa 2009.

  25. Christopher M says:

    I should have linked to the Times article, which is here.

  26. I suspect maria was simply full of crap. (Sorry, maria, if you’re still checking in, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em. And if you have actual evidence for that claim, I trust you’ll provide it.) I can’t think of anyone less likely to be a poor speller than VV.

  27. Well this was just about the most delightful way for a lover of aesthetics, language and all things excellent to spend the morning. DFW drubbed, de-fended and wizened; Nabokov vindicated; and elitists everywhere enervated (myself included, he writes with a sigh)…
    Thanks muchly, language hat.
    ~br.

  28. My pleasure! Mind you, I’m perfectly capable of being elitist myself — just one of the many reasons I shouldn’t run the world.

  29. Ultimately, it’s because of your self deprecating style such as in that last sentence you’ve written that I’m always happy to hear your opinions squire.
    Like the illusory left-or-right dichotomy of politics, I think an either/or situation on the prescriptivism/descriptivism front is pretty silly.
    Sometimes being prescriptivist is not being elitist – in some teaching situations, in some discussions with peers and in certain circumstances to express opposition to a stylistic clanger (of course that’s personal), I think it’s perfectly acceptable to voice an ‘opinion of conservation’.
    But likewise it’s all about the communication and as long as we understand each other then it’s all good. I love neologisms and concatamerizings and useful verbializations and emergent rephrasings and translanguage pollenizing. It makes language dynamic and all the more beautiful, even for the linguistically unedumacated such as myself.
    Anyway, I didn’t come here to argue (wellll) – I just noticed the mention of your 4th blog birthday on wood s lot and came by for a gander. I don’t get across here as much as I’d like — some of us must devote energy to making our homes look pretty so that the dirth of comments doesn’t stop people visiting!
    Many happy returns and thanks for the entertainment. (Who’s DFW? Heh.)

  30. Glad you dropped by, and I’m not sure which I appreciate more, the fact that wood s lot regularly wishes LH a happy anniversary or that it’s accompanied by that wonderful photo of a crowd of hats.

  31. Christopher M says:

    I wrote to Maria to ask her, and she couldn’t recall offhand but graciously offered to poke around her books when she gets a chance and let me know if she finds anything. I’ll report back if I hear anything. In the meantime, here’s an interesting anecdote about Nabokov’s synaesthesia (he experienced letters or sounds as having specific, characteristic colors), which may be relevant but doesn’t clearly cut one way or the other:

    Though it’s by no means especially a writer’s ailment, Somerset Maugham , William Burroughs, Jung and Nabokov were all sufferers – indeed, the latter insisted his mother take his spelling bricks back to the shop because they were the “wrong” colours.

    From this article by Julie Myerson.

  32. Loved your evisceration of DFW’s article!
    Other than the gibe about “nickname a clef” (which I understood–without much difficulty–to mean “codename”), everything else was spot on. I’m especially glad you didn’t let that slithy “…one Charles Fries’…” bit get by without reproach. What bad manners that man has!
    You certainly could have piled it on a bit more without much trouble. For example: right after the Fries’ bit comes an infelicitous use of “epigone”. Is he trying to say here that the American College Dictionary is a second-rate follower of the “notoriously liberal” Webster’s Third? I guess so. Use of this term for an inanimate object, though, only muddies its meaning. “Norm-wise” is also lame, and doesn’t make much sense as a modifier for the sentence it heads. His whole argument with the hypothetical physics textbook and how some americans believe electricity runs better downhill was shockingly illogical and immaterial.
    I suspect you don’t really appreciate DFW’s prose stylings as much as you profess to in some of your follow-up comments. I don’t see how you could! He’s verging on Dan Brown-ness. To even bring him up with Nabokov and Waugh, as one person did, makes my eyes burn with anger!

  33. Oh, I understood “nickname a clef”—I just didn’t think it a proper or felicitous use of à clef. And yeah, I don’t want to claim DFW is my favorite writer or anything, I’m just trying to make sure my criticism is seen for what it is: an attack on his pretensions to knowledge, not his writerly virtues.

  34. Matthew Young says:

    Anyone who has been grabbed by the waistband, hoisted onto a rusted bolt seven feet off the bathroom floor, and left to dangle over the urinal knows that “wedgie” can be capitalized.

  35. Amos Quito says:

    This is not to say that your article is without merit, but it seems to me that such an emotionally charged and visceral screed about the shortcomings of an article would be better directed at an author that is not presently dead. The errors no doubt exist, but it seems it would have been possible for you to point them out with a little less malice. It’s not like the guy can address your concerns here.

    Congratulations on your sound walloping of a corpse, I guess.

  36. Perhaps you didn’t notice that the post was written in 2002, long before the demise of DFW. Are you really suggesting that now he’s dead, all less-than-worshipful references to him should be removed from the internet? Good luck with that. But congratulations on parading your own superior tastefulness and virtue, I guess.

  37. I’m guessing the belligerent commenter to whom I just responded got here by way of this Reddit thread; I’m pleased to see very little of that kind of ill-informed belligerence in the thread, which is largely sensible (and contains an entertaining derail about Wittgenstein).

  38. Mongolian_Colonizer says:

    Hey, I was going to mention the Reddit thread, but you found it.

    I was just wondering, you’re a Linguist, are the Wittgenstein references in that thread accurate? I’m never quite sure whether his philosophy is self contained, or does have so easy an application to Linguistics…

  39. I don’t really know; philosophy isn’t my thing, so I’ve never read much Wittgenstein. I remember when my brother was a philosophy major many years ago, he would quote Wittgenstein to me on the subject of language, and I would get annoyed because Wittgenstein clearly didn’t know anything about language from a linguistic point of view and was just using his own intuitions (which linguists know are entirely unreliable), but I haven’t done any further investigation since then.

    Also, I should point out that although I did all the academic training to become a linguist, I decided I hated academia and quit before finishing my dissertation; by profession I’m an editor (which gives me an interesting double perspective on language).

  40. Mongolian_Colonizer says:

    I remembering reading something of Chomsky’s where he says that Wittgenstein is not talking about linguistics so much as words in context, or grammar if you will.

    Either way, I’m usually into literature and not linguistics, but I really liked this piece. It’s funny that you were doing this back in 2002, so many people on that thread seem convinced that this is new information hot off the press. I’m kind of adverse to Wallace’s style, but you pretty much summarize it perfectly:

    “establishing a folksy/learned persona that is intended to convince you of both his bona fides and his credentials, and conceding enough of his opponents’ arguments that he hopes to disarm the less truculent of them”

    I can tell you honestly that he quite simply doesn’t have the literary chops of somebody like DeLillo or Will Self, and it seems everybody’s happy to cite pieces like these as evidence of his expertise in every area.

  41. that’s a very stupid moniker to use, i would advise you against using it, the commenter above, we never had any colonizers and the manchus were the only ones whom we joined in alliance fyi, and one proclaiming oneself to be whoever’s colonizer can’t be like a *decent* person maybe or one can learn to distinguish between adverse vs averse? i mean be kind of like at least literate in one’s own native language to however criticize DFW, imo

  42. I think DFW’s mysterious “oo-on” for on is in fact [ɔən], which I certainly have heard on the streets of NYC.

  43. I suppose that’s possible, but it would be a very odd way to write it. (Why not “aw-on”?)

  44. Ten years on and this piece is still relevant:
    http://techcrunch.com/2014/01/11/such-dfw-very-orwell-so-doge-wow/
    Sigh, curse, etc.

  45. Sigh indeed. What a load of crap: “And nowadays — this is where things get interesting — people who write in CSWE actually mark themselves as untrustworthy by doing so.”

  46. John Cowan says:

    For the record, “Mongolian colonizer” can just as well mean a Mongol who colonizes as someone who colonizes Mongols. While the Mongol Empire was not primarily a colonial empire, the Mongols did leave various colonies behind when the empire shrank.

  47. John Cowan says:

    Ironically, of course the “Grantland piece”, though certainly untrustworthy, disloyal, unhelpful, unriendly, discourteous, unkind, disobedient, cheerless, chintzy, cowardly, unlean, and above all irreverent, is nevertheless written in Standard English using an informal register.

  48. John Cowan says:

    Why not “aw-on”?

    Because in New York, the mid back vowels are raised, so that /ɔ/ sounds more like [u] to ears that are used to hearing /ɔ/ pronounced [ɒ]. (My NORTH=FORCE is [or], not [ɔr], for example.) There’s no real likelihood of a collision, since NYC /u/ is partially fronted, as in most Englishes these days.

  49. goatlord says:

    I’m so happy to have found this blog! In all my years of pissing around the on the Internet, it’s the only blog I’ve found that strikes me as worthy of subscribing to. I especially appreciate your back-and-forth with the user “candle” in the comments above; it’s a perfect example of the tone in which these “language wars” should, I feel, be conducted. I don’t know why it’s so hard to discover reliable sources on this subject, but it absolutely is.

    I think one of the triumphs of this blog post is that you’ve outSNOOTed DFW, which, given your position in this debate, is ironic and more than a little amusing. It’s also pretty impressive because DFW, even if he does have a tendency to “punch above his weight,” as you stated, is a more a competent SNOOT than most. I haven’t thought long enough about how your line-by-line needling of his article may have corrupted your more essential points in some way, but if it hasn’t, does it matter to you that I at least found it curious and distracting? It’s a little weird to notice that you’re willing to use that boost of righteous anger that’s available to those on the descriptivist side of the “language wars” while also enjoying the authority of a preeminent SNOOT.

    What I took away from DFW’s article depends not at all on whatever sneaky authority inheres in his status as a Great Writer; it depends on the quality of his exploration of the ways prescriptivism is useful and not useful (although, yes, the article isn’t limited to that). I just don’t understand how anyone can dismiss prescriptivism as being only elitist. DFW’s example of the poisonous mushroom is a good one. The placement of “only” in that sentence is most certainly ambiguous, as candle pointed out, and the meaning of that sentence is critically important, maybe even life-or-death important. Of course, most instances of ambiguity are not so dramatic. But still, if I’m adhering to prescriptivist principles in an effort to communicate in a way that allows others to apprehend my meaning as clearly and in as little time as possible, isn’t that a kindness?

    I’ve read that DFW had his students read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm). In that essay, Orwell compares the following two passages:

    “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

    “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

    Wouldn’t everyone agree that the first passage is better than the first? Not just different, but better? And it’s better while also being less elitist. It seems to me that prescriptivism, in addition to simply being useful, can actually be anti-elitist.

  50. Ivor Brown said that “success or failure in competitive activities” was far too blunt, and should be replaced by “optimum or inadequate performance in the trend of competitive activities.”

    Of course, “better” begs the question “better for what?” Both versions have their advantages in different situations. Platitudinous bumfodder has its uses too.

  51. goatlord says:

    Better for communication, image, precision, brevity, accessibility, aesthetics—really any criteria that comes to mind. Wouldn’t any argument for the effectiveness of the latter be exactly the kind of reasoning that this blog post rails against?

    Take a guy like William Tyndale, whose translations brought the word of the Bible to the layperson. Think about the incredible impact his careful attention to usage had on the world, how anti-elitist it was in the most fundamental and essential sense. In this case, what a descriptivist might call nitpicking or hair splitting had tremendous consequences and was an extremely generous and courageous gesture in the service of people who historically have been “clubbed” by the elitism of SNOOTs. Again, dramatic! I’m not exactly sure how all of this applies and to what extent you could reasonably say Tyndale’s effort was prescriptivist. What do you think, LH?

  52. I think what I said almost a decade ago, above:

    My argument is not with his style of writing (which, as I explicitly said, I enjoy) but the cause he uses it for in this article: presenting the standard prescriptivist case for why certain forms of language are “better,” slightly modified for our more skeptical age with self-deprecating humor and nods in the direction of descriptivism. But basically it’s the same old elitist crap, and I don’t like it.

    I don’t think – and I don’t think I’ve ever implied – that there are no uses for “proper English.” It’s de rigueur for job interviews, formal speeches, and other solemn occasions, and can still be very effective as a literary device. But it is not better than other forms of English; the fact that so many idiots think it is is precisely why it’s important to teach it to those who have not absorbed it at home, so they will not be despised for something that is irrelevant to their qualifications. I never said that it shouldn’t be taught, just that it should be presented as one choice among many; the analogy I like to use is to clothes. Everybody needs a suit to wear to job interviews and weddings, but the suit is no “better” than the t-shirt and jeans they like to wear at home. It’s just different.

    I’m glad you like the blog so much, and I hope it will continue to entertain and perhaps inform you, but I’m at a loss as to what more I can say that will convince you if the many, many words expended above haven’t. I have never pretended to “the authority of a preeminent SNOOT,” I simply say what I know, and I am always willing to back it up with references, or to admit I’m wrong if I’m shown to be wrong. And I have always been a huge fan of good use of English; much of what I’ve written on LH is a testament to that. I think you are confusing prescriptivism with appreciation for good writing, a common enough conflation but one that by now makes me tired even to think about. If you can isolate a specific issue that I have not already dealt with somewhere up there, I’ll be glad to discuss it.

  53. Jesse Wiedinmyer says:

    You do realise that the essay in question is actually descriptivist in intent, no?

  54. You did read what I had to say about it, no?

  55. glad candle wuz here to make the pts that deserved being made. I 2 think u misinterpreted the crux of DFW’s argument, prolly cuz as u say you’ve got a prescriptivist-trigger–like, youve got yr gloves up from the starting bell.
    Okay so writing in broken English is harder than I thought :) But seriously, impressed as I am by your mastery of SWE, I suspect you weren’t giving the article a fair read. For me the central questions were “why should we care about prescriptivism? And, if we do, on what authority can we rely?”
    You seem not to be very sympathetic to DFW’s endorsement of ADMAU’s “ethical appeal” and you’re certainly not overly impressed by his authorial chops… but given that you agree that it’s important to have this suit in the wardrobe, and you’re an editor yourself, I’m wondering where you think prescriptive authority comes from?

    Also, I think Wedgie is funnier.

  56. also, if I recall correctly, comp theory is what we called literary criticism back in undergrad. e.g. Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or “the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists” as Camille Paglia put it. But I was in the engineering department so I could be way off base.

  57. I’m wondering where you think prescriptive authority comes from?

    From the collective usage of the “better sort” — the people with expensive educations and an innate desire/need to close ranks and keep out the hoi polloi — as codified (from the eighteenth century on) in books by their lackeys, the clerks who don’t have jobs that require power suits but who have learned the crucial linguistic signifiers and are helping pay their rent by writing books about them. Some of them are magisterial (“You don’t know much of anything, you ignorant git, but maybe if you buy my book you can avoid at least a few of your more egregious blunders”), some would-be-democratic (“Buy my book and you can keep the better sort from sneering at you and maybe get a better job!”), some solipsistic (“This usage is good because I like it; that one is bad because I hate it”), but they all implicitly accept the idea that there is a “better sort” and the language they use is the better sort of language. I despise that attitude root and branch; as is obvious, I enjoy wielding Standard Literary English and have nothing against it as such, any more than I have anything against suits as such, but it is not any “better” than any other dialect of this multifarious language, and treating it as such — and treating those who haven’t learned to wield it as lesser — is deeply repugnant to me.

    Also, I assure you I did not misinterpret the crux of DFW’s argument. You may not like what I had to say about it, but that’s a separate issue.

  58. I just ran across a comment in a MetaFilter thread about women’s fashion that expresses, mutatis mutandis, how I feel about language:

    But really the pressure should be on people who treat those wearing makeup better to change, not on women to be more compliant either direction. People with or without makeup or fancy attire deserve the same amount of respect and equal opportunities.

  59. In case it wasn’t clear, I think you dropped an impressive smackdown on DFW’s SNOOT cred (which, let’s be honest, is as important as his Famous Author status in making his case) and I give props to all y’all in the comments here for some sweet argumentation. But I still think we are talking past each other.

    I apologize if this is overly personal, but I think your righteous anger against elitist prescriptivism is causing you to misinterpret his thesis here. I agree with candle, I don’t find DFW to be advocating SWE as “better” at all but merely one dialect of this multifarious language. But, to quote from the essay “What the student heard was just another PWM rationalizing why his Group and his English were top dog”

    But to get back to the crux of the matter, I think your answer for the source of prescriptivist authority is extremely telling… because you gave a descriptive answer! The question I was trying to ask was “where do the so-called guardians of SWE get their authority?” and you gave me a list of who those authority figures are! Do you see the disconnect here?

    Now, you could say that there’s no such thing as SWE and the rules are all bogus, but you just rekked DFW using rules from somewhere so the question is how do we know that your rules are right and DFW gets to eat crow?

    To me, this is the crux of the essay (helpfully labelled as such), the question of who gets to decide what should be included in SWE. And yes, I just used the “s” word, but please, hold your fire! Speaking for myself, but I think DFW would agree, this is not a moral judgement! And incidentally I don’t think he’s being flippant when he says that it may indeed be worthwhile to dedicate your life to undermining the preeminence of SWE and eliminating the stigma against other dialects.

    So I’ll ask again, and I’m genuinely curious: as a descriptivist, how do you decide “objectively” which sources to include in your survey of SWE? How do you choose between conflicting rule sets? Because whatever his flaws, I don’t think DFW’s position is quite so vituperous as you make it out; he’s happy that some dude published a style guide based on his own best judgement.

  60. Well, I’m not quite sure what you’re asking for. There are a number of linguistic descriptions of English, the most recent and comprehensive being The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston and Pullum; the style guide I always recommend is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which gives both historical facts and the judgments made by various authorities. As for DFW, I suppose I may have overreacted and perceived more snootiness than was in fact there, but such are the perils of my fiery passion for descriptivism and democracy!

  61. This is the stupidest and most misinformed analysis of any of DFW’s essays I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading the beginning of. DFW was much more ahead of the game than this “writer” is able to realize. The á clef was used correctly: there’s a difference between Roman á clef and á clef. The capital W in “wedgied” served as the treatment of a verb into the abstract construction of its root noun. This writing’s subtext is idiotic at best. Radical Descriptivism is a contrived ideology in response to Prescriptivism that is self-negating and unfounded. If you read the essay, you see that. Google and Wikipedia won’t supplement a lifetime of the dedicated learning this genius Amherst graduate has accrued. His own art form and prose is unparalleled to date. Sad. This whole URL is sad.

  62. The irony in this writer’s cute little assertion that DFW’s diction is pretentious is that his (this writer) Prescriptivist pretension itself is so replete it permeates the entire text. DFW obviously refers to SWE as an English dialect. His vocabulary is not pretentious; it’s appropriate. Every word used is exactly the word he wanted. A love of language doesn’t warrant your unfounded “pretentious” label. DFW in no way used his writing as a means of deprecating others or making himself feel like more of an intelligent person. He knew how intelligent he was. He didn’t think it made him a better person. You, however, are pretentious, because you’re poking suppository holes into a text as veritable as DFW’s with the aid of Merriam Webster’s (of all dictionaries, really?) and Google in order to shoot down something that disagrees with your own narrow and conceited opinions.

  63. The doubtless-unintended rectal reference in poking suppository holes just gave me a much-needed chortle.

  64. David Marjanović says:

    Google and Wikipedia won’t supplement a lifetime of the dedicated learning

    Can you even imagine how much I’ve learned from Wikipedia? You should try it sometime.

  65. The doubtless-unintended rectal reference in poking suppository holes just gave me a much-needed chortle.

    Yes, when I got to “you’re poking suppository holes into a text as veritable as DFW’s with the aid of Merriam Webster’s (of all dictionaries, really?) and Google” I briefly wondered whether the whole thing was a sly parody of some of the sillier examples of outraged fandom earlier in the thread, but I reluctantly concluded it was a genuine outburst of outraged fandom. Still, chortles are good.

  66. I was already wondering whether it was a parody at “The capital W in ‘wedgied’ served as the treatment of a verb into the abstract construction of its root noun.”

  67. Poor Will’s comments would be a bit more convincing if he’d read a bit more than just the beginning of Hat’s rant. And shouldn’t that be à clef?

  68. marie-lucie says:

    shouldn’t that be à clef?

    Yes, French only has à, with a grave accent. Only the letter e takes both grave and acute accents, which indicate a difference in pronunciation. The wrong accent for à does not make such a difference, it just looks odd and reveals that the writer is probably not a francophone.

  69. I finally read the Harper’s essay in full (well, I speed-read bits of it).

    My main problems with it are:

    1) He misrepresents descriptivism. His ‘descriptivism’ is a straw man to be ridiculed and ‘demolished’ with great gusto, but he pretty much gets it wrong. Descriptivism means only that you describe language as you find it, which includes prescriptive rules. It doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. (Possibly the problem is that descriptivist ideas were utilised in the battle against nonsensical prescriptivist rules, and the two have been regarded as being at loggerheads ever since.)

    2) He also misrepresents structuralism and Chomsky (‘linguistic universals’) as somehow being inimical to prescriptive rules of writing. They are, of course, on a totally different plane.

    3) He then endorses Garner because he somehow sees him as supporting a ‘reasonable’ kind of prescriptivism rather than the old elite, domineering kind.

    There is nothing of real substance behind his long rant. He likes Garner because he gives usage rules a ‘friendly face’. The long detour through linguistics, sociolinguistics, and the defects of modern academic prose is occasioned by nothing more than an appreciation of the way (‘sneaky’ he calls it) that Garner couches his judgements. Rather a slender nail to that long, misleading discussion on.

    This is the key paragraph:

    Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is thus both a collection of information and a piece of Democratic rhetoric. Its goal is to recast the Prescriptivist’s persona: The author presents himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of Authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism.

    That’s all there is to it. I agree with most of what he said, apart from the gross misrepresentation of linguistics, which he obviously understood quite poorly. He could have defended his support for Garner by simply pointing out the sociolinguistic facts about what is expected in written English. It seems to me that his roundabout (and mendacious) way of justifying ‘the rules’ (many of which are stupid) is what raised Hat’s ire.

    (His example of “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick” is actually kinda dumb. Since “People who eat that kind of mushroom get sick often” has a different meaning again, I assume he wants “Often, people who eat that kind of mushroom get sick”. This kind of rule can also be covered by descriptive linguistics: given that the written language lacks intonation, stress, rhythm, and pause as devices for conveying meaning, style guides of the written language recommend that the adverb should be placed in a position that has least chance of being misunderstood.)

    (This is pure crap: that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs…There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. This suggests that descriptive linguists — the only people likely to be interested in ergative verbs — and Grammar Nazis are one and the same. Nice rhetoric but total crap.)

  70. David Marjanović says:

    Ergative verbs?

  71. An ‘ergative verb’ is a verb like ‘boil’, which can be either transitive or intransitive:

    * I boiled the water.
    * The water boiled.

    With such verbs, the object of the transitive verb becomes the subject of the intransitive verb.

    An ‘ergative verb’ is indeed the kind of thing that grammar cranks in English might be interested in. An ‘ergative language’ less so.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    Having spent quite some time studying a language which turned out to have “ergative alignment” (as opposed to the “accusative alignment” of most European languages), I was very puzzled when I encountered the term “ergative verb”, since the terms “accusative” and “ergative” refer originally to noun cases, not to verbs. I am not aware than anyone says that English or French (or Russian, etc) verbs are “accusative”, although one can speak of “ergative-absolutive syntax” as opposed to “nominative-accusative syntax” (the first term in each of these compounds refers to the “case” restricted to the Subject of a transitive verb, the second to the case of its Object).

    As far as nominal cases are concerned, the difference concerns whether the single noun (or pronoun) associated with an intransitive verb (as in “the water boiled”) is “aligned with” (ie. “treated like”) the Subject or the Object of a transitive verb in terms of case. In languages with “nominative-accusative” alignment, it is aligned on the Subject, but with “absolutive-ergative” alignment it is aligned on the Object. This is easier to demonstrate through English with sentences where the nouns or personal pronouns represent animates, since the pronouns vary according to case:

    Nominative-accusative:

    I saw him / He saw me
    I waved. He waved.

    (only the Object of the transitive verb has a special case, the accusative)

    Ergative-Absolutive: (literal translation) (only the subject of the transitive verb has a special case, the Ergative – not shown here, only translated, since English does not work that way)

    I saw him. / He saw me.
    Me waved. /Him waved.

    Both alignments make sense, but neither can be derived from the other: they are mirror images. But neither alignment is obligatory, since some languages treat the three possibilities for a noun with different cases: the (very common) languages with two cases economize on the number of needed cases by conflating the case of the noun in the intransitive sentence with one of the two nouns in a transitive sentence. Some languages even use both alignments depending on the semantics: the more “active” subject, usually an animate, when acting on a non-animate, is more likely to be marked by the “ergative” case, as in

    I/He boiled the water.

    Each alignment typically has consequences for syntax, notably in coordinate clauses in which only one of the two nouns or pronouns can be understood if omitted, as in

    I saw him and waved.

    (Nom-Acc) = I saw him and (I) waved. (Subject is understood)

    (Erg-Abs) = I saw him and (him) waved. (Object is understood)

    Ergative alignment is less common worldwide than Accusative alignment, but that could be because languages with this alignment have been superseded by languages of the other type: a known example is Basque, which was once spoken over a much larger are than nowadays.

  73. I heard these called ‘labile verbs’. They are frequent in English and also in Irish, which links this to the discussion of Celtic substrates now served in the ‘Genbun Itchi’ thread.

  74. All legitimate shots, unintended prurient symbolism (no seriously, how did I not realize the connotation atached to “poking suppository holes” (oh my god I think I collapsed), and noted errors in my argument taken kindly. But I’m not parodying anything. I truly think that DFW was on point in his essay. He majored in English and Philosophy and studied French at Amherst and I can vouch personally for his etymological astuteness. He refined nearly everything he published until it was perfect (especially his later stuff). I’ve learned some from Wikipedia, but not NEARLY as much as I’ve learned from the quality of information in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s last printed edition, which text can’t be edited and/or obfuscated by random trolls on the internet who haven’t accrued PhD.s in their fields and whatnot.

    Let me just quote his argument.

    Basic Descriptivist Theses:

    1 – Language changes constantly.
    2 – Change is normal.
    3 – Spoken language *is* the language.
    4 – Corectness rests upon usage.
    5 – All usage is relative.

    Basic Off-The-Cuff Reasonable Replies:

    1 – All right, but how much and how fast?
    2 – Same thing. Is Hericlitean flux as normal or desirable as gradual change? Do some changes serve the language’s overall pizazz better than others? And how many people have to deviate from how many conventions before we say the language has actually changed? Fifty percent? Ten percent? Where do you draw the line? Who draws the line?
    3 – This is an old claim, at least as old as Plato’s *Phaedrus*. And it’s specious. If Derrida and the famous Deconstructionists have done nothing else, they’ve successfully debunked the idea that speech is language’s primary instantiation (Q.v. the “Pharmakon” stuff in Derrida’s *La dissémination*–but you’d probably be better off just trusting me)….Only the most mullah-like Prescriptivists care all that much about Spoken English; most Prescriptive usage guides concern Standard *Written* English.
    4 – Fine, but whose usage? [Some writing on how Gove (the Descriptivist whose stands are being replied to) is probably referring to some kind of a reversal of roles w/r/t usage’s regulations whereby said regulations belong to the users themselves as opposed to the usage-dictators] Again, fine, but which people? Urban Latinos? Boston Brahmins? Rural Midwesterners? Appalachian Neogaelics?
    5 – *Huh?* If this means what it seems to mean, then it ends up biting Gove’s whole argument in the ass. [It] seems to imply that the answer to the above “which people?” is: All of them. And it’s easy to show why this will not stand up as a lexicographical principle. The most obvious problem with it is that not everything can go in the dictionary. Why not? Well, because… [I shouldn’t even have to continue.]

  75. I should point out I got my information from Wikipedia. I’d never heard of ‘ergative verbs’ before.

    I can see why they are so called because they are analogous to typical verb-argument constructions in absolutive-ergative languages. But, like m-l, I always associated ‘ergative’ with absolutive-ergative languages, not a particular kind of verb construction in English.

  76. Maybe if Mr. Wallace worked a bit harder and provided more thought-out and less off-the-cuff remarks it would have worked better. Just off the cuff
    1) This is a factual (read, descriptive) question. It is answered not with absolute rate, but with the detailed study of language as it was actually used.
    2) Some changes are fast and others are slow. It matters not whether the change serves language “pizzazz”, if it happened it happened. Most highly educated L1 English speakers like Shakespeare, but would they insist on bringing back all “pizzazz” that he backed.
    3) That statement means that writing standard generally follows spoken language and the special writing style (SWE in this case) is not a separate language, just a style.
    4) Depends on the circumstances. It’s all in the language, but in a particular case of a dictionary, if usage is not general it should be appropriately marked.
    5) That goes back to the basis of -criptivists debates. A dictionary is not a style guide, it is a snapshot of language as it is used (des); no, a dictionary is a hammer to beat people speaking differently then you are over the head (pres).

  77. Will, why would you want to quote that to us? Those who are interested have read the article.

    I think that the five ‘descriptivist theses’ you quote are basically a reaction to old misguided beliefs that:

    1. Correct usage should be frozen in time and all change should be resisted.
    2. Change is decay.
    3. The printed text is primary and sacred. The spoken language is just an imperfect reflection of this.
    4. Correctness in language is determined by authoritative arbiters of grammar and taste.
    5. Language has absolute standards that must be adhered to (said standards being set by authoritative arbiters of grammar and taste).

    Set beside these attitudes that so many people still seem to uncritically accept, I think the ‘descriptive theses’ are quite reasonable. DFW is just nitpicking when he tries to demolish them.

    1. Language changes constantly. All right, but how much and how fast?

    Only the language community can decide that — and, yes, Garner is obviously a part of the language community, but only a small part. What DFW appears to applaud is Garner’s pretensions to authority on which modern usages should be adopted and which should be rejected. A kind of Miss Manners of prose writing. That’s fine if it salves your insecurities about what to do as language changes, but don’t try and pretend that Garner represents a definitive arbiter on the speed of linguistic change. He doesn’t. See the following.

    2. Change is normal. Is Hericlitean flux as normal or desirable as gradual change? Do some changes serve the language’s overall pizazz better than others? And how many people have to deviate from how many conventions before we say the language has actually changed? Fifty percent? Ten percent? Where do you draw the line? Who draws the line?

    DFW actually admits elsewhere in his piece that change is normal. All he wants is some authority figure to ‘regulate’ and ‘direct’ the pace of change. But people like Garner more often than not are just reacting to change rather than moulding it. Their ability to ‘regulate’ change is limited; they can’t stop the herd so they follow it, belatedly shouting that ‘most of the herd has gone that way, we may as well follow them’. If that’s the guy you want to follow, be my guest.

    3. Spoken language *is* the language. This is an old claim, at least as old as Plato’s *Phaedrus*. And it’s specious. If Derrida and the famous Deconstructionists have done nothing else, they’ve successfully debunked the idea that speech is language’s primary instantiation.

    Sorry, I’ve never read Derrida. I think that there is reason to claim that writing is a different instantiation of language from speech, and possibly as important in certain ways. But just about everything we know about language shows that speech is primary — trust me on this. That doesn’t mean that writing doesn’t have its own independent existence, but it really is ultimately tied to speech. The alphabet represents pronunciation, albeit imperfectly — otherwise, how would you learn to write and spell? Even literary languages change over time, dragged along by the spoken language. That’s because people learn to speak first and spend most of their time speaking, not writing.

    4. Fine, but whose usage? Again, fine, but which people? Urban Latinos? Boston Brahmins? Rural Midwesterners? Appalachian Neogaelics?

    This is a total red herring. Even descriptivists have always been clear that the model for ‘standard English’ is careful and cultured speakers of the language. No one ever pretended that vagrants or prostitutes (for instance) set the standard for written English.

    5. All usage is relative. *Huh?* If this means what it seems to mean, then it ends up biting Gove’s whole argument in the ass. [It] seems to imply that the answer to the above “which people?” is: All of them. And it’s easy to show why this will not stand up as a lexicographical principle. The most obvious problem with it is that not everything can go in the dictionary. Why not? Well, because

    Even DFW admitted using different varieties to different people. He is the one who said that SNOOTS are in the wrong because they recognise only one standard and try to apply that to every situation. Isn’t that what it means to claim that all usage is relative?

    Nothing that DFW says is in contradiction to the descriptivist theses (except where he’s wrong).

  78. Actually, that entire quote is even more ridiculous in the context of lexicography.

    1) Language changes constantly. That’s why dictionaries need to be updated. A dictionary will make judgements about which new words to include, based on how widespread their usage is. A comprehensive dictionary will try to include as much of this new vocabulary as possible in order to remain useful — not exclude it as inappropriate.

    2) Change is normal. See above.

    3) Spoken language is *the* language. Yes, dictionaries generally include words that have appeared in writing. That is partly due to methodology — how words are gathered. But if a word occurs widely in English speech, there is no reason to exclude it.

    4) Correctness rests upon usage. A good dictionary will reflect usage. If ‘refute’ and ‘deny’ are mixed up by native speakers, the dictionary should record this, although a good dictionary will also note that this is not regarded as ‘correct’ usage.

    If a person comes across ‘ain’t’ in, say, Faulkner, they should be able to look this up in the dictionary. To banish words you don’t approve of is to fail in your job. (And if you weren’t an English speaker and came to a large dictionary to find out the meaning of ‘ain’t’, of course you would expect it to be listed! What kind of dictionary would it be that wilfully left you in the dark?)

    5) All usage is relative. Of course the dictionary should indicate appropriate usage, e.g., literary, colloquial, etc. That’s one of the primary functions of a dictionary.

    I really find DFW’s argumentation sloppy. In his appeal for some kind of ‘authority’ in matters of ‘good writing’, he twists, distorts and negates valid arguments advanced for adopting descriptivist approaches in lexicography, even stooping to using one of those purveyors of ‘academic prose’ (Derrida), whom he criticises elsewhere, to prove his point.

    Any dictionary compiled in accordance with what he writes would be an execrable dictionary. Not even the New English Dictionary follows his ridiculous insinuation that words used by “Urban Latinos, Boston Brahmins, Rural Midwesterners, or Appalachian Neogaelics” don’t belong in dictionaries.

    Essentially, his arguments resonate only with people who are desperate to uphold what they see as “correct” English. These are the people that descriptivists are arguing against — people who want to censor the language so that it fits into their own narrow strictures. His arguments are not much use for anything else; they are essentially a pile of gainsaying leading up to his approval of Garner, the ‘thinking man’s prescriptivist’.

  79. Sorry, I missed this one: .Only the most mullah-like Prescriptivists care all that much about Spoken English; most Prescriptive usage guides concern Standard *Written* English.

    This is, again, nonsense. Why do parents correct their children when they say ‘I like them boots!’? Why is ‘I would’ve went’ stigmatised as bad English? This dismissal of prescriptivism for spoken English is quite arbitrary.

  80. All legitimate shots, unintended prurient symbolism (no seriously, how did I not realize the connotation atached to “poking suppository holes” (oh my god I think I collapsed), and noted errors in my argument taken kindly.

    Well done, sir! A charming retraction, demonstrating a laudable willingness to take criticism seriously and acknowledge it gracefully.

    But I’m not parodying anything. I truly think that DFW was on point in his essay. He majored in English and Philosophy and studied French at Amherst and I can vouch personally for his etymological astuteness. He refined nearly everything he published until it was perfect (especially his later stuff).

    Uh, lots and lots of people have majored in English and Philosophy and studied French at good liberal arts colleges (I presume you’re not holding Amherst up as the very peak of American education), and nobody is perfect, no matter how hard they try. And — I ask this sincerely and out of a pure desire to learn — how exactly are you able to vouch personally for his etymological astuteness? Bear in mind (I say this not to be snarky but to provide possibly relevant facts) that I have a master’s degree in historical linguistics and have corresponded about etymology with people who write etymologies for dictionaries (the OED, AH, and M-W, inter alia), and marie-lucie is a practicing historical linguist; vague claims of having read a whole lot (and/or having majored in English and Philosophy and studied French at a good liberal arts college) will not cut it. Specific examples will help.

    I’ve learned some from Wikipedia, but not NEARLY as much as I’ve learned from the quality of information in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s last printed edition, which text can’t be edited and/or obfuscated by random trolls on the internet who haven’t accrued PhD.s in their fields and whatnot.

    You might want to take a look at this.

    Let me just quote his argument.

    Why? As Bathrobe says, we’ve all read it; you’re just wasting your time and ours. Do you have nothing of your own to say? And (again I ask purely for information’s sake, with no desire to snark) have you actually read and absorbed everything I said in the original post, or did you just read the start and decide to strike back in defense of your (I assume) favorite author?

  81. Each alignment typically has consequences for syntax

    Actually, only a small number of languages with morphological ergativity (case marking, word order, or whatever) also have syntactic ergativity. It’s far more typical to treat the ergative argument of a transitive verb as the subject for syntactic purposes, as explained in this Linguist List summary from 1995. But they are not independent parameters: morphologically accusative languages with ergative syntax are (as of then, at least) unknown.

  82. David Marjanović says:

    which text can’t be edited and/or obfuscated by random trolls on the internet who haven’t accrued PhD.s in their fields and whatnot

    Random trolls are barely a nuisance anymore. Their work gets undone* very quickly – in popular articles it only takes minutes.

    * Innovative get-passive here. Already comes naturally to me, and I’m not even a native speaker.

  83. Random trolls are barely a nuisance anymore. Their work gets undone* very quickly – in popular articles it only takes minutes.

    Unfortunately not true. I’ve seen vandalism that isn’t fixed from year to year. Sometimes people don’t even notice that it’s happened, or make it even worse with their fixes.

  84. I forgot to mention that some languages are syntactically neither accusative nor ergative, and that Chinese is among these. See my Cthulhu-based tutorial.

    Quick summary of four kinds of verbs with alignment-related names:

    Ergative verbs like break can be transitive or intransitive, and the intransitive subject corresponds to the transitive object.

    Accusative verbs like eat can also be transitive or intransitive. and the intransitive subject corresponds to the transitive subject.

    Unaccusative verbs like die are intransitive, and have subjects that are patients, or at any rate not agents.

    Unergative verbs like run are intransitive, and have subjects that are agents.

  85. And GAC said:

    I would still define Mandarin as an accusative language, mainly because outside of your example, it has accusative syntax. In fact, the complex sentence you mentioned is more about the fact that the subject has been dropped than anything else.

  86. Innovative get-passive here. Already comes naturally to me, and I’m not even a native speaker.

    On what sort of time-scale do you mean ‘innovative’? I would characterise this as ‘normal colloquial’. I’m not sure how old it is but it’s pretty standard now.

  87. marie-lucie says:

    JC: I did not mean to imply that languages had to be either-or, most languages have a mix of features even though some of them are more heavily slanted one way or another. English is very typically acusative.

    four kinds of verbs with alignment-related name: actually there should be a fifth kind, as in:

    I cooked the chicken.

    I cooked.

    The chicken cooked.

  88. the subject has been dropped

    Well, that’s just it. Mandarin (and AFAIK other Sinitic languages) allow you to drop any argument as long as it’s possible for the listener to restore it by appeal to common understanding. In a fully accusative language, Cthulhu dropped the watermelon and burst simply has to mean that Cthulhu burst, no matter how nonsensical that is. Sinophones are not so restricted.

  89. Great points. I can only vouch for him because he’s the most grammatically and rhetorically pristine author I’ve ever read. I wasn’t trying to say that he’s “extra special” or anything because of the degrees he’d accrued, but I mean it was in his blood. His mother is an English professor and from a young age he demonstrated the qualities of a precocious genius, which qualities were lucid in his literature as an adult. At fourteen, he named the tennis squads he coached after sections of James Joyce’s Ulysses: Oxen of the Sun and the Wandering Rocks. He set a record in the number of awards he received at Amherst (which is no average Lib. Arts school) and I mean just from reading his stuff as a lover of Language and Grammar, how could anyone not fall head over heels? At least, I mean, with respect to his fiction. I’m honest with myself. I understand I deify him, but I think of all writers he is the most worthy of that kind of an adoration. He was a legitimate genius of a writer and a grammarian. Please don’t get the wrong idea from me; that’d be terrible. I’m just saying that despite his modesty, he really really was something special. While it may have been sloppy, DFW was making a point by responding to the sound Descriptivist theses; his own responses were meant to seem off-the-cuff because they were so easily formulated; anyone could make valid arguments against them. The same is true from the other side. He was a believer of the SWE and blatantly said (in interviews) that he never really spoke in SWE; he saved it for writing. He’s day “It just ain’t true” all he wanted while conversing normally. He only maintained the Descriptivist mentality from an objectively SWE P.O.V. The nit-picky suppositions in this article about DFW’s eccentric diction and syntax just aren’t founded–none of what was written in the article was erroneous, and any substantial etymologist or grammarian would agree with that. I brashly responded to something attacking my favorite author. I apologize. I’m wrong nine-tenths of the time. Please don’t let me turn you off to DFW. If you can, pick up any of his short story collections or novels. They’re all fantastic, coming from someone who loves both literature and the melting pot of the English language.

  90. Great points. I can only vouch for him because he’s the most grammatically and rhetorically pristine author I’ve ever read. I wasn’t trying to say that he’s “extra special” or anything because of the degrees he’d accrued, but I mean it was in his blood. His mother is an English professor and from a young age he demonstrated the qualities of a precocious genius, which qualities were lucid in his literature as an adult. At fourteen, he named the tennis squads he coached after sections of James Joyce’s Ulysses: Oxen of the Sun and the Wandering Rocks. He set a record in the number of awards he received at Amherst (which is no average Lib. Arts school) and I mean just from reading his stuff as a lover of Language and Grammar, how could anyone not fall head over heels? At least, I mean, with respect to his fiction. I’m honest with myself. I understand I deify him, but I think of all writers he is the most worthy of that kind of an adoration. He was a legitimate genius of a writer and a grammarian. Please don’t get the wrong idea from me; that’d be terrible. I’m just saying that despite his modesty, he really really was something special. While it may have been sloppy, DFW was making a point by responding to the sound Descriptivist theses; his own responses were meant to seem off-the-cuff because they were so easily formulated; anyone could make valid arguments against them. The same is true from the other side. He was a believer of the SWE and blatantly said (in interviews) that he never really spoke in SWE; he saved it for writing. He’d say things like “It just ain’t true” all he wanted while conversing normally. He only maintained the Descriptivist mentality from an objectively SWE P.O.V. The nit-picky suppositions in this article about DFW’s eccentric diction and syntax just aren’t founded–none of what was written in the article was erroneous, and any substantial etymologist or grammarian would agree with that. I brashly responded to something attacking my favorite author. I apologize. I’m wrong nine-tenths of the time. Please don’t let me turn you off to DFW. If you can, pick up any of his short story collections or novels. They’re all fantastic, coming from someone who loves both literature and the melting pot of the English language.

  91. Sorry, I had a couple typos.

  92. I brashly responded to something attacking my favorite author. I apologize. I’m wrong nine-tenths of the time.

    That’s charming, and you should have left it at that rather than continuing to harp on your silly ideas about this post (“The nit-picky suppositions in this article about DFW’s eccentric diction and syntax just aren’t founded,” etc.). You admit you know nothing about this stuff (aside from what your hero proclaimed), and yet you persist in arguing about it with people who clearly know infinitely more than you. Why not just say “I love DFW!” and skip the nonsense?

  93. David Marjanović says:

    I forgot to mention that some languages are syntactically neither accusative nor ergative, and that Chinese is among these. See my Cthulhu-based tutorial.

    There is one way in which Chinese is unambiguously nominative/ergative, and that’s the default word order: agents and experiencers come before the verb, patients afterwards.

  94. I’m not trying to disrespect you, languagehat, but you don’t know me at all. The idea that you know “infinitely more than [me]” is not only crude but stupid if not facetious. Your article had serious errors, right from the opening paragraph. That’s not to say you’re not smart, which you’re definitely knowledgeable (no mistake there), but the pompous pretension you’re exhibiting is an insult to humanity’s own self-awareness. If you were as smart as you obviously think you are, the conjectures you made in the beginning of your “analytical” article wouldn’t be there. It seems you spend maybe five or ten minutes looking a usage up on Wikipedia without truly understanding it, and then pawn off your false pretense like it’s some sort of an original thought. Then when someone has the audacity to point that out, you treat them like inferiors. I might not be as erudite as you are, which neither of us knows and which doesn’t actually matter, but at least I’ll be original. If you started thinking for yourself, you’d see that all this pretentious “I’m smarter than you” bullshit is the causative progenitor of the stigma that rightly labels people like you as assholes.

    Allow me to applaud you for your superior mental capacity and contrived self-righteousness.

  95. Mr Will, Hat is normally a friendly fellow and jolly good company, too. As you can see at the D.C. Manual, he is also civil and helpful to strangers. But he does have one blind spot, and that is his implacable hatred of prescriptivism, a sore spot which you unwittingly offended and suffered the painful consequences for.

    You can go on worshipping DFW as much as you like, as long as you don’t suggest again (at least on this blog) that prescriptivism is acceptable because DFW said it was. Otherwise you can freely express your views on language here, as long as they are not vicious, extreme, or supportive of blind prescriptivism. I don’t believe that anything I’m saying here disagrees with Hat’s thinking, but if it does he’ll be sure to let us know.

  96. I’m not trying to disrespect you, languagehat, but

    ,,,I’m going to spew a lot of internet-standard bullying insults!

    The idea that you know “infinitely more than [me]”

    I didn’t say I know infinitely more than you, I said people know infinitely more than you. Yes, I happen to be one of those people, but that’s pretty much irrelevant, since you know nothing whatever about this stuff except whatever nonsense you’ve picked up from your idol. And you apparently have no inclination to learn, either, which might be a depressing commentary on your generation if I believed in such talk-show gibberish. It is, however, a depressing commentary on you.

    Your article had serious errors

    Point one out. Go on, I double-dare you. And please don’t just quote DFW again; surely you have a mind of your own.

    But he does have one blind spot, and that is his implacable hatred of prescriptivism

    Excuse me? How exactly is that a “blind spot”? Is my rejection of Ptolemaic astronomy and creation science also a “blind spot”? Give me a break.

  97. Oh, and:

    rightly labels people like you as assholes.

    Go back and read your comments (pretend they’re by somebody else, if that helps) and my responses and tell me who’s the asshole. I’m pretty sure few people would have been as tolerant of your blatherings as I was; in fact, at a lot of websites they would simply have been deleted. Various people tried to engage you seriously and point out where you went astray, but you just bulled ahead, alternating self-deprecation and renewed abuse. I hope in a few years you’ll be embarrassed if you go back and reread what you wrote here (but no, I won’t delete it for you).

  98. David,

    “There is one way in which Chinese is unambiguously nominative/ergative, and that’s the default word order: agents and experiencers come before the verb, patients afterwards.”

    In a topic-comment language, the default word order is that the topic – agent, patient, experiencer, and probably even location – always comes before the verb.

    Wo sunzi ghi de hen kuai – My grandson eats very fast.
    Wo fan chi de hen kuai – My rice eats very fast. (And this chi is not some Chomskyan ad hoc “crypto-passive” or whatever.)

    They are structurally identical.

  99. marie-lucie says:

    Chinese is unambiguously nominative/ergative

    Is that correct, or a typo for absolutive/ergative ?

  100. marie-lucie says:

    Or for nominative/accusative?

  101. David Marjanović says:

    *headdesk* I meant nominative/accusative.

    Wo fan chi de hen kuai

    …Oh. I didn’t know that was possible.

  102. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not trying to disrespect you, languagehat, but you don’t know me at all.

    “I don’t commit arguments from authority and ignorance, I only pretend to on the Internet!”

    …and even that is not original to you.

  103. Actually, this was a doozy:

    While it may have been sloppy, DFW was making a point by responding to the sound Descriptivist theses; his own responses were meant to seem off-the-cuff because they were so easily formulated; anyone could make valid arguments against them.

  104. I’m sorry; I’ve been at my dad’s house so I haven’t been able to access internet and respond to any of the comments regarding my comments and so forth.

    I apologize for being what most of even my less argumentative friends would refer to colloquially as “dickish” (I’m sure there’s a more apposite term you could apply here). That was brash and heated. I don’t understand what it is that makes someone so (pardon me here, genuinely) fucking opposed to Prescriptivism so as to equate it to “Ptolemaic astronomy and creation science” and assert that the opposition’s beliefs are an unwillingness to learn and therefore some sort of a bullshit generational commentary (again, here) when this person *him-/herself* fails to learn even the basics of the data used in the conjectures they’ve contrived (i.e. the double-dare-related stuff below) against an article that dares to openly point out that the extremists on either side of the “Usage Wars” are really no different at all, antipodally.

    In lieu of the eminent double-dare initiated by languagehat, I’ve taken it upon myself to once again draw opposition to me like electrons to some incredibly dense atom’s nucleus by retorting. Hopefully my argument won’t be written off as some less-intelligent indignant kid of a lower “generation” gap trying to use “self-deprecation” as a fucking rhetorical tactic (fuck me this time; I’ll throw the first stone [see what I did there?]). I’ll bypass the grueling foreplay.

    Double-dare accepted. [Knuckles cracking.]

    – I do have a mind of my own; thank you for the rhetorical question. (I’m taking this seriously, in case I should mention that.)

    – The abbreviated Latinate reference Quod vide doesn’t have to be used “after a reference to the thing seen”; he’s literally using it for its interpretation: “which see,” and even if it did (which it doesn’t), aren your standards regarding SWE not Descriptivist? Why the stringent fallacious rules regarding a referential tool? Who do you think makes those rules? Why do they matter? It’s the sort of thing you should ask; that’s why I’m asking.

    – I Googled Comp theorist and got ~126,000 “hits” (count ’em, or don’t) which seemed reputable enough to merit literature-/language-conversative academia (e.g. http://comptheoryatud.blogspot.com/2008/04/analysis-synthesis-and-application.html)

    – The whole capitalization-of-common-nouns-and-verb-phrases-thing is something DFW does purposefully. It illustrates the relativity of what is proper and what is common as assigned by prescriptive dictation–if anything, you of all people should support the irregular caps. I don’t understand why a hard-core SWE Descriptivist is so critical of postmodern deviation from what are very clearly prescriptive principles.

    – I don’t know which dictionary you’re using, but according to the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition (which if you didn’t know is one of the more reputable American Eng. Dictionaries), indite (v.) means “to write; compose,” affording its suffixed form the objective meaning “the act or process of writing or composing.” His usage is very clear. Even if we were conforming to the usage of your particular definition, it would make sense. I feel you’re grasping at the straws, as it were, for something to put your relative spin on and subject to erroneous correction (How’s that for an oxymoron?).

    – The translation of Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus according to your beloved Google is “sometimes, Homer nods” (i.e. even the best make mistakes), the use of which independent clause is completely acceptable in the case of the em-dash. This is basic grammar.

    – DFW is dead. He no longer has the capacity to “[know]” any more or less. That’s shows just how much effort you put into “googl[ing]” your research. He also served on the Decisions Board for the AHD Fourth Edition–which dictionary is agreed upon by most English professors to be more reputable than Webster’s. W/r/t quantity v. quality, the AHD wins over the majority of learned English facilitators the majority of the time. It’s a pretty damn good dictionary. And you know nothing about DFW (let alone the state of his existence [or rather lack thereof]) have no ethos in any of your statements regarding him.

    I’m too tired to continue on for tonight. Cheers.

  105. Assume the obvious intention of all typos, please; I’m tired.

  106. I’m really starting to feel we’re in a reality time warp here. LH wrote that article in 2002 when DFW was alive and kicking. Why the accusation that ‘DFW is dead. He no longer has the capacity to “[know]” any more or less. That’s shows just how much effort you put into “googl[ing]” your research’? I can’t figure out what’s going on here.

  107. David Marjanović says:

    The translation of Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus according to your beloved Google is “sometimes, Homer nods”

    “Sometimes the good Homer nods off” would be closer. Dormitare looks like a frequentative of dormire, “to sleep”.

  108. My mistake; I assumed the article was recent, which was ironically short on my part. The translation was from Google translate. there still seems to be a lack of knowledge regarding DFW, nonetheless.

  109. Ironically short? It looks to me like you forgot to take your gun out of its holster before you started shooting.

  110. The translation was from Google translate

    I’m sorry, I refuse to discuss anything seriously with someone who relies on Google translate for grammatical arguments about a language he understands no more than anything else he’s trying to talk about. Go ahead, walk away in triumph because your opponent refuses to debate you; obviously I’m the ignorant one here.

  111. “Ironically short? It looks to me like you forgot to take your gun out of its holster before you started shooting.”

    That’s exactly what I meant by irony…

    “I’m sorry, I refuse to discuss anything seriously with someone who relies on Google translate for grammatical arguments about a language he understands no more than anything else he’s trying to talk about. Go ahead, walk away in triumph because your opponent refuses to debate you; obviously I’m the ignorant one here.”

    That’s an excellent excuse for avoiding your errors. I also think it’s ironic of you to say such a thing when you yourself rely so heavily on Wikipedia and Google as opposed to an actual encyclopedia or concrete information; I was being facetious in saying “The translation was from Google Translate.” Humor obviously doesn’t *translate* well over text [drum beat & top-hat smash]. If you refuse to respond to the legitimate refutation of the parts of your argument in the wrong because of an instance of ironic humor which gets the point across as practically as even the correct Latinate translation, there’s no point your argument in the first place. I triple-dare you to pull your metaphorical Head out of the metaphorical Sand. Need I go so far as to initiate K9-typal-dares?

    In all seriousness, what I’m saying doesn’t seem to matter and so therefore I acknowledge your nonresponse with respect. According to your own ironically structured Descriptivist view, if something is considered by the mass populous to be wrong, it’s no longer relevant. So fuck it all, then. That seems to justify this.

  112. Typos abound. Apologies.

  113. That’s an excellent excuse for avoiding your errors.

    I may have made errors, but you haven’t pointed any out (nor would I expect you to be able to). You are laughably wrong about Latin (and the very fact you try to find mistakes in my Latin when you are entirely ignorant of the language is telling), “The whole capitalization-of-common-nouns-and-verb-phrases-thing is something DFW does purposefully” is pathetic special pleading and has nothing to do with any “mistake” on my end, there’s no point quoting the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition (which if you didn’t know has been superseded by the Fifth) because I mention the definition of the verb in my original post while pointing out it makes no sense in context, and you appear not to have read as far as Addendum 2. The “dead” thing, of course, is your own foolishness (and I still have no idea what you meant by “ironically short”). But there’s no point to all this; nothing I can say will make a dent, because you idolize DFW and think everything he said is graven on tablets from above and by definition true and holy. You are wasting everyone’s time here.

  114. We clearly won’t see eye to eye. I do know that; I own the fourth edition. My “pathetic special pleading” was characterized poorly in your response: he’s always been interested in a postmodern “reversal of the normal order” (e.g. the single quotes in place of double quotes in all dialogue in Infinite Jest and so on). His writing is clearly ahead of your own–of all our own. You are exhibiting all the qualities Descriptive extremist who is ironically treating said usage-type with an eerie austere set of rules quite reminiscent of Prescriptive extremism, which is all another thing on its own, it seems. I was only trying to defend someone who could easily defend himself if you’d talk to him personally, because all these attacks are shortsighted; he can’t any longer for obvious reasons.

    I’ll stop wasting everyone’s time here. I’m genuinely sorry that you disdain my argument and see it as a sad commentary on my generation and myself. I personally can’t take any more of this bullshit pretension. I hope your life is beautiful and that after you forget this ever existed, you find contentment in everything around you and you’re happy. If you swear to forget this shit I’ve spouted, I swear on my life I won’t kill myself.

    Love always,

    Will

  115. Wow, what’s with all the ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’? Adulation can be a terrible thing.

  116. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not surprised Google Translate can’t cope with the Latin lack of word order. It doesn’t understand… *whisper* grammar.

  117. While this blog post does very much misread Wallace’s essay, it does spotlight the true purpose and worth of Wallace’s piece, albeit inadvertently. Rather than endeavoring on an “endless series of rants about how proper usage is being forgotten and language is going to hell in a handbasket,” Wallace makes it clear though out ‘Tense Present’ that his essay is ultimately about rhetoric, more specifically the attitude the grammar “authority” must take to do his job well at a time when SWE’s ubiquity and utility are diminished by discourse fragmentation, cynical attitudes towards elitist forces, and the general decline in literacy.

    The post author’s tone towards Wallace’s errors, as well as his attitudes towards dissenting commenters, embodies the deeply questionable rhetorical moves of the Prescriptive extremist–harsh, dismissive, holier-than-thou condescension. This is these are the very rhetorical blunders that Wallace sees as amended by Garner. And it is this very style of grammar discourse and instruction that has rendered the field so inaccessible, so distant from our actual experience of language, so seemingly elitist to the very core. (For what it’s worth, Wallace readily admits to committing these same rhetorical blunders with his college students; he is not, in this or any of his writings, un-self-aware or exempt from scrutiny.)

    Wallace admires Garner’s approach to usage guidance because Garner is (unlike most SNOOTs) humble, empathetic, and totally transparent. Espousing these values forms the crux of Wallace’s piece, not elitist ranting; to claim the latter of ‘Tense Present’ is simply a dire mis-reading. The essay does, indeed, claim that SWE is the language of professional life in America—but is this not simply a bland statement of fact? In any event, Wallace very clearly makes this claim in the interests of maintaining the very transparency he admires in Garner, and Wallace repeatedly qualifies it with an explicit understanding that SWE is clearly not the primary language of most speakers (including himself), and that personal dialects are legion and their usage complexly informed by rhetorical situation. Hashing this out is why the piece ends up so long. Hostility towards the length of Wallace’s piece represents hostility towards the very concept of complexity, and such complexity is the very reason why arguments about language and meaning prove so interesting and compelling.

    Equally hostile to the complexity of the usage issue is this post’s final note on Prescriptivism—to dismiss it out of hand as a “wrong and harmful” seems so utterly simplistic and stubborn, and to attribute hard line complexity to Wallace proves to be yet another misreading of Wallace’s piece. Wallace’s essay is not, by any means, a hard line Prescriptivist salvo, but rather an appeal to apply Prescriptivism when appropriate with a Descriptivist ethos and rhetorical savvy. In other words, Wallace asks us to understand that if professional and interpersonal situations do sometimes demand SWE, we should do our best to master it, but also to understand that this language is difficult to grasp, and that errors in using this language do not define or condemn us.

    This, to me, is a deeply comforting, inspiring message, worthy of cheers and not scorn.

  118. *Pardon–the third line of the last full paragraph should read “to attribute hard line Prescriptivism to Wallace”

  119. Derek Henderson says:

    In re: this bit of your essay:

    <>

    So, I said the above sentences out loud, but I’m still confused by what they actually mean, which I think means they’re still ambiguous (at least to me). For instance, I said aloud “People who eat THIS often get sick,” and I thought the “THIS” was referring to something like, maybe, arsenic, which, if often consumed, might make the eater sick.

    Then I said the same sentence this way: “People who eat THIS OFTEN get sick,” and I thought that the “THIS OFTEN” meant something like, “people who eat as often as we’re eating during the course of this particular day get sick,” even if we’re eating things that are healthy and not full of arsenic.

    Same goes with the other two examples from Wallace’s essay: Do some lawyers lie better than others, or are some reasons for lawyers’ lying better than other reasons? Is the mother of the infant daughter the one who works 12-hour days, or is it the infant daughter who works 12-hour days?

    Could you clarify how the made-up examples are not ambiguous? And, additionally, could you clarify how their being made-up makes them somehow irrelevant?

  120. could you clarify how their being made-up makes them somehow irrelevant?

    I could do that part, if you don’t mind. The reason fabricated examples are irrelevant is that we’re not building a machine, so Murphy’s Law doesn’t apply (i.e., an example of a potential problem isn’t ipso facto a problem that needs to be solved); rather we’re using language, and language is complex, subtle, evolving, and self-correcting — an organism, if you will, so sophisticated that only people who don’t understand would try to tidy it up with facile rules for problems that don’t exist. For example, the rules DFW is defending with made-up examples are intended to avoid ambiguity, but that ambiguity only exists if the words are used in a vacuum — without context. Words before or after them would make clear the putatively ambiguous words in between. Often emphasis would do the same. If DFW had adduced a bunch of real world examples in which a supposedly ambiguous usage had been truly ambiguous, causing real problems, then he would have helped his argument, because he would have shown that we really have a problem (prescriptivism still wouldn’t be the answer, but still); but instead, by using only fabricated examples (all he can use) — words in a vacuum — he did nothing but muddy water. Does that clarify things?

  121. Then I said the same sentence this way: “People who eat THIS OFTEN get sick,” and I thought that the “THIS OFTEN” meant something like, “people who eat as often as we’re eating during the course of this particular day get sick,” even if we’re eating things that are healthy and not full of arsenic.

    If spoken, emphasis would clarify the meaning easily. Ditto for writing; you’d just need italicized or bold font, or capital letters, or any of the other many tools used in prose for emphasis.

  122. No doubt prescriptivism in language usage will usually be the losing side. But then do we really also want to dismiss, belittle–even eradicate–that impulse? As soon as one person misuses a word that they misheard and were too lazy to look up or ask about–do we really want to enshrine that as an innovative linguistic development? Accept and advertize it? No doubt there are innovative coinages or neologisms, and there are obscure splittings of hairs that are entirely forgettable–but there’s little doubt that the great preponderance of linguistic evolution is driven entirely by ignorance and laziness. Who wants to embrace that wholeheartedly? How can anyone be thrilled to hear the conflation of home and hone, adverse and averse, tack and tact, stanch and staunch, etc etc? Each one of these killed distinctions or lost words is like the extinction of a species, the loss of a unique butterfly. You can counter that they get replaced by marvelous new creations like “bling” and “hellah” and “trippin” and such. I’m biased against most teenage or pop creations I guess. But whether you share that bias or not–what’s wrong with dreaming of saving these usages that are being killed our basest traits?

  123. there’s little doubt that the great preponderance of linguistic evolution is driven entirely by ignorance and laziness.

    Absolutely.

    Who wants to embrace that wholeheartedly?

    Anyone who lives in the reality-based community. Language is a spontaneous order, one that arises out of everyone’s actions but that nobody controls. Thinking we can affect it very much, or that the way it goes or doesn’t go is a moral issue, is a recipe for unhappiness.

  124. To expand on something I said a while ago: There seem to me to be two motivations behind prescriptivism. One is that language change reminds us that time marches on and we’re all going to die. The second is that the way it usually happens reminds us that history is a march of folly. People interested in their own language are continually presented with these two unpleasant facts. So they tend to hone in on language change (which I always want to think means “advance on it while sharpening their knives”).

    I’ll still never say “comprised of.”

  125. Well, of course it’s properly a blend, not a “confusion.” But ever since I first encountered it, I’ve just found it oogly. De gustibus non est disputandum.

  126. LanguageHat: “’ Prescriptivism’ ” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back.”

    Or, prescriptivism helps people gain admission into the middle class and a better life.

    It’s prescriptive and elitist to teach young people not to blow their noses into their fingers or to refer to women as bitches and hos. Some young people who take that advice might one day feel learning it didn’t do them irreparable damage.

  127. Mark Caplan: Thank you for your elegant and convincing argument. I confess that that had never occurred to me, and now that it’s been pointed out I have realized the error of my ways.

  128. Stefan Holm says:

    I think that today descriptivism vs prescriptivism is a little tricky. There was a time, when children in schools were punished for not speaking or writing according to the prescripted standards. But since 40 years it is no longer the case! And I’ve been wondering about the concept describe vs prescribe.

    If you as a low class (but talented) person have been taught not to be ashamed of your dialect and actually uses it – what are the chances that you will get a job or be accepted at the university? The very well-intentioned purpose of the descriptivists might not work in the real world.

    Sometimes descriptivism to me seems to be a from above perspective (again with the best of intetntions). But why then are all questions-and-answers columns in the media about people who asks ‘what is the right thing to say?’. After all communication is about a speaker and a listener. If this should be meaningful both parties have to agree upon the meaning of he message. Thus there have to be some rules agreed upon.

    If you were asked – what is right: ‘To who it may concern’ or ‘to whom it may concern’? What would you answer? Descriptively both are of course correct and perfectly understandable . But in front of your employer?

    The law of the jungle (anything goes) isn’t always the best for the poor people on this earth.

  129. It’s funny how “the law of the jungle” has come to mean “anything goes,” when in Kipling’s original, it was an actual code of rules to be followed by the wolves and other animals of the jungle.

  130. Stefan Holm, I think you are way too educated not to be aware of the concepts of dialect, register and style.

  131. If you as a low class (but talented) person have been taught not to be ashamed of your dialect and actually uses it – what are the chances that you will get a job or be accepted at the university?

    Peter Trudgill. The article doesn’t say so, but he has spoken his Norwich dialect throughout his academic life. Of course, in the U.S. where dialect/accent (AAVE apart) is not so stigmatized, there are plenty of examples.

  132. If you as a low class (but talented) person have been taught not to be ashamed of your dialect and actually uses it – what are the chances that you will get a job or be accepted at the university? The very well-intentioned purpose of the descriptivists might not work in the real world.

    Sigh. For the billionth time: descriptivists DO NOT TELL PEOPLE THEY SHOULD JUST TALK HOWEVER THEY WANT UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. Descriptivism says that language, like anything else, should be described as it exists and not as someone thinks it should be. Would you like a medical textbook to ignore diseased organs because they’re “incorrect”? It is of course the case that if people want to get good jobs they should acquire the standard dialect and learn how and when to use it. NO ONE HAS EVER DENIED THAT except for the straw men created by prescriptivists. Sorry for shouting, but I get mortally tired of that particular argument.

  133. David Marjanović says:

    If you as a low class (but talented) person have been taught not to be ashamed of your dialect and actually uses it – what are the chances that you will get a job or be accepted at the university?

    …Diglossia? I speak my dialect when I think people around me/the intended audience will understand me – which is not the case here in Berlin.

  134. David Marjanović says:

    (…Also, where I come from, studying at a university is usually a right conferred by graduating from a quite popular school type. The exception is that the most popular studies, like medicine, have recently introduced an additional test because they’re not getting enough money to teach everyone.)

  135. Marc Adler says:

    I was directed here from the Wallace-l mailing list, where I posted a critique of the “five edicts” part of the essay.

    Amazing to see the fanboys losing their shit over this – they really do worship DFW, which is unfortunate for DFW, and for me, since I like DFW but I can’t stand fanboys, and enough dimwitted fanboys will sour me on DFW.

    But this is classic: “Sad. This whole URL is sad.”

    The URL is: http://languagehat.com/david-foster-wallace-demolished/

    What combination of words could be sadder for a DFW fanboy?

  136. Marc Adler: thanks for sharing; you are far superior to those of us who prize Wallace’s work and formulate our own opinions and believe maybe deciding something along the lines of “Who cares about the English language? Let’s just consider every ignorant misuse a glorified innovation.” is probably even narrower than the mindset of a “staunch elite prescriptivist” whom you and your kin (the mod. in particular) enjoy labeling with connotations of stupidity and youth and so forth. I appreciate your capacity to refer to me as a “Wallace Fanboy” merely because I agree with one of Wallace’s essays, which essay was ignorantly “demolished” by someone who acts superior and democratic because they see the english language as a monopoly owned by scholars, which it isn’t in the least. I hope you haven’t allowed your entire perception of Wallace to be “soured” by someone who had the audacity to disagree with popular opinion and–[gasp]–back up the argument that hey, maybe your tearing apart this guy’s writing based on a couple of grammatical misnomers isn’t entirely founded. Oh my, are the fanboys “losing their shit.”

  137. because they see the english language as a monopoly owned by scholars

    We don’t think that in the least. On the contrary, it’s that we don’t think it’s owned by Snoots.

  138. I appreciate your capacity to refer to me as a “Wallace Fanboy”

    What makes you think he was referring to you? Did you read the whole thread? You’re just one of a whole tedious crew of blathering ignoramuses for whom DFW is the be-all and end-all and anyone who criticizes him in any way is to be attacked with all guns blazing. But you do have the distinction of being the most blathering and ignorant of the crew, and I’m getting tired of it. I think I’ve been very tolerant of your repeated and interchangeable diatribes and your inability to say anything useful, and I hate deleting comments, but if you can’t say anything other than what you’ve been saying so far, I give you fair warning that I’m just going to delete your future comments as soon as I notice them. Feel free to call yourself a victim of The Man, but (as Monk says) you’ll thank me later when you’ve grown up a bit and are (hopefully) mortally embarrassed by the adolescent tripe you’ve been spouting here.

  139. Stefan Holm says:

    Glad to hear about your recovery, Hat. I got really scared when I read your comment 6 postings up in this thread. On this precious blog people who knows you personally (better than I do) have testified that you react with your guts upon any attempt to defend prescriptivism. My God, I thought, what have I done?

    I can assure you that I’m a dedicated descriptivist too. I just tried to mediate an observation: At least in my country the former prescriptivist cultural, intellectual and political elite today unanimously praise minority languages, dialects, sociolects, idiolects etc. That has become politically correct. But the sad truth is that same people are proved to be more than hesitant when it comes to offer those they in words care for an employment.

    On the other hand, those the alleged victims (of prescriptivism) act the other way around: Immigrants are eager to learn Swedish. Dialects are rapidly dying and attempts to save minority languages peter out. Since more than half a decade the University of Gothenburg has recorded the speech of 16 year olds and found the tendency unambigous – for each year they more and more close up to the dialect in the (Stockholm based) national media.

    I myself feel a little like the last of the Mohicans using a three gender system, breast fed phonetics and dialectal words known to everybody 50 years ago. To young people I’m a redneck (until we get a closer talk). So that was my observation: the world in some way seems upside down when it comes to prescriptivism vs descriptivism, the elite is descriptive while the ‘people’ is prescriptive (in following the idols of their time).

    As an addendum: this in my opinion is valid for our entire modern western culture. The elite unanimously confesses itself to feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, climate care, sexual minorities’ rights, preservation of species … you name it. And all those people see themselves as radical and oppositional!? Oppositional against whom? Nobody (at least not in Europe, where we have no protestant fundamentalist)! The entire elite agrees upon all this just as much as they (at least silently) agree upon the neo-liberal economic system. Thus lacking a serious debate of ideas we today face what we’ve asked for – popular support for extreme right wing misantrophic and reactionary parties.

  140. marie-lucie says:

    SH: breast fed phonetics

    ???????

  141. The phonetics Stefan learned to speak some decades ago, I suppose, unmodified by more recent developments.

  142. You can judge me all you want, Hat. I enjoy Wallace’s work. He’s not the end-all or the be-all, but he’s a respectable artist I happen to admire. I don’t see why you need to resort to childish insults. I’m merely defending an ideology I agree with. I honestly hope you do delete this if you feel it’ll aggravate this thread’s function, but do you know what’s funny? The meaning of the previous sentence would be entirely altered if looked at from the perspective of a hardcore, die-hard prescriptivist (which you are), and do you know why? Because of a misuse (I’m referring to the word aggravate, of course.). I’m all about adaptation and evolution; I just think maybe the genesis of these etymological dichotomies’ dual relationships should be the result of original neologistic invention as opposed to the senseless misuse and construing of their original meanings. I’m making an argument for prescriptivism, or at least a sort of a valley between both parties of the argument. But, please, don’t pawn me off as one of “a whole tedious crew of blathering ignoramuses,” because that conjecture’s ironically more ignorant than anything you’re accusing me of. You can present a reasonable grown-up contention in response and refrain from name-calling, unless (as Monk said) I’m wrong, which, you know, I’m not.

    Cheers.

  143. Will: Your claim to stand in a “valley between both parties” reminds me of the man who found two boys quarrelling over a pie. On inquiry, he found that Bob wanted to divide the pie equally, whereas Charlie wanted it all to himself. “Why don’t you compromise, boys?” said the man. “Charlie gets 75%, Bob gets 25%.”

  144. Obviously that man was a journalist practicing Objectivity (TM).

  145. John: That’s a good point, and I agree completely, but I don’t think the distinction between the Charlie and Bob analogs, respectively, is as cut and dry as it might seem. I don’t know. I’m not calling anyone any names. I’m not referring to someone as a blathering idiot because they happen to disagree with me, and I’m not tearing apart an article based on a bunch of lofty preconceived notions regarding the objectivity of grammar which ironically contrasts my own “prescriptivist” viewpoint in the starkest ways imaginable. I look at this thread’s main article and all I see is this: sad, jaded irony. Those two adjectives paired with that noun are probably the deadliest combination in my mind. Someone who claims to be prescriptivist but yet castigates someone else who doesn’t follow the mold with respect to rhetoric and thus finds that person’s premises at fault for actually (if you read the first half of the writing, it’s all this) using effete grammar and specific diction while revolutionizing the written word with, mind you, some nods to the subjectivity of what does and doesn’t qualify as a proper noun, for example–an ideal any prescriptivist who isn’t jaded or ironic should fully support and appreciate (hell, any human being who values forward-moving invention for that matter)! To me, this emesis regarding DFW and whatever it is this particular author found at fault with his article is “the song of a bird who’s come to love his cage,” to quote DFW. All the labeling and pawning-off and so forth about “DFW fanboys” to me seems to be just a defense mechanism. I’m just saying this: I respect your beliefs. I won’t label you. I believe in the liberty of free thought, expression, and creation more than I believe in my self, and I mean that, and I separated those two words on purpose. I love the things humans can do with Language, and DFW’s work made me realize that. All that aside, of course, I’m just a person trying to respectfully assert his own opinion. Take what you will from that.

    Thanks.

  146. David Marjanović says:

    How many teal deer were brutally slaughtered for this thread…?

  147. Over maybe around 9,000.

  148. Novus Ordo Cervorum.

  149. Adam Rosenthal says:

    Seems I’m a bit late to this lesson. I’ve always meant to read Wallace’s article, which is sold as a highly informed and balanced defence of prescriptivism, but I’ve never previously found the time.

    I simply cannot believe the section on Fries and the physics textbook analogy. It puts the other errors, highlighted well here, into the shade, in my view. We all make errors in usage – though obviously you’d hope to avoid it while in the process of laying down the law on that very topic. Still, that’s just ordinary sloppiness and hypocrisy.

    But for someone of his intellect to make such an elementary logical error, gutting his own argument, while abusing the target of his stupidity as droolingly stupid… and through it all affecting the air of the uber-sophisticate who has read, understood and judiciously dismissed the entirety of the opposing argument… just staggering. What lazy arrogance. I’m certainly not reading any further beyond that point.

    (The only thing I’m not sure I agree with LH about is the ‘a clef’ bit. In the footnote it seems clear that although he and his family now use ‘snoot’ more widely, it originated ‘historically’ as his family’s codeword for various among themselves.)

  150. Welcome to the thread, which is (as you see) ageless, and I’m glad you agree with my take on the article! You may well be right about the à clef bit; apparently I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the footnote with the origin story. So many, many footnotes…

  151. Adam Rosenthal says:

    I’m impressed that you’re still bothering to moderate posts on the subject!

    Do you think Wallace genuinely believed that linguists spend their time cataloguing random speakers’ personal theories of language? Seemingly not, because the example he immediately gives is people’s use of ‘infer’, not anyone’s bit of lay theorising. I guess he just saw a rhetorical opening and took the plunge.

    I also keep staring at that word ‘finally’. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers…. I think that might, somehow, be even more outrageous than one Charles Fries.

  152. Do you think Wallace genuinely believed that linguists spend their time cataloguing random speakers’ personal theories of language?

    I honestly have no idea. De mortuis, etc., but I would guess that DFW, like many writers, was ultimately more concerned about how his words sounded on the page than on boring facticity.

  153. Language Hat’s fallacious perspective is compounded by the ignorance of the fact that this is all too subjective to be argued either way. That aside, he contends for taking on the misuse of the American-English language as a legitimate avenue of evolution for the language itself. That makes so much sense. Language Hat would use aggravate to mean irritate.

  154. Brave Will has limped back into the fray. Not content with aggravating his parlous situation, with the very real possibility that he’ll shoot himself in the other foot, he’s also getting distinctly aggravating.

  155. Language Hat would use aggravate to mean irritate.

    I would and do, and I felicitate you on your perspicacity!

  156. Will’s latest remarks are based on the notion that there are two kinds of changes, legitimate and illegitimate. This is not so. There are in fact two kinds of changes, those to which SNOOTS object and those to which they do not. For example, the use of aggravate for ‘irritate’ as well as ‘worsen’ (a change of the 17C which has persisted to this day) is one to which SNOOTS object; the use of you to mean ‘thou’ and the disuse of thou except when praying (changes of the 16C which have also persisted to this day) are ones to which SNOOTS do not object.

    The pronunciation of bother to rhyme with father, a change of roughly the 18C, is found in many but not all varieties of American English (in particular, it is not found in Eastern New England varieties); it is one to which modern American SNOOTS do not object, though Noah Webster (a 19C American SNOOT from Eastern New England) would probably have objected to it. The pronunciation of ask to rhyme with fax is very old in English and is consistently found in some varieties of English though not all, but SNOOTS object to it nonetheless.

    It should be clear that the classes “what SNOOTS object to” and “what SNOOTS do not object to” are not particularly natural ones, as there is no principle by which particular language changes are placed by SNOOTS in one class or the other. Non-SNOOTS, of course, do not care.

  157. Non-SNOOTS, of course, do not care.

    One wishes that were true, but alas, many people, while not SNOOTS themselves, are sufficiently browbeaten by SNOOTS to provide an endless market for books of SNOOTery.

  158. True, of course.

  159. Eric Arthur Blair says:

    I think this reading of DFW gets bogged down in the minutiae of linguistics and misses his many other worthwhile points. To be fair, he wrongly tars linguistics as a whole. The original post makes this point well. However, from my reading of “Authority and American Usage” (not the shorter “Tense Present”), it seems pretty clear that his main target is Steven Pinker. DFW quotes Pinker at a number of junctures in the argument. The quotes from Pinker, moreover, do appear to support DFW’s characterization of linguistics and descriptivism. To my mind, DFW’s main error was making Pinker representative for the entire field of linguistics, rather than, say, one major strand — Pinker is a tenured professor at Harvard after all, not an insignificant voice in the field.

    But if we can overlook DFW’s ignorance about linguistics, we can see the broader political and philosophical points that he makes about language and usage, especially in relation to Orwell and Wittgenstein. I don’t take DFW to be arguing for an unmodified prescriptivism, i.e., the kind of prescriptivism that worries languagehat. Unmodified prescriptivism is unyielding to change, to the point that the rules originally prescribed often become dislodged from the context that gave rise to them and therefore lose their meaning; it’s elitist and undemocratic. DFW isn’t arguing for that kind of prescriptivism (and, according to DFW, I don’t take Garner’s ADMAU to be offering that kind of prescriptivism), which is why he seems to contradict himself. DFW is arguing for a modified prescriptivism that takes into account changes in language use. His point is that there are norms implicit in language use that govern whether moves in language are legitimate or illegitimate. According to DFW, Garner is making those norms explicit and then offering reasons for why certain norms are better than others. Garner is a prescriptivist, but he knows that he can’t fight against language use; he can only hope to slow it down or give reasons why certain developments don’t make much sense. DFW thinks Garner is brilliant because 1) he doesn’t shy away from making judgments and using judgment, 2) he establishes his authority through bootstrapping in a way that 3) ultimately depends on good reasons. These three things (judgement, authority, and reasons) are what DFW finds in Garner’s ADMAU.

    Along the way, DFW tries to show that the kind of scientific, value-neutral objectivity to which someone like Pinker aspires is an illusion. Language is a discursive social practice that is value-laden and norm-governed through and through. Moreover, according to DFW, there are multiple language games going on because there are multiple dialects, each with its own norms. When we learn to use a dialect that others use, we want to be accepted (or what philosophers might call ‘mutual recognition’ or acknowledgment) as a peer or equal. This is the point about children learning more than one dialect. No one dialect is inherently better than any other, says DFW. In fact, some of the non-SWE dialects are more sophisticated than SWE. However, DFW knows that SWE is the dialect of the powerful. If one wants to be recognized as a peer, have her voice heard, etc. by the powerful in this country, one must, like MLK and James Baldwin, learn their dialect (SWE). By putting the point baldly, DFW takes himself to be unmasking the hidden power structures undergirding much of our social world. Remaining silent or ignorant about them, he believes, makes us comfortable with our existing social arrangements and therefore less likely to change them. This explains his advice to his black students, which he later realized relied far too much on logos to the detriment of ethos. DFW also didn’t think teachers made a good enough case to students where a non-SWE dialect was in use for why they should learn SWE.

    There’s more I could say, but I think this starts to get at what DFW was expressing. There is a lot more beneath the surface, but one has to be willing to work at it and ignore the bluster and eccentricities.

  160. But if we can overlook DFW’s ignorance about linguistics, we can see the broader political and philosophical points that he makes about language and usage, especially in relation to Orwell and Wittgenstein.

    I neither can nor wish to overlook his ignorance about linguistics; I find it as objectionable as any other proudly paraded ignorance (see: climate-change denial). If he wanted to make political and philosophical points in relation to Orwell and Wittgenstein, that’s what he should have written about (though, frankly, I suspect experts in those fields would have been just as impatient with his efforts as I was with this).

    There is a lot more beneath the surface, but one has to be willing to work at it and ignore the bluster and eccentricities.

    I am not willing to do so; why should I? Life is short, and there are far too many good things to read to waste my time trying to excavate hidden gold from a mountain of obvious slag.

    I admire the persistence of DFW fans in trying to rescue their man from what they perceive as unfair attack, but from my perspective (and that of anyone who knows anything about linguistics, which is to say anyone who knows anything scientific about language) the attack is entirely fair and justified. To all such fans I say: I welcome your contributions to the thread, as long as they’re civil, but if your primary goal is to get me to change my mind, it’s not going to happen. Feel free to write me off as closed-minded (every bit as closed-minded as an archaeologist who refuses to countenance the idea of pyramids as grain-storage units), but that’s the way it is.

  161. Eric Arthur Blair says:

    You just blew me off without offering a single reason, writing me off as a “fan” rather than someone interested in the democratic exchange of ideas. You can do what you want, but I don’t buy your professed democratic and anti-elitist motives. For instance, your appeal to authority as a linguist (“anyone who knows anything about linguistics”) to shutdown your interlocutors is actually anti-democratic and reeks of elitism. Notice, that Garner’s ADMAU doesn’t make that kind of appeal. Garner provides reasons which he is willing to defend, but he invites others to offer other reasons (via email) which could sway his judgment in future editions. Moreover, your appeal to science (“anyone who knows anything scientific about language”) is question begging in that it assumes the very premises it is meant to argue for. One of the things that is under investigation and up for dispute is what science is in this instance and how it applies to language in this case. Again you offer no reasons. The larger political and philosophical points are obvious to anyone not invested in the internecine battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists, as if those were the only two viable options. For example, there are footnotes on Orwell and Wittgenstein; interpolations on abortion, politically correction English, and advice to students that speak non-SWE; arguments about judgment, authority, norms, offering reasons, acceptance (aka mutual recognition), etc. But apparently, none of that matters because he doesn’t genuflect to linguists, especially militant, dogmatic-types like Steven Pinker, who, by the way, ought to be blamed for the caricature of the descriptivist position, not DFW.

  162. This thread is going on for so long that I forgot what this all about and have no desire to go back and relearn it, but one small note on science and elitism — science is elitist. Science strives to search for truth and separate it from falsehoods. If someone’s idea is false it does not matter that the person with wrongs views has a standing as a human being, member of the community etc. False opinions do not count.

  163. What you call elitist, in this context, I call anti-elitist, but otherwise we quite agree. Isn’t that peculiar?

    (“You say Carmina,I say Burana / Let’s call the whole thing Orff.” — Joseph Zitt)

  164. You just blew me off without offering a single reason,

    I offered reasons, you just didn’t care for them. If I was brusque, there’s a reason for that too: see the long, long thread above, which I’m guessing you didn’t actually read. You and DFW and Garner and a bunch of commenters above (and pretty much everybody else who thinks they can discuss these things because they speak English and have read widely) are wrong, but you’re not going to understand why without either taking a course in linguistics or reading the kinds of materials such a course would provide, and I can’t make you do that. So go on feeling that I’m the snooty one if you like; it’s no skin off my back.

  165. Oh, and my appeal to authority is not to the piece of paper that states I have completed X amount of postgraduate study, it is to the fact signified by said piece of paper: that I know what I am talking about. You are, of course, free to assume I am just posturing.


  166. Bogged down in the minutiae of linguistics

    norms implicit in language use that govern whether moves in language are legitimate or illegitimate.

    The problem here is that the ‘norms of language use’ are precisely what linguistics tries to uncover, and they’re precisely what aren’t – as even the most reasonable of prescriptivists seem to believe – given to prescriptivists on some form of marble tablet, which they can consult in the future to approve language changes. Only the actual study of actual languages, which neither DFW or Garner, to my knowledge, undertook can tell you what ‘norms’ they adopt; while they can’t deem changes ‘illegitimate’ or ‘legitimate’ (dangerously judgemental terms for a field which is so often, and so mystifyingly, described in moralistic terms), they can tell if they’re individual mistakes or genuine change. Unfortunately, everything else you’ve written is undermined a little bit by the fact that what you’ve written is the equivalent of reading a precisely detailed critique of the belief that the pyramids are grain stores and responding that the critique gets too bogged down in actual history, and later writing that there are historical documents that can tell you that good or bad people built the pyramids – without ever talking to people who can read the hieroglyphics.

  167. Unfortunately, everything else you’ve written is undermined a little bit by the fact that what you’ve written is the equivalent of reading a precisely detailed critique of the belief that the pyramids are grain stores and responding that the critique gets too bogged down in actual history, and later writing that there are historical documents that can tell you that good or bad people built the pyramids – without ever talking to people who can read the hieroglyphics.

    Is this addressed to me? If so, I don’t understand it. In any case, I liked the first part of your comment!

  168. Naah, it’s clearly addressed to Eric Arthur Blair.

  169. Apologies: it is indeed to Eric Arthur Blair, not you!

  170. Whew! Sorry, this thread tends to fog my mind.

  171. I’m sorry for keeping the dead horse beating going, but the inanity of someone suggesting – in an otherwise reasonable comment – that a critique of DFW’s article about linguistics got too bogged down in linguistics was too great to ignore.

  172. Veritas odium parit says:

    I stumbled upon your Blog— happily and fortuitously so— from another site from where you posted a comment. I read your criticism of DFW including a few of the excellent comments. I agree partially with your insightful critique, but I’m more interested in your assertion that “proper English” is not better than other forms of English.” Since this is a forum on language (words) I’m more attracted to their usages; therefore, I’d appreciate a clarification on your statement, because I think that your declaration, albeit well intended, leads to a paradox.

    You maintained that proper English is “de rigueur” for job interviews, speeches and effective as a literary device. I’m assuming you’re implying that non-standard English would not be acceptable, or desirable, for those occasions. If this is true, which seems to be your contention, then there seems to be a definitional inconsistency regarding the word, “better”, as it’s applied to Standard English.

    bet·ter 1 https://ahdictionary.com/application/resources/wavs/B0218100.wav (bĕtər)
    adj. Comparative of good.
    1. Greater in excellence or higher in quality.
    2. More useful, suitable, or desirable: found a better way to go; a suit with a better fit than that one.
    3. More highly skilled or adept: I am better at math than English.
    4. Greater or larger: argued for the better part of an hour.
    5. More advantageous or favorable; improved: a better chance of success.
    6. Healthier or more fit than before: The patient is better today..
    1. In a more excellent way.
    a. To a greater extent or degree: better suited to the job; likes it better without sauce.
    b. To greater advantage; preferably: a deed better left undone. See Us
    1. One that is greater in excellence or higher in quality.
    2. often betters A superior, as in standing, competence, or intelligence: to learn from one’s betters.

    Admittedly, Standard English fits into one of those categories mentioned above and I imagine it has helped you in your profession as an editor. If you insist that it’s not better then how can it be more advantageous? There seems to be a dichotomy in your argument, or perhaps in how you define Standard English. Your analogy of a dress suit versus a t-shirt and jeans doesn’t actually substantiate your point, because as you said, a suit is appropriate for job interviews and formal occasions, whereas t-shirt and jeans is not. However, one can wear a suit where it’s not required, but one cannot wear a t-shirt where a suit is required.

    If it were more advantageous to speak and write in Standard English then it would have to be classified as better.
    Standard English certainly fits into the many categories of what is defined as “better” by English dictionaries; therefore, it would be logical to assume that it’s better.

    Seriously, would you be able to perform your duties as an editor without the knowledge of Standard English, without the knowledge of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling? I don’t think so.
    Perhaps in the realm of relativism “better” is an idealistic and subjective theory, but pragmatically everything is best scrutinized in terms of their practical uses and successes.

    You might vituperatively argue that a Seiko watch is just as good as a Patek Phillippe, and it just might be in terms of functionality, but it would be a fruitless argument, because a Patek Phillippe will always sell for thousands of dollars more than a Seiko. For this reason you’re never going to convince people that it’s not a better watch.

    By the way, not all elitists are arrogant pretentious snobs, you’re a perfect example that they’re not. You’re part of the club, even though you persistently try to eschew it. If you didn’t want to belong, you shouldn’t have joined.

    Regardless, I enjoyed your blog and look forward to reading the many topics that you’ve submitted and that I might be interested in.

  173. However, one can wear a suit where it’s not required, but one cannot wear a t-shirt where a suit is required.

    Up to a point, Minister. You might wear a suit when interviewing for a construction job, but reporting to work in a suit would be frowned upon. Even in some kinds of white-collar jobs, like computer programming, wearing a suit is either an indication that you are going somewhere today that requires one (like an interview for another job) or that you seriously want to distance yourself from your coworkers (perhaps you have just been promoted to management). In either case, the message is blatant: I am not one of you. Exactly the same can be said about using formal spoken English in a context where informal spoken English, or even dialectal English, is normal. If, on the other hand, one wants to be seen as part of the group, then using the locally acceptable dress and speech is “better”.

    I [Northrop Frye] often revert to a little scene that made a considerable impression on me once: in a grocery store, where the clerk was showing me two things much alike, he remarked “It doesn’t make any difference”, then looked me full in the face and instantly corrected himself to “It don’t make no difference.” This second form was an improvement on the first, having a higher degree of what literary critics call texture. It meant (a) it doesn’t make any difference (b) you look to me like a schoolteacher, and nobody’s going to catch me talking like one of them. If he said, “It don’t make no difference”, it was not because he did not know the accepted form, but because he did know it.

    As jamessal (a frequent commenter here) has said, the fundamental claim of prescriptivism is that certain forms, more or less arbitrarily selected by the prescriptivist, are et semper et ubique et ab omnibus the right forms, and that alternatives to them (whether actually part of the standard or not) are the wrong forms. In mechanical matters like spelling and punctuation, we tolerate a fair amount of prescription (making due allowance for the fact that English is written differently in different countries) because of its added convenience; in syntax, less so; in vocabulary less still; in pronunciation, least of all.

  174. Damn, I left out a comma.

  175. You also left out a URL. If you let me know what it is, I’ll fix your link.

  176. Eh, it was meant to be a Google search; I couldn’t find any authoritative page (the WP page for Yes, Minister doesn’t mention it). Just delink it, I think. In any case, it is an obsequious way of disagreeing with a superior.

  177. Done.

    Veritas odium parit: I’m glad you like the blog, but I don’t think you’ve quite grasped my argument, and elaborate parsings of dictionary entries are rarely a good way to convince anyone of anything. Also, I certainly don’t think all elitists are arrogant pretentious snobs, and I’m puzzled where you might have gotten the idea that I did.

  178. Veritas odium parit says:

    J. Cowan:

    Thank you for your excellent example of “reductio ad absurdum”.

  179. David Marjanović says:

    “I’m an elitist. I like my elite so much that I think everyone should belong to it.”

  180. I only just noticed that the previous person to show up in this thread to argue (on November 8) was posting as George Orwell.

  181. Yes, I was amused by that but didn’t know what to say about it.

  182. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    You might wear a suit when interviewing for a construction job, but reporting to work in a suit would be frowned upon.

    Back in February 2003, when this thread was still young, I spent a month in Chile, partly to escape the cypress pollen that was making my life a misery, and partly to work on a new project. Santiago is hot in February, and sensible people go on holiday, but it’s also a good month for research as there are no students around to complicate the lives of the people one is visiting. Anyway, I went to the Faculty of Sciences every day in shorts, sandals and teashirt, and none of the people at the gate stopped me. Except one day: an aunt of my wife’s had invited me to lunch, and as she was 96 years old I thought I should look respectable, so I put on long trousers, a proper shirt, and maybe even a tie, and that was the only time the man at the gate asked me who I was or where I was going.

    Anyway, I’m glad this thread has been revived, as the original post and many of the replies were made before I discovered this blog. From time to time I read some of the old posts, but I tend to do it haphazardly, and I’m pretty sure I missed this one.

  183. Blundering into this thread on the second day of 2016, I feel as if I were suddenly in no-man’s land between the Hatfields and the McCoys. How long can a feud continue?
    Speaking as a civilian, I think that both prescriptivism and descriptivism are useful approaches to usage, as long as they play in their own yards. Descriptive is the proper approach for linguists — scientists who observe, record, and analyze facts about actual usage. Prescriptive is the method of grammarians, who are desperately fighting a rearguard action to preserve the enormous range and astounding subtlety of the English language.
    Outside these specialized domains, however, several circumstances obtain:
    o Dictionaries cannot agree on which linguistic evolutions to accept, and for which reasons. Now that the internet allows easy reference to several “authorities,” including the OED, definitive judgments seem hard to come by (and often hard to accept as definitive).
    o As noted above in this thread, different purposes require different levels of diction. As a 10-year columnist for a popular monthly, I wrote prose that was as lively and personal as I could, while still straining for clarity and directness. When I turned to writing a college textbook, the publisher demanded such rigid formality that I was forbidden to use any contractions whatever. The new discipline was, at first, agonizing.
    o Spoken English demands far less precision than written, because intonation and body language supply so much information, and because conversational feedback enables the speaker to clarify obscurities.
    o Spoken English varies with social contexts, but only to a certain degree, as several comments, above, point out. Way back in 4th grade, I once tried to ingratiate myself with a black classmate by imitating his grammar and pronunciation. After staring at me blankly, he said, “Why you talk so funny?”
    I think there are practical criteria for spurning or welcoming language changes:
    o If it restricts meaning and/or loses useful subtleties, it should be deplored. “Imply” and “infer” have markedly different meanings; and an act can be “well-intended,” but only its actor can be “well-intentioned.”
    o If it makes little difference — or even improves the language by omitting useless distinctions, by all means, bring it on. “I do, you, do, she-he-it do” would be fine because the third-person-singular orphan “does” adds utterly nothing and complicates life for English learners. How I’ve wished for “their” and “them” to become acceptable with collective nouns. Having to write “Everybody brought his or her lunch,” is so clumsy (and then you wonder if a later use should make it “her or his,” for true gender equality).
    Finally, in a world so torn with poverty, disease, ignorance, and fanaticism, it’s hard to remain patient with otherwise mild and well-meaning folk who raise debates over language to the level of fulminations.
    (Sorry for all the bullets. That’s the dead hand of the textbook.)

  184. fighting a rearguard action to preserve the enormous range and astounding subtlety of the English language

    So they say. But in fact the range and subtlety of the English language grows by the day as new speakers are added. Old distinctions are lost from time to time (singular vs. plural in the second person, for example) but new ones are constantly being created.

    definitive judgments seem hard to come by

    The sources of definitive judgments are the same as before: yours and your editor’s. Thassit.

    “Imply” and “infer” have markedly different meanings

    Each one has several, in fact. Evidence can either imply or infer a conclusion (this has been true since the words entered English in the 16C), and a person has been able to infer as well as imply a conclusion to an audience since the mid-19C; there is no one now alive who remembers when infer with a personal subject was not part of the standard language. There’s a Language Log post about the history of the two words.

    “their” and “them” to become acceptable

    If the King James Version, Jane Austen, and the Washington Post all accept it, it’s acceptable.

  185. Prescriptive is the method of grammarians, who are desperately fighting a rearguard action to preserve the enormous range and astounding subtlety of the English language.

    Why do people keep saying this? It’s manifestly absurd. There were no “grammarians” in the sense you mean in Shakespeare’s day; literally nobody was fighting to preserve the enormous range and astounding subtlety of the English language, and yet it flourished anyway. Language depends (he said wearily, for the millionth time) not on the rearguard actions of self-appointed “grammarians” but on the lively and creative speakers of the language, who don’t give a fig for “rules” and “grammar” unless they’re made to feel paranoid about such matters by their schoolteachers.

    If it restricts meaning and/or loses useful subtleties, it should be deplored.

    It will change nothing, but if it makes you feel better, deplore away.

  186. What I find astonishing is that even people who know a lot about language still talk about pre- and descriptivism as if they’re opposite ends on a spectrum, whereas really they’re two entirely separate things, the latter a view of language necessary to investigate it scientifically, the other a hodgepodge of rules and attitudes mostly devoid of good reasoning, held with ideological fervor by people who, though there is no academic discipline regularly examining and challenging this hodgepodge, insist on talking about it as if there were one. To be a descriptivist is nothing more than to recognize language for what it is and what it’s been, just like haberdashers recognize that clothes are made in various styles, and of various fabrics; that basic knowledge doesn’t preclude one from preferring one blazer over another or even disliking a certain style altogether, just like being a descriptivist doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions about language and its manifold usages. I think adjuvant lacks euphony. I’d avoid using it in most writing. That doesn’t make me even 1/100 prescriptivist, because I’m not confusing my antipathy with absolute wrongness. I also think someone should come up with less misleading terms for these concepts (of essentially basic linguistic knowledge and linguistic snobbery often stemming from a lack of knowledge).

  187. Jamessal, I think you miss prescriptivist’s point. They are not concerned with studying of language as it is, they are concerned (apart from establishing and protecting their holier-then-thou status) with teaching “correct” form of English. As such, their interest is not scientific, but pedagogical. The main problem with prescriptivists is that many of them insist on establishing facts about the language on what essentially amounts to personal preference. This is surprising given that physics teachers do not insist on teaching the plum pudding model of atom and biology teachers have completely ditched vitalism.

  188. From time to time I read some of the old posts, but I tend to do it haphazardly, and I’m pretty sure I missed this one.

    It keeps getting upped! Everytime I see a comment has been added to it, I wonder whether I ought to read the essay that launched nearly 200 comments, but I have yet to join the party.

  189. D.O., I’m sorry, but what in my comment makes you think I missed anything you wrote? I call prescriptivism “snobbery,” you “holier-than-thou”; you say that their interest isn’t scientific, I that there is no academic discipline regularly examining and challenging it, while adding that they like to talk about it as if it were — as if it were scientific (which they do); you said that the “main problem with prescriptivists is that many of them insist on establishing facts about the language on what essentially amounts to personal preference,” I that the reason my preferences don’t have anything to do with prescriptivism is that I don’t confuse them rightness or wrongness.” So if I’m missing the main point, so are you, comrade!

  190. It is said that when H. L. Mencken edited Vanity Fair (and/or the Smart Set), he had a pre-printed postcard reply for every single letter to the editor:

    “Dear Sir or Madam:
    You may be right at that.”

    Keep having fun, folks.

  191. Enjoy your sense of superiority, the birthright of prescriptivists everywhere.

  192. OK, then. We are missing it together. I merely added that the main interest of (good kind of) prescriptivism is pedagogical. From where I sit, it is totally legitimate line of work, teaching people to write more clearly, thoughtfully, engagingly etc. They simply have to discover (those who haven’t done it yet) that doing it right requires a lot of work and study in addition to navel gazing.

  193. I’m sorry to say, D.O., but between us now it’s just you who’s missing it. Teaching people to write and use language better has nothing at all to do with prescriptivism, except in the sense that sometimes prescriptivist dogma gets in the way. The sine qua non of prescriptivism is the belief that some forms of language — registers, syntaxes, some meanings of words, etc. — are always better, always correct, and the others always worse, always wrong. And you don’t need to believe that to teach people to use language well. Again, that belief — and the bugbears of those who hold that belief — hinders good teaching. In short, there is no good kind of prescriptivism. And I’m a freelance editor.

  194. Dammit, back down to the river to pray, praying for a Hattic fix today . . .

  195. While you’re at it Steve, if you could pluralize syntax, and change both “one of many meanings of a word” to “some meanings of words” and “. . . believe that to teach good use of language” to “. . . believe that to teach people to use language well,” I’d appreciate it.

  196. OK, Jamessal. In my line of work definitions are important, but nothing of value depends on them. So if you define prescriptivism in a way that doesn’t allow for a good variety, that’s fine with me. Whether Pluto is a planet or not makes no difference to me.

  197. Homage to What’s-His-Name
    Charles Wright APRIL 3, 2008 [NYRB] ISSUE

    Ah, description, of all the arts the least appreciated.
    Well, it’s just this and it’s just that,
    someone will point out.
    Exactly. It’s just this and it’s just that and nothing other.
    From landscape to unsuppressed conjunction, it’s only itself.
    No missteps, no misreading.
    And what’s more metaphysical than that,
    The world in its proper posture, on all fours, drinking the sweet water?

  198. In other words — my own — I didn’t just pull that pithy description out of my ass to suit my argument. I’ve read a lot of prescriptivism, and that belief is at the heart of it. I’ve also read a lot of arguments conflating prescriptivism with advice of any kind; those arguments are a mess. Your description isn’t useful or accurate, that is. Mine is, even if your iteration of it has the tail wagging the dog: it’s not my definition that makes it worthless. It is worthless, pernicious even, with no good varieties. Is there good flat-earthism?

  199. Hattic magic has been worked, though I was strongly tempted to pluralize syntax as syntaces just for kicks. And I didn’t delete your comments requesting fixes both because they’re funny and because with them this comment becomes number 200. W00t!

  200. Whether Pluto is a planet or not makes no difference to me.

    “What the deuce is it to me?” [Sherlock Holmes] interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

    And this from a man who later in life became a world-class expert on the motets of Lassus. I think we can take the moon remark as Socratic irony; he was indeed what he calls himself, “an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive memory for trifles”.

  201. Prolonged study of the English language leaves me with a conviction that nearly all the linguistic tendencies of the present day have been displayed in earlier centuries, and it is self-evident that the language has not bled to death through change. Vulgarity finds its antidote; old crudities become softened with time. Distinctions, both those that are useful and those that are burdensome, flourish and die, reflourish and die again.

         —Robert Burchfield, fifth (or seventh or eighth) editor of the OED

  202. @John Cowan: In The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the editor William S. Baring-Gould, points out that, in light of Holmes later demonstrated knowledge of astronomy, the detective is clearly messing with Watson when he denies knowledge of heliocentrism. This makes sense narratively, since the pair have only just met, although I suspect Conan-Doyle originally intended Holmes’s remark to be taken seriously.

  203. Veritas odium parit says:

    Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “so I put on long trousers, a proper shirt, and maybe even a tie, and that was the only time the man at the gate asked me who I was or where I was going.”

    Are you implying that if one wears a suit and tie he might be ‘persona non grata’, because if you are then your comparison is absurdly silly. Exceptions don’t make the rule, and you know that.

    jamessal says:

    The “sine qua non” of prescriptivism is the belief that some forms of language — registers, syntaxes, some meanings of words, etc. — are always better, always correct, and the others always worse, always wrong. And you don’t need to believe that to teach people to use language well.

    I disagree, the “sine qua non” of prescriptivism is its adherence to its rules and standard language forms, it has nothing to do with its beliefs.

    Descriptivism is the misconception that some forms of language—slang, non-standard, ungrammatical constructions, mispronunciations and misspellings ad infinitum, are just as elegant, logical, precise, distinctive, comprehensible, as a standard language. Interestingly descriptivists vigorously pontificate on this theory in a faultless standard language. As I iterated to LH in a previous comment, which he naturally ignored, If it’s more advantageous to speak and write in Standard English then it would have to be classified as better.

    Standard English certainly fits into the many categories of what is defined as “better” by English dictionaries; therefore, it would be logical to assume that it’s better.

  204. Are you implying that if one wears a suit and tie he might be ‘persona non grata’

    Certainly, in the right circumstances. As I’ve said before, you might wear those to be interviewed for a construction job, but if you show up on a working site wearing them, you will certainly be sent home for inappropriate attire.

    In this case, security guards are trained to notice the out-of-the-ordinary. For Athel to wear a suit, in connection with other unspecified characteristics of his at the time, made him stand out in that environment, and so the guard thought it necessary to question him. There is simply no such thing as clothing that is appropriate semper et ubique et ab omnibus. I would guess that if he went back there today wearing a suit and tie he would breeze through.

    And so it is with language. For one person in one environment to swear and say ain’t will shock, and another or the same person in a different environment will shock by failing to do those things. “In all lands custom is king.”

    Descriptivism is the misconception that some forms of language—slang, non-standard, ungrammatical constructions, mispronunciations and misspellings ad infinitum, are just as elegant, logical, precise, distinctive, comprehensible, as a standard language.

    Quite, except that it’s not a misconception but a fact. You have evidence otherwise? Produce it.

    more advantageous to speak and write in Standard English

    No one denies that — in certain circumstances, including writing academic papers on the elegance and logic of non-standard language varieties.

  205. Veritas odium parit says:

    Jim Cowan says:

    “Certainly, in the right circumstances. As I’ve said before, you might wear those to be interviewed for a construction job, but if you show up on a working site wearing them, you will certainly be sent home for inappropriate attire.

    An unreasonable argument, and actually a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument. My initial reference was a generalization, it relates to social settings, formal or informal. For you to bring in specific jobs that require specific attire is absurd and doesn’t validate your argument it just demonstrates a grasping at straws.
    After all, there are many jobs that require uniforms and menial jobs that require casual attire, but that’s not the point and you know it. Regardless, this is a non sequitur from the main argument.

    “For one person in one environment to swear and say ain’t will shock, and another or the same person in a different environment will shock by failing to do those things. “In all lands custom is king.””

    Another misguided example, I’ve never known of a circumstance where in a certain social setting a person is excoriated or rebuked for failing to use vulgar expressions or ungrammatical English. Conversely, in many social settings a person is severely reprimanded or dismissed for those offenses.

    I said: “Descriptivism is the misconception that some forms of language—slang, non-standard, ungrammatical constructions, mispronunciations and misspellings ad infinitum, are just as elegant, logical, precise, distinctive, comprehensible, as a standard language.”

    You responded:

    “Quite, except that it’s not a misconception but a fact. You have evidence otherwise? Produce it.”

    You’re confusing fact with opinion and that’s a misconception in itself. The comments on this thread are all based on opinions. After all, we wouldn’t be having a perpetually ongoing debate about language, if it were based on facts. Facts are what all believe to be true, while opinions are believed to be true only by those who state it.

    However, what substantiates my position, and that of prescriptivists, is the “fact” that Standard English is more advantageous for obtaining a better job and for an understanding of complex literature. Spoken dialects have moderately tiny vocabularies; therefore, preventing speakers from articulating or understanding more complex thoughts.

    Dialects can certainly produce an unlimited number of statements and have the same theoretical capabilities of standard languages; however, learning the latter forms a more comprehensive understanding of complex language and in turn a better capacity to formulate those thoughts.

    There’s the evidence, now produce yours.

  206. There is a wonderful number of logical flaws in that argument. I’ll just pick one so that others can have fun too.

    Nobody is disputing (I hope) that it can be very useful to be conversant with the norms and practices of Standard English, not least because it allows you to access the more precise sublanguages developed within various academic disciplines. And to match expectations at job interviews, certainly.

    But that does not imply that Standard English was a better starting point as a language for developing those sublanguages. It was quite possibly a better standard to start from because most English-speaking scientists (lawyers, art critics, …) already spent the effort to learn it before becoming scientists and so on — but that’s a consideration of sunk costs rather than any real assessment of the inherent qualities of Standard English.

    Nor does it imply that Standard English is in itself, grammatically, more precise than other varieties — some of your statements seem to indicate a belief that speakers of other varieties are inherently unable to express themselves with precision, or in other words that they don’t really know what they’re saying. I’m sure that if you ask two interlocutors using AAVE, for instance, if they continually have to guess what the other part is saying, the answer is no more like to be yes than if you ask speakers of Standard English. (In so far as anybody speaks that, as opposed to writing it).

    But, again, there are vast vocabularies and conventions of usage developed for the purpose of precision in various disciplines, and since they are thought of as part of Standard English, there are vast areas of knowledge that you can claim to be beyond the reach of other varieties — because if their users should start importing specialized terms, you will instantly claim that they have been forced to use Standard English. That is technically known as begging the question.

  207. certain social setting a person is excoriated or rebuked for failing to use vulgar expressions or ungrammatical English

    Not excoriated or rebuked, no, but certainly disdained as an outsider, a wannabe authority figure, or what is called in AAVE a lame, or otherwise labeled negatively. If you have no experience of this, see this MeFi page on the subject, or check out Peter Trudgill’s paper “Standard English: What It Isn’t”.

    Facts are what all believe to be true

    Really? So the existence of the Flat Earth Society means that it’s not a fact that the Earth is round?

    understanding of complex literature

    If you only understand Standard English, there are many works of literature from The Heart of Midlothian to Native Son that you just ain’t gonna get.

    (Lars:) In so far as anybody speaks that, as opposed to writing it.

    I’m a native speaker of Standard English, and I’ve both benefited from it and paid the price for it.

  208. marie-lucie says:

    Veritas: I’ve never known of a circumstance where in a certain social setting a person is excoriated or rebuked for failing to use vulgar expressions or ungrammatical English.

    Here is an anecdote I read about some years ago, when college students (at least the men) could spend the summer working at “manly” jobs (construction, forestry, etc) and earn enough to pay their tuition and often more the following year. One such student (perhaps even a graduate student) thus found himself in a camp among working men who spoke non-standard English, used slang, swearwords, etc. The student did not dislike them but was unable to win their trust and have them treat him as another member of the crew. The situation was getting somewhat tense but was resolved when another man joined the crew. He explained things to the non-standard speakers this way: “Don’t be too hard on him: the poor guy has had so much education he can’t help speaking like that – he doesn’t know how to speak normally any more”.

  209. I’ve never known of a circumstance where in a certain social setting a person is excoriated or rebuked for failing to use vulgar expressions or ungrammatical English.

    You’ve led a sheltered existence.

    Also, your interlocutor is John Cowan, not Jim. It’s polite to notice these things.

  210. I’m a native speaker of Standard English, and I’ve both benefited from it and paid the price for it.

    But in the context of pee^H^Hrescriptionism, I’m not sure that spoken registers of Standard English count. Or rather, I suspect that most adherents do not actually take the care in their own quotidian verbal interactions that they demand of others in written registers.

  211. He would answer to “Hi!” or to any loud cry,
       Such as “Fry me!” or “Fritter my wig!”
    To “What-you-may-call-um!” or “What-was-his-name!”
       But especially “Thing-um-a-jig!”

    While, for those who preferred a more forcible word,
       He had different names from these:
    His intimate friends called him “Candle-ends,”
       And his enemies “Toasted-cheese.”

  212. Veritas odium parit says:

    Lars says:

    “There is a wonderful number of logical flaws in that argument.”

    “Logical flaws” an oxymoron; regardless, your circumlocutory comment doesn’t really address or identify my flaws.

    “Nor does it imply that Standard English is in itself, grammatically, more precise than other varieties…”

    I never said that it was, you’re inferring that to submit your spiel. What I said was:

    “Spoken dialects have moderately tiny vocabularies; therefore, preventing speakers from articulating or understanding more complex thoughts.” And “Dialects can certainly produce an unlimited number of statements and have the same theoretical capabilities of standard languages; however, learning the latter forms a more comprehensive understanding of complex language and in turn a better capacity to formulate those thoughts.”

    What sublanguages are you referring to?

    And if you’re referring to them as “sublanguages” then we have no argument.

  213. David Marjanović says:

    “Logical flaws” an oxymoron;

    …you a troll.

  214. we have no argument

    Do you want me to tell you that that is a relief?

  215. “Logical flaws” an oxymoron
    What a quintessentially prescriptivist statement! Congratulations O Veritas.

  216. Veritas odium parit says:

    David Marjanovic says

    “Logical flaws” an oxymoron;
    …you a troll.

    No, I’m not a troll. Are you?
    In the context of her comment “logical flaws” is oxymoronic. Prove me wrong and I’ll retract my statement.

  217. Veritas odium parit says:

    I’ve never known of a circumstance where in a certain social setting a person is excoriated or rebuked for failing to use vulgar expressions or ungrammatical English.

    Languagehat says:

    “You’ve led a sheltered existence.
    Also, your interlocutor is John Cowan, not Jim. It’s polite to notice these things. “

    If you think you know me that well to make such a declaration, then allow me to inform you that my life has been quite less sheltered than yours, and I mean that respectfully.

    Are you asserting that in certain social settings if a person doesn’t use profane language or ungrammatical English he/she will be excoriated or rebuked?

    If you are, please elaborate on where these social settings are located.

    My apologies to John Cowan, an inadvertent error on my part.

  218. Veritas odium parit says:

    marie-lucie says:

    “…the poor guy has had so much education he can’t help speaking like that – he doesn’t know how to speak normally any more”.

    What are you implying? Do you know how to speak normally?

    An educated person can easily change his/her formal register to a casual register. This is not as effortless for one who can only speak in a casual/slang register, and that’s the difference.

  219. An educated person can easily change his/her formal register to a casual register. This is not as effortless for one who can only speak in a casual/slang register, and that’s the difference.
    We’re not talking about “standard casual” here, but about registers spoken by certain social groups. If you speak standard with them, you’ll be made fun of or even excluded.

  220. marie-lucie says:

    Veritas: My quote: “…the poor guy has had so much education he can’t help speaking like that – he doesn’t know how to speak normally any more”.

    What are you implying? Do you know how to speak normally?

    These are not my own words, I was quoting.

  221. Veritas odium parit says:

    Hans says:

    “We’re not talking about “standard casual” here, but about registers spoken by certain social groups.

    What are you saying? If we are talking about registers then we are talking about different registers, standard, casual etc., which would apply to certain groups, and I’ve already argued that point.

    “If you speak standard with them, you’ll be made fun of or even excluded.”

    I don’t agree, so provide a social setting where one who speaks Standard English would be excluded. I can provide a few social settings where a certain informal dialect would be excluded. More significantly, and my initial argument, if one wants a better job one must learn to speak and write Standard English.

  222. ə de vivre says:

    so provide a social setting where one who speaks Standard English would be excluded

    I worked at a work-release residence, a sort of half-way house for people serving the end of a state or county prison sentence. Even speaking my normal suburban white upper-middle class dialect (which is still pretty far from the way I’d write in a formal context) would have isolated me from my coworkers. As it was, they sometimes gave me a hard time for the way I talked, but since I wasn’t a pedant about it, it was mostly in good fun. And if I’d spoken to the residents in the register I used giving academic presentations (or for example, if I used the phrase “excoriated or rebuked”), that would have been a great way to needlessly make everyone hate me.

    Spoken dialects have moderately tiny vocabularies; therefore, preventing speakers from articulating or understanding more complex thoughts

    What argument are you making about vocabulary size and cognition? Does it apply cross-linguistically or does it only apply internally within some arbitrarily drawn language border? Do you think speakers of languages whose prestige dialects have relatively larger vocabularies can articulate and understand more complex thoughts than speakers of languages whose prestige dialects have relatively smaller vocabularies? Is cognitive ability only a function of vocabulary size or do syntactic differences also have an effect? Does AAVE’s more fine-grained tense and aspect system give its speakers cognitive benefits over Standard English’s simpler system? If so, how would you measure the vocabulary and syntactic differences between two given speakers’ idiolects so as to determine which gives superior cognitive abilities?

    I don’t know if you remember Rachel Jeantel. She was a witness in the George Zimmerman trial who spoke English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole. In terms of total vocabulary size and and the number of syntactic constructions available to her, she probably had more resources available to her than most people here, except that none of the dialects of the languages she speaks are held in high regard by the judicial system of the state of Florida. She was one of the most linguistically sophisticated people in the court room, but because a prestige dialect is an arbitrary (though not socially unmotivated) choice she was accused of not being intelligent enough to give reliable testimony. No one disputes the social advantages of speaking a prestige dialect, but to say that people who speak it are more cognitively sophisticated than those who don’t is essentially saying that the wealthy and powerful are smarter than the poor and otherwise marginalized. Let’s call a spade a spade, saying that speakers of prestige dialects have a “better capacity to formulate [complex] thoughts” is racist as fuck.

  223. *applauds*

  224. marie-lucie says:

    Me too!

    Veritas, do you know the work of William Labov, a pioneer in sociolinguistics? He did research on AAVE among other things, with both black and white assistants. They interviewed both educated black people and ghetto dwellers. The latter might have had less formal vocabulary and different syntax from the educated speakers, but some of them could argue a point with much better logic.

    Around 30-40 years ago I spent several years living in a native community in Canada. Public speaking is very important in that culture. At the time, most of the older people had had very little formal education – hardly any had attended high school, let alone graduated. Their English was not at all standard and their vocabulary fairly skimpy but some of them could give very impressive speeches, both in English and in their own language (which I was studying). When there was a public meeting with government officials or other important visitors, the latter were no match for the local orators.

  225. gwenllian says:

    No one disputes the social advantages of speaking a prestige dialect, but to say that people who speak it are more cognitively sophisticated than those who don’t is essentially saying that the wealthy and powerful are smarter than the poor and otherwise marginalized.

    Yep.

    When I was very young and learning (about) English, I felt really bad for people in anglophone countries after finding out how closely linked dialect and class were for them. It took me a while to realise it was in fact a very common phenomenon and not a bizarre anglophone thing.

  226. Veritas odium parit says:

    ə de vivre says:

    “I worked at a work-release residence…as it was they sometimes gave me a hard time…if I used the phrase “excoriated” or “rebuked” that would have been a great way to needlessly make everyone hate me.”

    I’m referring to a generality not an irrelevant and isolated cherry-picked example of your personal experience. Furthermore, the fact that one might be admonished or excluded for speaking Standard English in the milieu of ex-convicts is really not something I would worry about. I would think that a majority of people would rather be ostracized by convicts rather than by employers, universities, or any academic environment.

    “What argument are you making about vocabulary size and cognition?”

    There is no argument, it’s self-explanatory. Fully developed vocabularies facilitate the activities of thinking and understanding and enable speakers to express themselves with much greater precision and on a wider range of subjects.

    “I don’t know if you remember Rachel Jeantel… she probably had more resources available to her than most people here, except that none of the dialects of the languages she speaks are held in high regard by the judicial system of the state of Florida. She was one of the most linguistically sophisticated people in the court room…”

    They’re not held in high regard by the judicial system of the state of Florida and also by a majority of educated people. I’m not going to respond to the rest of your preposterous and misguided claim.

    “saying that speakers of prestige dialects have a “better capacity to formulate [complex] thoughts” is racist as fuck.”

    This debate has nothing to do about race and the wealthy and powerful, so don’t launch a straw-man argument, stick with the facts.
    .
    But how does one say in slang or non-standard English,

    “A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.”

    The point I’m trying to make is that a person with a better education and a solid grasp of vocabulary will understand the concept above much better than an individual who can only speak and write in non-standard English.

  227. Veritas odium parit: Please, do read Trudgill’s Standard English: what it isn’t, these things are as technical when said in one set of grammar as another.

  228. marie-lucie says:

    “A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.”

    Does anyone actually speak that way (apart from reading aloud a paper at a professional conference)? This is not what is meant by “Standard English”, rather it is an example of a written style common in academic and administrative discourse, full of “professional jargon” – technical terms familiar within a field but which might not be understood by outsiders.

    Actually, even though the structure of this sentence is quite simple, the sentence itself is not as clear as the writer might think. What is it that “evolves”? Syntactically speaking, it is “A measurement”, the subject of the verb. A measurement evolving toward maximum entropy? Perhaps the writer means “the randomness”? increasing randomness does make sense, but the intended meaning has to be inferred by the knowledgeable reader, since the phrase is syntactically dependent on “a measurement”. What about “A measured randomness evolves …”? Would this imply that it does not evolve unless measured? and so on.

    It should be possible to explain the gist of this sentence in more everyday terms. I am sure a 12-year-old could understand the concepts, without necessarily knowing the words. Consider also the works written by scientists for the general public, usually in a more familiar, relatively non-technical style, as opposed to conference presentations or articles for colleagues, in which unexplained jargon is appropriate.

    As far as the vocabulary is concerned, almost all the key words in this sentence are of Latin and Greek origin. Only “randomness” is made up of English components: if you understand “random”, you understand “randomness”. But most English speakers can’t do that with Latin and Greek words (of course Latin and Greek speakers could analyze many of their own words). So the English speakers of centuries ago must have been unable to think with precision until they learned Latin and Greek words! But consider the example of German and other languages of the same family as English, in which many technical and intellectual words are made up of elements of their own languages (therefore relatively easy to analyze and understand) rather than being borrowed from others and therefore difficult or impossible to analyze for meaning. It is not as if English does not have the capability of inventing its own new words, it is just that it is biased against spontaneously created words such as “stick-to-itiveness” as unsuitable for intellectual discourse, for which inscrutable Latin and Greek words are so much better!

  229. “A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.”

    Most users of Standard English know bugger-all about thermodynamics and have no idea what entropy is (at best, they have some common misconceptions about it), but never mind — Marie-Lucie has already raised that point. I know something about it, and the sentence above makes no sense at all to me. It seems to me you looked up the definition of entropy in a dictionary, borrowed a couple of phrases from it and glued them together into an incoherent whole, thus proving that yoiu don’t understand that stuff either. And of course you are confusing Standard English with technical jargon.

    Do read Trudgill on Standard (and non-standard) English.

  230. David Marjanović says:

    This debate has nothing to do about race and the wealthy and powerful

    That’s certainly what you’d like to be true… or what I’d like, for that matter; but intent isn’t magic.

    “A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.”

    An isolated system certainly “evolves” toward a state of maximum entropy, though as a biologist I cringe at this use of evolve.* I don’t think any other closed system would; after all, energy can still enter and leave it. I also don’t think I’ve ever heard of a measurement evolving, or even a series of successive measurements evolving, for what that’s worth.

    “A thermodynamic system or a closed system” is just jibberish.

    * Admittedly, historians of science cringe at the biological use, and rightly so…

  231. A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.

    This sounds like a totally unremarkable thing that somebody might say to me at work—but then, I am a physicist, and I work with other physicists, and when we are talking about statistical mechanics, we say things like this all the time. However, it’s worth pointing out that this sentence is a terrible example of careful use of technical terminology. It is actually quite sloppy—not precise at all. I would go so far as to say that, if it were interpreted literally, it makes no sense. (The element of measurement is the problem; there’s nothing wrong with “a thermodynamic system or a closed system.”) Yet no physicist would ever misunderstand what it is supposed to mean.

  232. @odium, if you understand your subject it’s not a problem to do without specialized vocabulary and the stilted style of academic exposition. Here is an example in Standard English which should be easy to parallel without loss of clarity or precision in any other variety :

    “You have to work to keep things neat. If you don’t, they will probably get jumbled by themselves. That’s even more true for very small things. There’s a number saying how jumbled things are in an area, it’s called entropy.”

    This is no more misleading than most formulations in popular accounts. Trust me, I have a degree in physics.

    Cf. Thing Explainer and Simple English Wikipedia.

  233. It’s amazing how frequently these pompous prescriptivists, so certain of their superiority, come out with meaningless gibberish when they try to impress. Reminds me of the unmerited self-confidence of the traditional aristocrat (a comparison which will outrage our odium-parenting friend).

  234. Ob-Topic-Drift: WTF of the day

    @David, any opinions on what this sentence is doing under Entropy on Simple English Wiki:

    For example, when one animal species, especially a keystone species, is taken out of the food chain eventually the food chain will collapse.

  235. Brett: Yet no physicist would ever misunderstand what it is supposed to mean.

    That’s because it’s a collage combining two sentences that make sense in isolation. They can even be reconstructed as follows:

    1. [Entropy is] a measure of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system .
    2. A closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.

    […] — deleted text
    — interpolated text

    @Lars,

    (loud applause)

  236. marie-lucie says:

    Lars: if you understand your subject it’s not a problem to do without specialized vocabulary and the stilted style of academic exposition.

    Exactly! And when you do need specialized vocabulary (eg “entropy”) you define it in terms understandable to the non-specialist. It has been centuries since the well-read person could be versed in all the sciences of their day. Nowadays nobody can be familiar with every field, even superficially.

    As for “the stilted style of academic exposition”, that is rarely a model for the writer who wants to be read, even by other academics.

  237. Oops, the punctuation I used is reserved for special purposes. Let me try again:

    1. [Entropy is] a measure{ment} of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system {or}.
    2. A closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.

    […] — deleted text
    {…} — interpolated text

  238. Lars

    Alan Sokal was there, in a playful mood?

  239. John Cowan says:

    Brett:

    I decided to test Piotr’s hypothesis by googling the entropy-sentence, and found as the first hit the actual dictionary page (or a close look-alike) from bits of which the sentence was assembled. Here’s the Google snippet, which may indeed be the proximate source:

    Entropy definition, (on a macroscopic scale) a function of thermodynamic variables, … A closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy. … (in statistical mechanics) a measure of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a

    Quite apart from this intellectual Schweinerei, the discourse of someone who demands that we provide evidence as against his universal claim, and when handed it on a platter dismisses it as merely anecdotal, is of little further interest. Anyway, what kind of nonsense is “Truth begets hatred” anyway? Some truth-tellers are hated, some are welcomed.

    I think David’s objection to “a thermodynamic system or a closed system” is that closed systems are thermodynamic (as are open systems, for that matter), so that it’s like saying “an animal or a dog”: it suggests that the speaker doesn’t know that dogs are animals.

  240. Anyway, what kind of nonsense is “Truth begets hatred” anyway?

    I suspect this is how he sees himself.

  241. I have two points, and both of them are related to the fact that things in that sentence that seem nonsensical or pointlessly jargon-ish in that sentence are actually not. It’s still not a good/precise statement, but it does convey information that is not evident upon naive inspection by someone not well versed in the field and its terminology.

    The first point is that defining entropy as a measure of disorder can be very misleading. When entropy was initially introduced, nobody thought it had anything to do with disorder; it was simply a quantity that people realized could be used to characterize the state of a system and the approach of that state to equilibrium. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (that entropy always increases as thermodynamic systems approach equilibrium being one statement of it) was an empirical observation that made the entropy a useful quantity. Decades later, Boltzmann realized that entropy was actually a measure of the disorder of a macroscopic system at a microscopic level, but this was hugely controversial for a long time. (Boltzmann killed himself eventually, depressed that his discoveries were not being fully accepted.) When entropy is measured in practice, it is the old definition being used, and the statement in question is precisely a statement about the relationship between entropy (as Kelvin, for example, would have thought of it) and microscopic disorder. If you instead define entropy as a particular measure of disorder (and the particular measure part is important; entropy does not just mean “disorder” in a science or engineering context), then the statement seems almost trivial; however, that statement is really important as part of the argument justifying the definition!

    The second point is that there is a real distinction between a thermodynamic system and a closed system, which is relevant in that quote. In the context of statistical mechanics, a thermodynamic system is one has a very large number of degrees of freedom (like Avagadro’s number of particles). A closed system is one that does not exchange energy or particles with the outside world. A thermodynamic system does not need to be closed; it can have exchange with other systems. Similarly, a closed system certainly does not need to be thermodynamically large. Yet statistical mechanics tell us that either a thermodynamic system or a closed system will evolve toward a state of maximum entropy (while, in contrast, a small, open system potentially may not evolve that way).

  242. David Marjanović says:

    @David, any opinions on what this sentence is doing under Entropy on Simple English Wiki:

    For example, when one animal species, especially a keystone species, is taken out of the food chain eventually the food chain will collapse.

    It was wrong, except to some degree for keystone species; and it had nothing to do with entropy that I can see. I’ve fixed it.

    I think David’s objection to “a thermodynamic system or a closed system” is that closed systems are thermodynamic (as are open systems, for that matter), so that it’s like saying “an animal or a dog”: it suggests that the speaker doesn’t know that dogs are animals.

    Yes. Turns out I was wrong, and “thermodynamic system” is a nonintuitive technical term not unlike Radical Feminism (which is by no means any kind of feminism that’s somehow radical).

  243. Veritas odium parit says:

    I’m impressed, but I also anticipated the barrage of arrows and spears that would be flung at me with such malicious intensity. Your weapons of choice were quite predictable: prescriptivism, racism, elitism, and plutocratic theories. Weapons used for distraction, but not for establishing a robust argument. But I willingly stepped into this hornet’s nest of language freedom fighters, and my prognostication has been amply rewarded.

    I was well aware that the text I submitted on thermodynamics would galvanize this nest of pedants to flaunt proudly and expound on their knowledge of entropy.

    That wasn’t my intention. I presented a rather abstruse text to support my assertion that non-standard dialects do not possess the capacity to comprehend and therefore interpret complex language. Certainly non-standard dialects could fundamentally discuss history, philosophy etc., but they would have to learn standard language to borrow its terminology.

    marie-lucie says:

    “And when you do need specialized vocabulary (eg “entropy”) you define it in terms understandable to the non-specialist. It has been centuries since the well-read person could be versed in all the sciences of their day.”

    This is a non sequitur to my argument. My point has nothing to do with specialized jargon. Any reasonably intelligent person, who speaks in Standard English, can translate and understand the text that I submitted, but it would be difficult to translate to non-standard English. It would also be just as equally difficult for a non-standard speaker to comprehend, because he doesn’t possess the vocabulary to formulate or understand the concept.
    How can speakers of non-standard dialect comprehend Shakespeare, or Fielding, Joyce, Faulkner, Mann, Goethe, et al. when that kind of literature can be impenetrable for speakers of Standard English?

    In a previous post John Cowan said:
    “If you only understand Standard English, there are many works of literature from The Heart of Midlothian to Native Son that you just ain’t gonna get.”

    Another presumptuous declaration: I read “Native Son”, and I got it. I also read and enjoyed “Huckleberry Finn”. His assertion was a silly and misguided comparison.

  244. Any reasonably intelligent person, who speaks in Standard English, can translate and understand the text that I submitted, but it would be difficult to translate to non-standard English.

    This is not true, but then very little of what you say is true, starting with “I’m impressed.” You’re simply showing off to impress yourself, and I’m not entirely sure what the point is. You’re certainly not impressing anyone else.

  245. An idle speculation: if we were to consider a maxim like veritatem odium parit and express it in an idiom acceptable to most who are not locked in a certain mindset, would it not fairly become: “Spew hate in here and you get told off?”

  246. If only Elvis had mastered proper Standard English well enough to record “I’m Rather Shaken Up” and “You Are Nothing But A Dog”, surely he would have been respected more and found economic success.

  247. @Brett, I just realized how horribly rusty my thermodynamical calculations are after 30 years — so correct me if I’m wrong about this example:

    Let’s consider a rubber band as a thermodynamical system, starting at room temperature.

    When we pull on the rubber band and stretch it, we perform work on it.

    Also, it gets quite warm (experimental fact).

    But if we keep it stretched and let it cool to room temperature again, this will transfer a certain amount of heat to the environment.

    We don’t know if the heat energy is greater than or less than the work energy (but we do know what their signs are).

    Now, we can make a guess that when rubber molecules are stretched, they have fewer degrees of freedom for thermal movements (at equal temperatures). So, can we conclude that the entropy of the rubber band must have decreased, at least by the time it reaches room temperature again, and since the entropy is a state variable, the heat ‘generated’ is greater than the work performed?

  248. @Lars. I think you’ve missed internal energy of the rubber band from your calculations. It must have increased quite a bit because of those stretched molecules.

  249. Veritas odium parit says:

    Languagehat says:

    “it’s amazing how frequently these pompous prescriptivists, so certain of their superiority, come out with meaningless gibberish when they try to impress. Reminds me of the unmerited self-confidence of the traditional aristocrat (a comparison which will outrage our odium-parenting friend).”

    I don’t think I’m the one who is outraged, and as the moderator of this forum you should demonstrate a modicum of maturity and civility. A member of this forum accused me of spewing hate. The pot calling the kettle black, there’s no hate coming from me, just the truth, and it seems to be hitting quite a few raw nerves.

    I said: Any reasonably intelligent person, who speaks in Standard English, can translate and understand the text that I submitted, but it would be difficult to translate to non-standard English.

    Languagehat says:
    “This is not true, but then very little of what you say is true, starting with “I’m impressed.” anyone else.

”

    What part of my statement isn’t true? Can you produce one example of what I’ve said that is not true? Are you suggesting that an uneducated person who speaks and writes in a nonstandard dialect can comprehend the illustration that I presented in an earlier post? An educated person will have the vocabulary to decipher the meaning; it might take a little time but he’ll have the tools to break it down. Edify me on why this isn’t “true”.

    “You’re simply showing off to impress yourself, and I’m not entirely sure what the point is.”

    The point was initiated by your piece on DFW; it’s always been about grammar, language and everything in between. My point is just diametrical to yours and everyone else’s on this topic. Ergo, the ensuing vitriol. You’re very adept at cherry-picking my comments that might be refutable or debatable, but cleverly ignoring the points that can’t be refuted.

    Languagehat said:

    “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.”

    Naturally and conveniently you ignored my retort:

    “ By the way, not all elitists are arrogant pretentious snobs, you’re a perfect example that they’re not. You’re part of the club, even though you persistently try to eschew it. If you didn’t want to belong, you shouldn’t have joined.”

    The prodigious hypocrisy of your stance, and that of your followers on this forum, is the fact that you proudly and hubristically exhibit your language acumen with Standard English and a challenging vocabulary. Occasionally you will purposely spew out a few idiomatic expressions to demonstrate your adeptness at manipulating the language, but more importantly to engender the amity of the not-so-fortunate. The dichotomy is clearly apparent, and ultimately reeks of insincerity.

    Languagehat said:
    “I don’t think – and I don’t think I’ve ever implied – that there are no uses for “proper English… But it is not better than other forms of English;”

    That is not “true”, as I articulated in my initial post, but you again conveniently ignored.

    “You maintained that proper English is “de rigueur” for job interviews, speeches and effective as a literary device. I’m assuming you’re implying that non-standard English would not be acceptable, or desirable, for those occasions. If this is true, which seems to be your contention, then there seems to be a definitional inconsistency regarding the word, “better”, as it’s applied to Standard English… would you be able to perform your duties as an editor without the knowledge of Standard English, without the knowledge of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling? I don’t think so.
    Perhaps in the realm of relativism “better” is an idealistic and subjective theory, but pragmatically everything is best scrutinized in terms of their practical uses and successes.

  250. In thermodynamics, entropy (uisual seembol S) is a measur o the nummer o speceefic ways in which a thermodynamic seestem mey be arranged, commonly unnerstuid as a measur o disorder.

  251. @D.O. — It must. And I’m now utterly confused about how to calculate the internal energy in this case — or its delta. I’ll go read up on this before I say anything more.

  252. I also anticipated the barrage of arrows and spears that would be flung at me with such malicious intensity

    Lovely way of speaking.

    they would have to learn standard language to borrow its terminology

    Glad that you have conceded this point. Knowing Chinese or German would enable to you think that the whole educated terminology just floats in the air, supradialectally (and often supralinguistically for the dialects who made it to the status of languages, think of social sciences terms in French and Spanish), and has no platonic link to any dialect in particular.

    À propos, that’s the one single thing that made Mair’s writing on Sinitic sometimes quite irritating, when he wants, for example, a perfectly authentic Cantonese sentence be artificially Cantonized. Most languages in the Chinese context have a wénlǐ (literary) register and a tǔbái (vernacular) register. The former borrows a lot from Classical Chinese, and all the new ways of speech calqued from European models are integrated in the former register, which make early 21st century people talk in a much more bookish way than their 19th century ancestors. When Mair thought “可能係世界上最好嘅啤酒” as a cheap s/的/嘅/ from the Mandarin, he confuses wénlǐ with Mandarin, and Cantoneseness with non-wénlǐ-ness. It is in fact the same wénlǐ model substantiated, or incarnated you might say, in Cantonese.

  253. David Marjanović says:

    I was well aware that the text I submitted on thermodynamics would galvanize this nest of pedants to flaunt proudly and expound on their knowledge of entropy.

    That wasn’t my intention. I presented a rather abstruse text to support my assertion that non-standard dialects do not possess the capacity to comprehend and therefore interpret complex language.

    Well, no idiom possesses the capacity to comprehend and therefore interpret the jibberish you submitted, because there’s nothing to comprehend there. It does look like your intention was, in fact, to troll.

    How can speakers of non-standard dialect comprehend Shakespeare, or Fielding, Joyce, Faulkner, Mann, Goethe, et al. when that kind of literature can be impenetrable for speakers of Standard English?

    Interesting that you bring up Goethe and Shakespeare. By modern standards, Goethe’s grammar is pretty confused, and the most famous of his rhymes only makes sense in western Central German accents – reportedly, generations of critics were puzzled because they didn’t know how people speak in Frankfurt. And Shakespeare… short of actually learning 16th-century English, the best you can do to appreciate many of his rhymes and at least half of his puns is to be familiar with a wide variety of dialects spoken in England (and perhaps Scotland) today. It’s not incompetence that made Shakespeare rhyme love with prove or use hour as a pun on whore, any more than Goethe was incompetent when he rhymed neige with Schmerzensreiche.

    would you be able to perform your duties as an editor without the knowledge of Standard English, without the knowledge of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling?

    That’s circular: it’s in his job description to edit the works he gets toward Standard English, indeed one particular flavor of Standard English. Are you really unaware of that?

    as the moderator of this forum you should demonstrate a modicum of maturity and civility

    Telling a blog owner how to deal with his own blog? Keep dancing for us, troll. :-)

  254. neige with Schmerzensreiche

    Wow, you learn a new thing everyday on teh hat.

  255. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s the passage. (I notice Kruge twice where I’d have expected Krüge; I wonder if that’s original or just badly scanned.)

    In my flavor of Standard German, the rhyme doesn’t just fail by segmental phonology, I’d also stress Schmerzensreiche on the first instead of the third syllable.

  256. Tell me, Veritas (if I may presume on our acquaintance so far as to use this chummy abbreviation), do you know Greek and Latin? If so, please ignore the following. If not (and I’m guessing you don’t, because mastering the classics is a bridge too far in these fallen times for even the haughtiest of prescriptivists), are you aware that everything you’re saying was said by your better-educated forebears in the days when dropping classics as a requirement for membership in civilized society was being proposed? Great heavens, if people can’t read Sophocles and Horace in the original, not only will they miss out on a vital cultural experience but they won’t be able to communicate with properly educated people, understand their own literature (which of course presupposes a knowledge of the classics), or even think and express themselves properly! And yet here you are, practically a Neanderthal, trying to correct other Neanderthals on the proper articulation of caveman grunting. It is to laugh!

    If you are in fact steeped in the classics, my apologies, and we will move the discussion to your presumptive ignorance of the Church Fathers, the Islamic classics, or the Talmud. There are many areas that have been considered indispensable for proper expression and cognition.

  257. Absolute zero: Only one new thing? You must know a great deal more than I do already.

    David: As far as I can tell, the word has always been spelled gibberish, though certainly pronounced with a [dʒ]. It may be from gibber + the -ish of English, Spanish, or gibber (which is presumably imitative) may be a back-formation, as the longer word is recorded first by half a century.

    I love this 1577 quotation from the OED illustrating how gibberish was (rarely) used as a verb: “One demaunded meryly, why O Neale … would not frame himselfe to speake English? What: quoth the other, in a rage, thinkest thou, that it standeth with O Neale his honor [i.e. O’Neale’s honor], to wryeth [writhe, twist] his mouth in clattering Englishe? and yet forsooth we must gagge our iawes [jaws] in gybbrishing Irish.”

    The O’Neills were the most powerful and aristocratic native Irish family in pre-Elizabethan Ireland. If you wanted their attention, and you weren’t royalty, you evidently learned to speak Irish (or perhaps French).

  258. David Marjanović says:

    I think I’ve seen it spelled with j once or twice. I immediately latched on, because why should a presumably onomatopoetic word have an actively ambiguous spelling?

    Interesting to see how old it is, though.

    If you wanted their attention, and you weren’t royalty, you evidently learned to speak Irish (or perhaps French).

    Fascinating.

  259. marie-lucie says:

    Gibberish

    It occurs to me that the stem gibber may be an alternate form of jabber. Gibber-jabber would fit in with other reduplicative forms like pitter-patter and such, where the second element is the one that is an actual word.

  260. Of course, Goethe also wrote Regeln für Schauspieler to make sure his actors didn’t use their dialects.

  261. Before Tully and Erasmus made it into a humanist adage suitable for bookmarks, Terence’s obsequium amicos was about sycophancy to the Republican upper class.

  262. John Dee wrote ghybbrish, transcribing the speech of Edward Kelly.

  263. marie-lucie says:

    RC: ghybbrish

    Possibly related to gab?

    Could gab and jab- be related (perhaps as dialectal forms)??

  264. @MMcM, you mean that our interlocutor thinks that descriptivists are analogous to patricians? That seems — inverted.

  265. @Lars, D.O.: If there is really interest in the statistical thermodynamics of rubber bands (or anything else), it might be a better topic for another venue. However, I can give a quick summary of the statistical mechanics of elastic substances like rubber.

    Rubbery materials are made up a polymer molecules—long chains of individual segments that can point in more or less any direction. To a good approximation, there is no internal energy difference between the different chain configurations; a long molecule wrapped up in a ball or stretched out linearly have essentially the same energy. However, those states do have very different entropies; the long state is much better ordered.

    Another formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that the heat flow dQ into a material is dQ = T dS (in terms of temperature T and entropy S). That says that if you stretch out a polymer chain (or a piece of rubber made of many such chains), its entropy decreases, so it must lose heat. But that heat energy cannot come from the material, since the stretching has not actually changed the internal energy (dU = 0). The First Law of Thermodynamics says that the total energy, thermal and mechanical, is conserved dU = dQ – dW, where dW is the work done by the material. Since dU = 0 and dQ < 0, dW (= dQ) < 0 also. That corresponds to the situation of pulling against a tension; in one dimension dW = – F dx, where x is the length and F the tension on the rubber band.

    The conclusion is that, even though there is no energy difference between stretched and relaxed states, there is a (temperature-dependent) tension in the rubber, which tries to return it to the unstretched state. This tension is entirely a product of the entropy.

  266. @Brett, thanks, that was what I was trying to get at, but I got cause and effect jumbled up — or rather, I didn’t even realize that there had to be a cause for the elasticity in the first place.

    The truth is much neater: the fact that you have to work to stretch a rubber band, and the fact that it gets warm when you do it, are equal and opposite effects of the fact that its entropy decreases!

    (My intention was really to give an example of an everyday experience where you reduce the entropy of an object, to illustrate that the common wisdom formulation of the Second Law (“entropy never decreases” = “you can’t break even”) is lacking a few conditions about cyclicity and isolation. Those hand warmers that work by crystallization are another example).

  267. David Marjanović says:

    This tension is entirely a product of the entropy.

    OK, that blows my mind. I had simply extrapolated from the many cases where changing the shape of a molecule does change its energy… and the polymer chains vulcanized rubber consists of are cross-linked, so that pulling on them may have to distort the disulfide bridges.

  268. David Marjanović says:

    Blows my mind to such an extent that I forgot about the Regeln für Schauspieler. Interesting, but have you noticed how § 9 warns against confusion of p & b and t & d while not mentioning k or g at all? :-)

  269. Is that the one where he wishes the stage were as narrow as a thread (or some such) so that no incompetent would dare to step on it?

  270. There’s a recording of Siebs from 1925!

    daß das Theater so schmal wäre als der Draht eines Seiltänzers, damit sich kein Ungeschickter hinaufwagte is from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.

  271. Veritas odium parit says:

    “…would you be able to perform your duties as an editor without the knowledge of Standard English.”

    David Marjanović says:

    “That’s circular: it’s in his job description to edit the works he gets toward Standard English, indeed one particular flavor of Standard English. Are you really unaware of that?”

    You’re avoiding the question and presenting basic and familiar information. It’s obvious that it’s in his job description, but if he were not familiar with Standard English he wouldn’t be able to get a job as an editor. It’s a matter of common sense, no need to intellectualize as you’ve been trying to do throughout this thread.

    “How can speakers of non-standard dialect comprehend Shakespeare, or Fielding, Joyce, Faulkner, Mann, Goethe, et al. when that kind of literature can be impenetrable for speakers of Standard English?”

    You responded with another one of your circumlocutory opinionated expositions on how much you know, by not answering the question.

    The troll accusation is the standard operating procedure when debating an opposing viewpoint, but in actuality it’s a cop-out. I forgot to include it with your other weapons of choice.

  272. Any reasonably intelligent person, who speaks in Standard English, can translate and understand the text that I submitted, but it would be difficult to translate to non-standard English

    I believe the Scots sentence I quoted (from Wikipedia) is in non-standard English.

  273. @veritas, you are right that the circularity argument is a red herring, because you’re failing to take in a basic point raised much earlier in this thread:

    Nobody is disputing that Standard English is a prestigious variant and that it’s useful in the job market and as the closest available approximation to a neutral written variant of English.

    Neither will you find disagreement that much (but not all) good literature and tightly argued scientific dispute is expressed in Standard English because it is, well, standard.

    We are disputing that Standard English is ‘better,’ ‘more expressive,’ ‘more logical’ in some absolute sense, disregarding prestige and utility arguments, and the concomitant implication that all other varieties are somehow ‘debased.’

    On this point I have only seen attempts at proof by assertion on your part. Most of your rhetoric has been spent on dismissing attempts at falsification of the claim, partly by ridiculing the experience of others.

    Try naming one specific syntactic or morphological feature of Standard English that in your opinion distinguishes it from other varieties and makes it better, more expressive or logical than those. We’ll see how it goes.

  274. Veritas odium parit says:

    languagehat says:
    “Tell me, Veritas (if I may presume on our acquaintance so far as to use this chummy abbreviation), do you know Greek and Latin? If so, please ignore the following. If not (and I’m guessing you don’t, because mastering the classics is a bridge too far in these fallen times for even the haughtiest of prescriptivists)”

    Mastering an intelligent discourse with impartiality, civility and honesty is a bridge that no longer exists. Such a disappointment Mr. Languagehat.

    Your presumptuousness keeps company with your sarcasm; ergo, the decline of civility. ( Please, no elongated expositions on civility and its dispensable values.) Actually, I’m quite familiar with Latin, and I’m also fluent in one of the Romance languages. But it’s completely irrelevant to the debate as was your straw-man diatribe.

    Are you serious, or are you just wanting to expound on your knowledge? For your edification, Sophocles, as I’m assuming you know, was a Greek tragedian, whereas Horace, born more than four hundred years later , was an Italian poet who wrote in Greek, but also in Latin. Latin was the dominant language at the time; therefore, it was always read in the original.

    What’s your point? I never discussed Greek or Latin literature; I discussed Standard English and its importance for a higher education. Not being able to get a good job because one can’t speak Standard English is quite different from not being able to read classical Greek literature.

    My questions and refutations, are very basic, but they’re never answered. All you do is submit caustic pithy comments, or you digress and expound on irrelevancies.

    Forget about classical Greek literature, or Shakespeare, or thermodynamics and entropy.

    You said “proper English is not “better” than other forms of English.

    In my initial post I challenged your claim, you’ve read my challenge and you’ve chosen not to respond or refute my assertion. It’s as simple as that. My initial post was diplomatic, inquisitive and non-threatening. You purposely avoided my question.

    Again, standard English must be defined as “better” if it gets you a “better” job and a better education. It must be better if it enables one to better understand classical or complex literature.

    “And yet here you are, practically a Neanderthal, trying to correct other Neanderthals…”

    Fallacious hyperbole, when did I ever “correct” anyone on this thread? You can do better than that.

    Do you understand Latin? Because, veritas odium parit, and that’s precisely what occurred.

    Apropos: “What people believe prevails over the truth” Sophocles

  275. Basically, your arrogant guest is impervious to arguments based on general principles, because he holds to a rigidly intersubjective, contingent theory of what counts as good. In his worldview, a language is good to the extent that it helps you get a good job and a good education (both solipstically defined, rather than depending on individual aptitudes and needs) – nothing more. In 1300 AD, English was a worthless language, and it’s a testimony to the stupidity of the English that, instead of immediately giving it up in favour of Latin or at least French, they shamelessly dared to use it in such utterly inappropriate contexts as book-writing and law courts. In 2300 AD, after Communist Islamist immigrant hip-hoppers have taken over the world, burned all English-language books, and made the speaking of standard English an offence punishable by unemployment – well, standard English will obviously be a worthless language, and any sensible person will recognise that Ebonics is far superior in every way. But in 2016 AD, English is obviously the best language on earth, and standard English is obviously the best dialect of English; why complicate that with musings about whether this state of affairs is eternal and universal, or contingent and variable?

    And in my faith and loyalty
    I never more shall falter,
    But George my lawful king shall be –
    Until the times may alter.

  276. Trond Engen says:

    Again, Standard English must be defined as “better” if it gets you a “better” job and a better education.

    This.

    Try substituting any other accident of birth and see what that makes you.

  277. What’s your point?

    My point is very simple: you’re picking the form of prestige communication you happen to have mastered and are claiming it is the fons et origo of all intelligent thought and communication. This is a standard move on the part of those who have gone through the painful process of mastering some arduous code; those who have spent years learning Chinese characters say exactly the same thing (mutatis mutandis). But I don’t expect you to grasp the point, since you have too much invested in your little patch of knowledge and will defend it to the death, or at least until you’ve exhausted your Latinate vocabulary. The interesting thing is that the more you know about language and languages, the less you invest in any particular variety. I was once almost as cocksure and ignorant as you, but that was when I was in my teens; if you’re still in your teens, there may be hope for you yet. Try learning some linguistics, it will do you a lot of good!

  278. Trond Engen says:

    a standard move on the part of those who have gone through the painful process of mastering some arduous code

    Yes. But this is a dangerous game, and being able to define the rules is as important as knowing them. Within any community of self-proclaimed Standard speakers there’s a mini-world of socio-linguistic subtleties, a fine gradation of those who define the code, those who pretend, those who were born into it but pretend not to, those who try but don’t quite manage, and those who fail utterly by over-achieving. Meanwhile, the princes drop their t-s, and the goalposts have moved. So to really be ahead, you don’t just need to master the taught standard, you need to ditch it in a way that turns out to be prevalent. Or at least not ever mock, correct or dismiss those who were wise enough to be born erring on the side of the future.

  279. This is a standard move on the part of those who have gone through the painful process of mastering some arduous code; those who have spent years learning Chinese characters say exactly the same thing (mutatis mutandis)

    That was gratuitous, no? Blast at full power, please, but no need to strafe innocent bystanders. There are analogues to Mr. Veritas here in the sinographic world, those brave two-beer nationalists who will (still!) tell you how much better “ideographs” are for the expression of, you know, real human truths, and how the low-brow precision of the alphabet is suitable only for the pitiably spirit-poor of the West. etc. Fortunately, such types haven’t had much of an audience for 30 years, but they’re still around, like so many weeds waiting to sprout..

    In any case, the really insufferable thing about Mr. Veritas is this: the sheer importance he places on the comparative “better”-ness of Standard English makes it very clear that he is *quite* familiar with alternative varieties of the language, quite knowledgeable that whole communities thrive around them, and yet feels entirely comfortable with dismissing “those” people and “their” speech. One imagines he has actually even met people in the flesh–fellow countrymen!–and felt calmly superior to them just because he can talk different. This is an aggressive haughtiness, one that can’t even feebly offer ignorance as an excuse.

    But don’t confuse this with the East Asian case: berate any random member of an extremely-literate East Asian society for lording their mastery of that “arduous code” over their fellow less-fortunate citizens, and you’re most likely to get, not the arrogant denial you have here, but confusion–because they likely literally won’t know anyone who can’t read, and the idea that it could give them decisive status advantage is pretty unintuitive. And in the worst case–I hate to say it but I’ve seen it–especially if you have them at a disadvantage because the conversation is in English, you might get something of the scene many of us are perhaps imagining with Veritas: a cringing self-criticism wrung from them (however unintentionally) through the unearned power of unjust status differences.

    Granted, because unintentional, that scene wouldn’t be a tenth as bad as the knowing and self-consenting contempt we see here: a speaker of Standard English willfully imagining–despite knowing better–that his flavor of speech puts him above his peers. But I assure you, however benignly occasioned, it’s still a scene you absolutely wouldn’t enjoy witnessing.

  280. Veritas odium parit says:

    “In my initial post I challenged your claim, you’ve read my challenge and you’ve “chose…”

    I cannot correct my mistakes, or I don’t know how, once I post a comment. Rather than have everyone jump on my typo, should have been “chosen”, I thought I’d beat everyone to the punch.

  281. The way to correct mistakes around here is to ask Hat nicely; there is no technical means available to commenters. And we don’t jump on people for typos, certainly not when it’s clear that they are typos.

  282. The typo is fixed, but (as JC said) you needn’t worry about anyone jumping on it. We all make typos; errare humanum est.

  283. Veritas odium parit says:

    languagehat says:

    “My point is very simple: you’re picking the form of prestige communication you happen to have mastered and are claiming it is the fons et origo of all intelligent thought and communication.”

    Another fallacious assumption based on what you mistakenly inferred and more precisely predicated on your political idealistic viewpoint that is unrelated to language. After all, if I were to say that having an education is “better” than having none, you would have the same argument. Because the principles are the same: better education=better job=more money=better house and better neighborhood ad infinitum. That’s the reality and that’s the stick in your craw, let’s be honest.

    “I was once almost as cocksure and ignorant as you…”

    Languagehat, you’re now undermining your veneer of acumen, revealing a man who reacts with emotion rather than intellect. You are no longer the intellect that I thought you were.
    Your presumptuousness is overwhelming; therefore, ignorance is also damaging your cognitive faculties.
    Let me enlighten you, I’m not a prescriptivist, of which you’ve relentlessly accused me; I’m just one who enjoys words and their various fascinating usages. You immediately label me a prescriptivist because I proposed that Standard English might be better than non-standard. My initial post only enquired as to why you didn’t think it’s better, to which you never responded. In addition, when you accuse me of ignorance you’re also accusing, perhaps greater minds than yours, who also agree with my supposition. Your opinion is only based on an impractical standard hidden behind linguistic science. I already stated that non-standard English can express the same logical associations as Standard English, but it just might not get one into college.
    Furthermore, you’re basing my ignorance for the reason that I don’t agree with your opinion, because as I’ve articulated earlier, these comments are all about opinions, not facts. However, the one crucial item that I submitted, and the crux of this debate, is factual; Standard English is better.

    Intrinsically, I don’t think it’s better, but in the extrinsic status-conscious and competitive world that we live in it’s considered better. Everything we choose in life is based on what we think is better. C’est la vie.

    “or at least until you’ve exhausted your Latinate vocabulary.”

    Now you know that’s impossible, because more English words derive from Latin than any other Language, including German. Therefore, it’s doubtful that I, or you, will exhaust our Latinate vocabulary in our lifetime.

  284. I must say VOP’s writing is a poor advertisement for the expressiveness of Standard Written English. A sentence like “Another fallacious assumption based on what you mistakenly inferred and more precisely predicated on your political idealistic viewpoint that is unrelated to language” would bring Orwell’s teeth to gnashing. I could barely copy and paste it without falling asleep mid-way.

  285. “Intrinsically, I don’t think it’s better, in the extrinsic status-conscious and competitive world that we live in it’s considered better.”

    To quote Feynman: What do you care what other people think? Do you decide whether a book is good based on its position in the bestseller lists? Or whether a person is good based on how popular they are? If so, stop and you’ll be much happier.

  286. Intrinsically, I don’t think it’s better

    That was for sure hard to tell from your earlier posts. Where did all the stuff about other varieties being worse at expressing things logically come from, then? Just to take one example. To me that sounds very much like ascribing a (bad) intrinsic property to other varieties, and by implication the opposite (good) intrinsic property to Standard English.

  287. Trond Engen says:

    And what was all the fuzz about? “Well, duh, of course it’s helpful to master the Standard, but that doesn’t make it intrinsically better” has been the mantra here since Fostro-Wallacian times.

  288. The fuss was about making a fuss.

  289. Veritas odium parit says:

    Y says:
    “I must say VOP’s writing is a poor advertisement for the expressiveness of Standard Written English. A sentence like “Another fallacious assumption based on what you mistakenly inferred and more precisely predicated on your political idealistic viewpoint that is unrelated to language” would bring Orwell’s teeth to gnashing. I could barely copy and paste it without falling asleep mid-way.”

    But not your teeth, since any dialect is carte blanche. Apparently you did not fall asleep, because you read my entire comment.

    When you can’t win an argument start with the essential gibes. What is your scintillating point and what does it have to do with the debate?

    Don’t bring up Orwell; he’s your adversary within. I understand he’s not with us in flesh, but his words are eternally remindful of how language is in a bad way.

  290. What the AHD actually gives as a definition of “better” is:

    adj. Comparative of good.
    1. Greater in excellence or higher in quality.
    2. More useful, suitable, or desirable: found a better way to go; a suit with a better fit than that one.
    3. More highly skilled or adept: I am better at math than English.
    4. Greater or larger: argued for the better part of an hour.
    5. More advantageous or favorable; improved: a better chance of success.
    6. Healthier or more fit than before: The patient is better today.
    adv. Comparative of well2.
    1. In a more excellent way.
    2.
    a. To a greater extent or degree: better suited to the job; likes it better without sauce.
    b. To greater advantage; preferably: a deed better left undone. See Usage Notes at best, have, rather.
    3. More: It took me better than a year to recover.
    n.
    1. One that is greater in excellence or higher in quality.
    2. often betters A superior, as in standing, competence, or intelligence: to learn from one’s betters.

    You will notice that Veritas was quite sloppy in presenting this definition, giving not only the adjectival senses but also, for good measure, the adverbial and nominal uses. Having demonstrated a remarkable inability to use a dictionary properly, Veritas then proceeds to make the hazy assertion ‘that Standard English certainly fits into the many categories of what is defined as “better” by English dictionaries; therefore, it would be logical to assume that it’s better’. Since he has given a definition that includes adverbs and nouns, Veritas is left free to interpret “better” any way he wants to.

    And he does. He asks rhetorically, referring selectively to definition 5: “If you insist that it’s not better then how can it be more advantageous? There seems to be a dichotomy in your argument, or perhaps in how you define Standard English.”

    There is an interesting sleight of hand here. The so-called dichotomy is not, of course, in the definition of Standard English. In fact, there is no dichotomy at all — another cunning use of language to push the argument in the desired direction. The problem is that Veritas has disingenuously glossed over the elementary question that any speaker of English, standard or otherwise, might legitimately ask in this situation: “Better for what?”

    On this Veritas cagily shifts to one very specific way in which a particular register of language might be regarded as “better” others, namely that Standard English is socially approved and preferred to other varieties, and therefore has greater utility in areas (like job interviews and written communication) where use of a socially preferred variety will accrue advantage, and failure to use a socially preferred variety will result in penalties.

    This is something that everyone on this thread knows and acknowledges, and has already been pointed out by a number of people. There is nothing controversial about it. The problem here is Veritas’s use of the word “better”, which is not a neutral term and contains subjective value judgements concerning what is “good” and what is “not good”, couched in terms of what is socially “superior”. (Note the final, nominal definition of “better” that Veritas gratuitously includes: often betters A superior, as in standing, competence, or intelligence: to learn from one’s betters. It is clear that Veritas is arguing from the mentality expressed in this sense.)

    Languagehat’s analogy of a dress suit versus a t-shirt and jeans does actually substantiate his point because it touches on the basic question: Better for what? Veritas asserts, without evidence, that “one can wear a suit where it’s not required, but one cannot wear a t-shirt where a suit is required”. Perhaps in Veritas’s circles, which he appears to consider the only ones worth belonging to, but in real life there are many situations where wearing a suit will not necessarily lead to an optimal outcome. Similarly, there are situations where the use of Standard English isn’t necessarily the best option.

    More importantly, there are many situations where it isn’t necessary to use Standard English. Veritas appears to be saying not only that Standard English is “better”, but that because Standard English is de rigueur in some situations, it should be de rigueur in all situations. This is acceptable if you want to sound like a stuffed shirt, but I can assure you that there are many people who would prefer not to wear a suit in bed, on the beach, or on the marathon track. A Patek Philippe is no doubt regarded as having great cachet and monetary value, partly due to canny positioning, but that does not make it a “better” watch if you want to go skin-diving.

    It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Veritas denies that language can be used flexibly depending on the situation. Indeed, one of his claims is that someone who knows Standard English can understand different varieties of the language (for example, reading Huck Finn), whereas someone who doesn’t know Standard English cannot. There is no doubt that Standard English acts as a glue among the many varieties of English, but Veritas’s claim is suspect and again appears to be unsupported by any evidence other than his own feeling of superiority.

    Veritas later adduces another argument for the superiority of Standard English: “Spoken dialects have moderately tiny vocabularies; therefore, preventing speakers from articulating or understanding more complex thoughts”, and “Fully developed vocabularies facilitate the activities of thinking and understanding and enable speakers to express themselves with much greater precision and on a wider range of subjects.”

    These are all arguments in favour of an elaborated written code. In reality there is no doubt that Standard Written English is almost universally the only language that is used for this purpose amongst English speakers (with the possible marginal example of Scots). It is socially required to use Standard Written English in prose for public consumption, and failure to use this variety will usually be disadvantageous to the writer.

    However, this does not make other varieties of English “worse” (again that value judgement), and it is, in fact, possible to express oneself intelligently in non-Standard varieties of English. This statement is patently false: “Any reasonably intelligent person, who speaks in Standard English, can translate and understand the text that I submitted, but it would be difficult to translate to non-standard English.” Indeed, there are undoubtedly situations, notably teaching situations, where use of a non-Standard variety of English might help, rather than hinder, the ability to think and understand.

    In the end, the nub of the issue is that Standard English is not intrinsically superior to other varieties of English in terms of grammar or communicative ability. It is, however, socially advantageous in many situations and is de rigueur in most prose. The problem arises when people start making value judgements about the intrinsic superiority of a particular register, and furthermore attempt to impose petty and arbitrary rules on the use of English in the belief that these are intrinsically “better” in terms of grammar or communicative ability. This is simply a mistaken view of language.

    I would finally like to point out that much of Veritas’s argumentation is not argumentation at all; it is attack pure and simple. He is the intellectual equivalent of a pit bull intruding into a place where other dogs are engaging in good-natured play. From the very outset he has employed aggressive and antagonistic language.

    “You might vituperatively argue that a Seiko watch is just as good as a Patek Phillippe” — who is being vituperative aside from Veritas?

    “I also anticipated the barrage of arrows and spears that would be flung at me with such malicious intensity” — the only one attributing malice to other participants in the conversation is Veritas.

    This very soon descended into wholesale attacks on other people:

    Mastering an intelligent discourse with impartiality, civility and honesty is a bridge that no longer exists. Such a disappointment Mr. Languagehat.

    Your presumptuousness keeps company with your sarcasm; ergo, the decline of civility.

    In actuality, these characterisations apply to no one better than Veritas himself.

    Add a range of condescending comments designed to browbeat other participants in the conversation (“Exceptions don’t make the rule, and you know that” “that’s not the point and you know it” “Do you know how to speak normally?” “Edify me on why this isn’t “true””) and you have all the makings of a troll.

  291. David Marjanović says:

    You responded with another one of your circumlocutory opinionated expositions on how much you know, by not answering the question.

    I responded by trying to point out that I think the question is wrong – not so much any answer to it as the question itself, because it is based on premises that have (at best) yet to be demonstrated.

    revealing a man who reacts with emotion rather than intellect

    Have you fallen for the kolinahr fallacy?

    more English words derive from Latin than any other Language, including German

    Off-topic: my SIWOTI syndrome requires me to point out that this is trivially true – the only English words of German origin are a few loans, mostly rather recent; Proto-West-Germanic wasn’t German.

  292. SIWOTI syndrome

    It is quite interesting to see how, once started, a troll can keep even this august forum all in an uproar by only responding to perceived slights and quietly changing the statement of its position away from anything where hard evidence is being asked for.

    It does make for impressive comments counts, though.

  293. I love trolls and crackpots on the hat. You really need them to think things through and be educated on myriad things.

  294. But not your teeth, since any dialect is carte blanche.

    I bow to your mastery of the Best Language.

  295. It is quite interesting to see how, once started, a troll can keep even this august forum all in an uproar.

    One thing I like about LH (the forum and the fellow) is that they can be august or frivolous, as needed. I am personally all for trolls, if they inspire ridicule. If they are just boring or annoying, not so much.

  296. Veritas,

    I’m a little late to comment on the last hundred or so comments, thank God, but I can’t help pointing out that you’ve been downright hypocritical, as well as bellicose to people who’ve been generous in their comments, considering. You accused Hat of cherry-picking arguments, yet (unless I missed your response, a possibility) you completely ignored Marie-Lucie’s allusion to Labov’s experiment — a generous argument (made with no malice), in that it assumes a great deal of good faith and intelligence in someone who writes things like, “The point I’m trying to make is that a person with a better education and a solid grasp of vocabulary will understand the concept above much better than an individual who can only speak and write in non-standard English.” Indeed, people with better educations and solid grasps of something will, generally speaking, more readily understand whatever concept than people with poorer educations who’ve had trouble grasping anything. I’m not as generous as Marie-Lucie (few are); if I’d seen your disagreement with me earlier about what is or isn’t essential to prescriptivism, I would have ignored it (and, come to think of it, still will), not being in the habit of trying to talk sense to people who — in summing main points — do nothing but insert a few relevant words and phrases into vacuous, absurdly obvious statements; people who can do no better, that is, than argumentum ad mad lib.

    Even Hat, at whom you’ve spewed the most vitriol, wrote that “you’re picking the form of prestige communication you happen to have mastered.” Mastered? Now that’s generous. You: “This debate has nothing to do about race and the wealthy and powerful, so don’t launch a straw-man argument, stick with the facts.” The phrase “nothing to do about race” gets 7 hits in Google Books, “. . . with race” 11,000. I’d say the latter is now standard. But, less pettily yet more risibly, I myself may have launched a straw man or two, but I was on farms at the time. So even if I were to be generous and overlook how, fumbling for red herring you got your hands on straw man, I’d still have to gently suggest that Standard English may have less to do with good speech or writing, or thinking for that matter, than you think.

  297. Veritas odium parit says:

    Bathrobe says:

    “What the AHD actually gives as a definition of “better” is…You will notice that Veritas was quite sloppy in presenting this definition, giving not only the adjectival senses but also, for good measure, the adverbial and nominal uses. Having demonstrated a remarkable inability to use a dictionary properly,”

    These reductio ad ridiculum comments persevere, but the facts speak for themselves. I don’t know if I’m amused or amazed at your diatribe of tautological nonsense. If this debate were held in a public arena you would be laughed off the stage.

    I presented the definition of “better” as it applied to Standard English: more suitable, desirable, advantageous etc.. Standard English is more advantageous, and more useful and desirable; therefore, better. You can distort that truism all you want, as you’ve been assiduously trying to do all along, and doing so in masterful Standard English, but you can’t change the indubitable truth.

    “There is an interesting sleight of hand here…On this Veritas cagily shifts…”

    Facts speak for themselves. There’s no need for me to prevaricate or use straw-man tactics as you and others have been doing. My premise is crystal clear, and you’re trying to obfuscate the reality of the situation.
    If a scholastic education is better than not having one, then it follows that speaking in Standard English is better than not being able to. You can use all the rationalizing and circumlocutory language you want, but you’re not going to alter the reality of that fact. Your comment is a non sequitur of inanities.

    “The problem here is Veritas’s use of the word “better”, which is not a neutral term and contains subjective value judgements concerning what is “good” and what is “not good”, couched in terms of what is socially “superior”.”

    No, the problem is the fact that you’re in complete denial of the truth. Another problem—a problem shared with everyone else on this forum—is your ambiguous verbosity. Your straw-man arguments, and your reductio ad ridiculum attempts are just demonstrations of your tenuous position. Naturally you have the support of your compatriots on this forum, strength in numbers, and don’t think out of your box.

    “From the very outset he has employed aggressive and antagonistic language.”
    Not true, we’re all guilty of that, but I didn’t throw the first punch.

    “…and you have all the makings of a troll.”

    My initial post directed to Languagehat was an interrogative comment. My intention was not to provoke or disrupt.
    Naturally I’m branded a troll, because consequently, but unintentionally, my comments have provoked and disrupted this clique of descriptive language aficionados. It’s as if I walked into a bar and asked for a glass of milk rather than a whisky and soda. I was ridiculed and stared down, but as you see I’m not intimidated. I stand behind my position.

    Lars says:
    January 31, 2016 at 5:09 am

    “Try naming one specific syntactic or morphological feature of Standard English that in your opinion distinguishes it from other varieties and makes it better, more expressive or logical than those. We’ll see how it goes.”

    Fair and reasonable request, allow me to respond a little later, I promise.

  298. These reductio ad ridiculum comments persevere, but the facts speak for themselves. I don’t know if I’m amused or amazed at your diatribe of tautological nonsense. If this debate were held in a public arena you would be laughed off the stage.

    Almost everything that Veritas writes is better employed to describe his own writing. There is no need for me to write a reply.

  299. I should point out that the descriptive / prescriptive dichotomy is not only trite, it is also false. Descriptive grammar entirely encompasses prescriptive grammar.

    For instance, the prescriptive grammarian will lay down a rule, reading in part:

    Linked personal pronouns in subject position must be in the nominative, with first person placed last. E.g., ‘She and I’.

    The descriptive grammarian will describe language as follows:

    In formal written English and English spoken in conformity with prescriptive rules of ‘standard usage’, linked personal pronouns in subject position are required to be in the nominative, with the first person pronoun conventionally placed last. E.g., ‘She and I’.

    In informal spoken English, and to a lesser extent informal written English, linked personal pronouns are found in an oblique case (accusative), with a tendency to place first person in first position. E.g., ‘Me and her’. This usage is frowned upon by speakers who adhere to prescriptive rules of language.

    As you can see, the descriptive approach is quite clear on actual usage. It notes the rules of those who adhere to ‘correct’ (prescriptive) usage while also recognising that other rules are in play in other situations. It does not advocate a ‘free-for-all’ in language. What annoys prescriptivists is that it acknowledges usages other than those that they would impose on the language. Unfortunately, descriptive grammar is a bit too far out of the box for prescriptivists to accept.

  300. marie-lucie says:

    What about the wonderful precision of personal pronouns in Standard English?

    Unlike most languages, Standard English uses “you” for both singular and plural 2nd person, something which often creates ambiguity, which non-standard varieties resolve by indicating the plural in several ways depending on the region: yous, you all (y’all), you guys and probably others. “You two” is acceptable in casual speech, but not in formal speech or writing. Avoiding and later losing “thou” has led to a deficiency which the Standard variety has yet to remedy.

    The lack of a genderless 3rd person singular pronoun referring to human beings has recently been (at least in the US) suppleted by the “official” acceptance of the long-established but also long-despised use of casual “singular they” (and its possessive forms their, theirs) instead of circumlocutions like “he or she, his or her(s)” which are largely unused in speech and become very awkward and inelegant when they need to be repeated in written discourse.

  301. Nice example m-l. Another fun case to add if we’re talking about “more logical”: English subject agreement on verbs. It’s semantically superfluous to mark any such agreement at all if you’re going to make an overt subject obligatory anyway; that logic would suggest having no agreement at all, as is indeed the case in some non-standard English varieties. You can argue that such redundancy is useful in case of a noisy communication channel, but that logic would suggest that we need a lot more agreement, as in, say, German or even Old English. But to have only one subject agreement marker, and not only that, but to make it an -s indicating the 3rd person singular, when everywhere else in the language -s marks a 3rd person plural – what logic would dictate that?

  302. marie-lucie says:

    Lameen, yes, it is very puzzling for an L2 learner: the dog runs the dogs run, what kind of logic is that?

  303. marie-lucie says:

    (Add comma between the two sentences)

  304. How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

    If a scholastic education is better than not having one

    And would that be a Thomist education, or more aligned with the Dunce? Of course I knew what you meant, but I have to wonder whether these lexical slips are just slips, or loss of control, or yet another scheme intended to provoke just such a correction as this.

    then it follows that speaking in Standard English is better than not being able to.

    Non sequitur. At most, it follows (and only by analogy, not by any kind of proof) that being able to speak Standard English is better than not being able to. But this is indeed a triviality. Marie-Lucie and Etienne are able to speak French, which makes them “better” than me, in the sense that they could get good jobs as French translators, which I cannot. Do you then advocate that everyone speak French?

    walked into a bar and asked for a glass of milk

    I’ve done that, in company with friends, and been served unhesitatingly. Nobody snickered.

    allow me to respond a little later, I promise

    A consummation devoutly to be wished.

  305. m-l: An Argentinian friend of mine told me that when learning English, he had learned this dog and these dogs, which seemed sensible to him (cf. este perro, estes perros). So being a bright and linguistically minded child, he saw at once that the plural of this big dog (este perro grande) would be these bigs dogs (estes perros grandes). Why not? But alas, you cannot (as my mother used to say to her elementary German students) make up the language you are trying to learn.

  306. Baumwood von Bladet says:

    But alas, you cannot (as my mother used to say to her elementary German students) make up the language you are trying to learn.

    My bilingual son, Boris, having established that there was daddy-speak and mama-speak, decided that it would be simpler to have everyone learn boris-speak instead.

  307. According to legend, there was a proposal to make the official language of the U.S. Classical Greek (in repudiation of all things English), but this was rejected with the reasonable argument that it would be easier for us to keep English and make the English speak Greek.

  308. marie-lucie says:

    JC: I had heard about adopting Hebrew, but not about Greek, let alone about making the English speak it. Prescriptivism at its utmost! (add craziest adjective).

  309. I remember that Mencken’s American Language said that this was a joke by John Jacob Astor’s grandson Charles Astor Bristed. But I now see that modern accounts tend to identify C.A.B.’s “fellow representative” as Connecticut’s Roger Sherman (whom Jefferson characterized as “a man who never said a foolish thing in his life”). So maybe the exchange really happened.

  310. There’s also a legend that the US was going to adopt German as its official language, but that the proposal failed by one vote. (Everything fails by one vote in legends.) In truth it was a rather innocuous vote on whether to publish German translations of federal statutes for the benefit of German settlers in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

  311. Veritas odium parit says:

    jamessal says:
    “You accused Hat of cherry-picking arguments, yet (unless I missed your response, a possibility) you completely ignored Marie-Lucie’s allusion to Labov’s experiment…”

    No, I did not ignore Marie-Lucie’s reference, but I have an excuse for my cherry-picking; I don’t have the time or inclination to respond to everyone’s non sequiturs; after all, I do have a job.

    I accused Languagehat of cherry-picking, because the main theme of my initial post revolved around one question, which also has been the main topic of these threads. He never responded. In fact, none of you have. All of your responses are indirect, which is an attempt to muddle my simple question by trying to redefine the word “better” by removing it from the framework of my argument.

  312. Veritas,

    Let me back up, apologize for picking apart your prose (it’s hard to write fast and well in a foxhole), and make a sincerely gentle suggestion. Allowing for the possibility that you’re right about the nature of this thread in particular — I doubt it, but hey — you should nevertheless take into account that we, all the LH denizens, have had this argument many, many times before. So although I do admittedly doubt other commenters here are avoiding your “irrefutable” arguments, nobody is looking to write another thesis either. Again, I’d bet that at least a few commenters have taken on your very best and that you’ve misunderstood the relevance of some of their remarks, but I’d also bet that other commenters, seeing another prescriptivist brouhaha, chose to take up whatever bit of your writing that first struck their eyes as fun to refute or even mock, as I did. You call us pedant, but you know damn well the commenters here are highly educated and highly intelligent; my gentle suggestion for you is to keep that in mind and ask yourself which is more likely, that you’re failing to understand in full an admittedly thorny argument or that you really have a simple point so sharp that everyone is ducking for fear of being impaled. I gently suggest you stop assuming you know why we hold the position we do, and turn your arguments and assertions into questions. You could very well be wrong, and being wrong and knowing it is far more rewarding that being right: it’s enlightenment.

    I was a prescriptivist myself when I first stumbled across this blog about a decade ago, but sure as I was, I asked questions instead taking on a pack of linguists, other academics, and (most brutal of all) dilettantes. Hat recommended a few books to supplement his arguments, and as you can see, I changed my mind. It was a great experience. You could ask the same humility of us, of course, but we’ve read the prescriptivist literature: we have, again, had this argument many, many times.

  313. How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

    Nah. He’s just a cracked record. Everybody is guilty of non sequiturs but him. I’m not interested in playing silly buggers with some troll who can’t even cite a dictionary properly.

  314. Veritas odium parit says:

    Lars says:

    “Try naming one specific syntactic or morphological feature of Standard English that in your opinion distinguishes it from other varieties and makes it better, more expressive or logical than those. We’ll see how it goes.”

    I’ll try to respond with common sense rather than the tortuous, and torturous, (both apply) linguistic language that’s being exploited by everyone with their profuse rebuttals to my argument.

    A case in point is Bathrobe’s misguided and rather foolish assertion.

    “A Patek Philippe is no doubt regarded as having great cachet and monetary value, partly due to canny positioning, but that does not make it a “better” watch if you want to go skin-diving.”

    This is an illustration of either Bathrobe’s ignorance or another absurd distortion of facts.
    What “canny” positioning is he referring to, and what does he mean by it? Patek Philippe & Co doesn’t need “canny” positioning or require that much publicity. The watches sell for not less than $10,000 and many sell in the six figures. Its “cachet” is based on the fine quality of the watch; it has nothing to do with advertising. Furthermore, how does Bathrobe know it doesn’t make a better watch if you want to go skin-diving? Patek manufactures waterproof watches: Patek Philippe Nautilus Stainless Steel Watch, Water resistant to 120 m Retail: $28,000.
    Know of what you speak.

    I don’t know if there are any morphological differences that would distinguish Standard English from other dialects. Regarding syntax, I think there are differences in sentence structure, word order, and syntactic rules and how they apply to putting words together to formulate a sentence. It’s rare that non-standard dialects have extensive and complex sentences because they lack written representation and books on grammar to encourage sophisticated and elaborate language and thought.

    Regardless, I’ve already explained why Standard English is better and it has nothing to do with syntax or morphology. The truth is that you, and your team of compatriots, are opposed to the word better, but unless you can come up with a different word that would identify Standard English as being the more advantageous and advantaged dialect then better is the apt definition.

    “Curriculum documents are right to stress the importance of standard written English. It consists of a set of forms which are used with only minimal variation in written English and in a range of formal spoken contexts of use around the world. Such forms constitute the basis for the teaching of English internationally. Because of its provenance in writing the dialect of standard English has a wider vocabulary range than many non-standard English dialects, thus affording more choice in the expression of verbal meanings. Standard English should therefore be taught and, where appropriate, taught explicitly, for not to learn or write standard English is to be seriously disadvantaged and disempowered.” Ronald Carter
    Ronald Carter is Professor of Modern English Language in the School of English Studies, University of Nottingham. He has published extensively in the fields of language education, applied linguistics and literary-linguistic studies.

    For this reason and the ones I’ve enumerated I would understand that a dialect that is more prestigious, more advantageous and more favorable could be identified as better.

    Bathrobe said:
    “However, this does not make other varieties of English “worse”…”

    Who said it did? Being better doesn’t necessarily indicate that something else is worse.
    jamessal says:

    “…you should nevertheless take into account that we, all the LH denizens, have had this argument many, many times before…”

    Are you assuming that I haven’t? And to what specific argument are you referring? Because the only argument that I’ve brought up is that of the “better” dialect. You and your cohorts jumped on that and what ensued was a complete digression to misrepresent what I said and to flaunt your linguistic acumen. I’m not impressed.

    “You call us pedant, but you know damn well the commenters here are highly educated and highly intelligent…”

    Really, how could I deduce that from your rather puerile, condescending and sophistic comments? Bathrobe’s ignorant misinformation on Patek watches was not a “highly intelligent” criticism. He should have done a little research rather than submit a faux pas.
    Please edify me, how does juvenile, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, posturing behaviour equate to “highly educated” and “highly intelligent”?

    Academia is anathema to common sense.

  315. VOP,

    Your invocation of the authority of Professor Carter is a definitive argument, rendering all opposition impotent. It must be borne it in mind, however, that Standard English will not be deployed to the best advantage without a truly superior accent — one that confers upon the speaker an aura of prestige and credibility, like a twenty-eight-thousand-dollar Patek Philippe Nautilus Stainless Steel Watch. The question “which accent?” was answered long ago by Henry Cecil Kennedy Wyld in his 1934 book The Best English : A Claim for the Superiority of Received Standard English, Together with Notes on Mr. Gladstone’s Pronunciation. At the time when the book was written, the author was Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford — thus a gentleman and a philologist. His authority surpasses even that of a Professor of Modern English Language from Nottingham, since we all agree that Oxford is a better place. This does not necessarily indicate that Nottingham is worse: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being Nottingham, except that it is not Oxford. I have heard, for example, that some Nottingham academics take a bus to work, and, as Henry C. K. Wyld told Alan S. C. Ross, “No gentleman goes on a bus.”

    But I digress. While to appreciate the full impact of Professor Wyld’s argument one should read the book from cover to cover, his general line of reasoning may be illustrated with the following quotation:

    If it were possible to compare systematically every vowel sound in Received Standard with the corresponding sounds in a number of provincial and other dialects, I believe no unbiased listener would hesitate in preferring Received Standard as the most pleasing and sonorous form, and the best suited to the medium of poetry and oratory.

    I hope you mind your vowels and keep them pleasing and sonorous.

  316. My apologies. I stand corrected on Patek Philippe watches.

    I pointed out that: Standard English is socially approved and preferred to other varieties, and therefore has greater utility in areas (like job interviews and written communication) where use of a socially preferred variety will accrue advantage, and failure to use a socially preferred variety will result in penalties. This is something that everyone on this thread knows and acknowledges, and has already been pointed out by a number of people. There is nothing controversial about it.

    I also pointed out that: There is no doubt that Standard English acts as a glue among the many varieties of English

    I furthermore pointed out that: These are all arguments in favour of an elaborated written code. In reality there is no doubt that Standard Written English is almost universally the only language that is used for this purpose amongst English speakers … It is socially required to use Standard Written English in prose for public consumption, and failure to use this variety will usually be disadvantageous to the writer.

    But this is not good enough for Veritas. Veritas wants us to say that Standard English is “better”. The motivation for Veritas’s dogged fixation on the word “better” is transparent. Veritas wants to deny all other social or linguistic criteria — in particular, considerations of suitability to the occasion — in order to declare definitively that Standard English is “better” than other varieties of English, in the same snobbish way that a $28,000 Patek Philippe is regarded as being “better” than any other kind of watch.

    I’m sorry, but no one is going to run with that. There are no non sequiturs in the arguments that have been advanced against you. Everyone has seen through your argument for what it is: a single-minded obsession with asserting the unimpeachable superiority of Standard English. Not the greater suitability of Standard English for many important purposes in modern society, but the simple belief, like those of the aristocracy in 19th century England who believed in their own superiority and fitness to rule the nation, that Standard English is simply “better”.

    That attitude is not something that thinking people can accept. Of course we all write in Standard English! Of course we believe that people should be educated to be able to use and manipulate Standard English as a tool of empowerment in modern society! But unlike “snoots” like yourself (see David Foster Wallace’s article for more on “snoots”), we do not believe that Standard English is in some way innately superior. We love language in all its many manifestations, not the single-dimensional register that you appear to regard as “better” than all others.

    You are free to spend $28,000 on your Patek Philippe and browbeat the world into admitting that you have a “better” watch. I’m afraid I’m not interested in buying a $28,000 watch because there are many other “better” things to spend my money on. I also have many “better” things to do with my time than spend it arguing with a person whose only purpose since appearing at this thread in November last year is to bludgeon everyone into agreeing that Standard English is “better”.

    I don’t see any sense in discussing this further. You are free to keep posting your laughable putdowns (“puerile, condescending and sophistic comments”, “ignorant misinformation”, “juvenile, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, posturing behaviour”, “ambiguous verbosity”, “downright hypocritical”, “non sequitur of inanities”, “diatribe of tautological nonsense”) and keep making your baseless assertions, but they are frankly unworthy of notice.

  317. Marie-Lucie said:

    He explained things to the non-standard speakers this way: “Don’t be too hard on him: the poor guy has had so much education he can’t help speaking like that – he doesn’t know how to speak normally any more”.

    The prescriptivist in me feels compelled to correct this. Clearly he said something more like “Lay off busting his fucking balls. They’ve crammed so much school bullshit up that guy’s ass that he can’t fucking help talking like a fag. He’s got no fucking clue how to talk normal.”

  318. Really, how could I deduce that from your rather puerile, condescending and sophistic comments? Bathrobe’s ignorant misinformation on Patek watches was not a “highly intelligent” criticism. He should have done a little research rather than submit a faux pas.

    Yeah, I’m going for “troll,” though I try to avoid that word. I’m bemused by the fact that the quality of the opposition in this thread has declined so drastically from the thoughtful and well-spoken candle back in 2005 to this pathetic flailing. Could it be that all the thoughtful and well-spoken ones have seen the light? Nah, probably not, so I wish one of them would show up and remove the bad taste from my mouth.

  319. Veritas hasn’t even really seemed interesting in defending Wallace specifically, whereas the previous snoots seemed (unsurprisingly) to be Wallace fans. So I wonder what really drew Veritas to this thread at all.

  320. Veritas,

    Descriptivism is the misconception that some forms of language—slang, non-standard, ungrammatical constructions, mispronunciations and misspellings ad infinitum, are just as elegant, logical, precise, distinctive, comprehensible, as a standard language. Interestingly descriptivists vigorously pontificate on this theory in a faultless standard language.

    As John Cowan essentially said above, If you remove the word misconception along with the tendentious items indicative of your misconceptions — “ungrammatical constructions, mispronunciations and misspellings” — then yeah, you’ve described descriptivism pretty well. However, this is all part of linguistics, linguistics is a science, and Standard English is the language of science — in this country and others. Your last comment there seems to argue that we’re hypocrites for failing to insist on even foreign scientists mastering a different English dialect. That ubiquitous argument — that we speak fancy while defending non-fancy speakers — is one of the reasons we find prescriptivism so easy to dismiss. It’s just so dumb.

    Yes, in upper- and middle-class, Wonder Bread America, Standard English has more uses than any one dialect. Leaving aside — for the moment — your lack of appreciation of the linguistic diversity in the country, we’re still speaking in scientific terms, standards and dialects being linguistic classifications. A scientist who studies a particular dialect often does it because she finds it especially expressive, precise, and indeed beautiful — attributes often dependent on the dialect’s own logic. Yet that scientist, taken as she may be with her work, would never demand her colleagues accept her potential prejudices, initially born of preferences, and demand they admit that the dialects they’re studying are inferior. That’s the whole point, really. Science is descriptive, not evaluative –unless there’s a debate over whether one scientific approach would be better at illuminating a field than another **. You’ve muddied the waters completely by introducing language both inappropriate and ultimately meaningless to the discussion. And you’re demanding straight answers!

    ** I know damn well I’m going out on a limb here, one I haven’t even really examined, in making a such a broad statement about science generally, but in context it’s right, and if someone wants to take it out of context we’d have a more interesting discussion.

    “you might wear those to be interviewed for a construction job, but if you show up on a working site wearing them, you will certainly be sent home for inappropriate attire.”

    An unreasonable argument, and actually a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argument. My initial reference was a generalization, it relates to social settings, formal or informal. For you to bring in specific jobs that require specific attire is absurd and doesn’t validate your argument it just demonstrates a grasping at straws.

    No, it was a perfectly reasonable argument. It’s your “refutation” that’s either stupid or stingy and offensive — stingy, assuming the latter, because a construction site could just as easily be interpreted as any place at all where people are laboring and offensive because you’ve described the language I for one use in such places as a laborer as so insignificant as to be absurd. Prescriptivists always make the point that Standard English will help people in the workplace; well, not my workplace (at least not one of them), which remains one of the most common in the country. When you’re sawing branches from trees you’re better off knowing the dialect of the workers below than Standard English. Ditto when you’re carrying heavy things and even deciding how to rake a lawn.

    “A measurement of the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system or a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum entropy.”

    You introduce this nonsense, out of the blue, and call us pedants? Yes, a part-time laborer knows more about entropy than you do.

    Furthermore, the fact that one might be admonished or excluded for speaking Standard English in the milieu of ex-convicts is really not something I would worry about.

    I wouldn’t expect you to. Nor would I imagine you care that you can’t comfortably socialize in predominantly black and brown parts of inner cities, even though you can find surprisingly good food there as well some cheap staple items for your pantry — never mind the people and the way they express themselves. You keep writing off as insignificant certain dialects because you don’t approve of the milieus in which they’re predominant — and yet class and race are red herrings here? I’m also a part-time writer who just abandoned a piece about life in prison because it would have been too dangerous for my sources. It didn’t have to be so dangerous; the editor, writing in Standard English, was making it so with pointless demands: I had all the access I needed from hard-timers now on parole or well out of the life, yet my editor thought it would play better if I asked questions of friends in prison that could very well get them killed. Granted, he didn’t understand what he was asking, but it was still the speaker of Standard English who gummed up the works so much that I decided to drop to them. Still, I learned a lot from my ex-con sources — somehow they managed to be informative and articulate in their own dialects — and speaking with them was the most rewarding part of the abandoned project.

    Do you even know that we have 2.3 million people in prison in this country, more than the rest of the world combined? Do you imagine that will change if people keep spewing the benighted crap you did above? The drug war has criminalize an absurdly large percentage of the populace — a drug war waged primarily in black and brown neighborhoods, even though whites both use and sell drugs at equal if not higher rates. In those neighborhoods, which do you think would better help the residents avoid the people intent on throwing them in cages, their dialects or Standard English?

    In short, you have bigotedly ignored the utility (and other positive aspects) of dialects other than the one you prefer, rigging an absurd competition you yourself set up. Writing back, you should keep in mind that this particular ex-con offered you an olive branch, which you ignored, even after you insulted me and my friends — and I don’t just mean friends in this forum. If you’re anything but mild-mannered in your response, I’ll leave the thread out of respect to Hat, so you’ll be talking to no one. And if you think I’m demanding more of you than I am of myself, you’re absolutely right. Ignoring and insulting large segments of the population, you’ve dug yourself a hole. I’m guessing this is goodbye.

  321. @Veritas odium parit,

    I hope I shall not disappoint you when I say that I find your answer to my question of January 31 rather unconvincing. From among paragraphs addressing other posters, disavowals of specific linguistic knowledge and indeed remarks disparaging of linguistic terminology itself, all I was able to extract of direct relevance was this:

    It’s rare that non-standard dialects have extensive and complex sentences because they lack written representation and books on grammar to encourage sophisticated and elaborate language and thought.

    Sophisticated and elaborate language and thought — there is an embarrassment of examples of sophisticated and elaborate language and thought from civilizations that did not have writing or grammar books. The Epics of Homer, the R̩g-Veda, to name a few, and I’m sure marie-lucie could supply a number of instances from North America too.

    This easily falsifies your implication — that lack of written representation and books on grammar implies that extensive and complex sentences are rare.

    It is true that in the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere, it much harder to find commonly accepted counter-examples. But as I said before, that’s a cultural accident: producing sophisticated and elaborate language is a question of training, and very few people get such training without being trained in Standard English as well.

    And conversely, lots of people born into the Standard English-speaking classes are unable to write much more than a shopping list without committing a logical blunder. Using Standard English in itself does not confer the ability to be sophisticated, that needs additional training. (What they called Rhetoric in the old days).

  322. Apparently I missed something I can’t help ridiculing: “It’s rare that non-standard dialects have extensive and complex sentences because they lack written representation and books on grammar to encourage sophisticated and elaborate language and thought.” My God, wow, and there are no words.

  323. And where the fuck does one submit a faux pas? Does our SE master have an address?

    Alright, I’m out of here. I will see you all anon.

  324. “There is only one of us who am right.”

  325. Fuck me, I need to close the browser, for fear of stumbling onto another of these:

    Being better doesn’t necessarily indicate that something else is worse.
    jamessal says:

    “…you should nevertheless take into account that we, all the LH denizens, have had this argument many, many times before…”

    Are you assuming that I haven’t?

    After reading that first sentence, I’m now assuming you haven’t had many arguments at all in your life, at least not coherent ones. Better does not imply worse? I’m half expecting a phone call from Heidegger’s ghost, to speak German until things are perfectly straightforward.

  326. marie-lucie says:

    Lars: Sophisticated and elaborate language and thought — there is an embarrassment of examples of sophisticated and elaborate language and thought from civilizations that did not have writing or grammar books. The Epics of Homer, the R̩g-Veda, to name a few, and I’m sure marie-lucie could supply a number of instances from North America too.

    I don’t have examples at hand right now, but in one of the introductory linguistics textbooks that I used for teaching there was an excerpt from an early (probably 17C) work by an American missionary, saying something like:

    Anyone who has truly studied an Indian language … can’t help thinking that this language is not only as interesting as any that he has studied, but superior to any other language whatsoever (or words to that effect)

    .

    As a clergyman, this missionary must have known at least Latin and Greek, perhaps also Hebrew and some European languages, all of which had long literary and grammatical traditions.

  327. Trond Engen says:

    I have the impression that its consensus among those studying folklore and oral traditions that cultures with unwritten languages in general have more, not less, in the way of poetic register and tradition for oratory performance. Which makes perfect sense once you think of it.

    I’ve been thinking that what’s special in written language cultures is that the stilted constructions of writing and the careful pronunciations of the classroom take the place of traditional high registers as markers of learning and progeny, at least in the speech of the socially ambitious. As acrolectal forms creep into the mesolect, the spoken language now follows where the written language leads. That makes me think that in cultures of the spoken word, some sound changes or grammatical innovations may have been preceded by developments in the oratory tradition. The elaborate rules of sandhi in Sanskrit comes to mind.

  328. Writing makes / the world dreary

    age of glory / by all forgotten

    when bright gold was / bounty of kings

    for men / who made words count

  329. Haw Haw! Haven’t had that much fun since Wile E. Coyote got beaned by that anvil!

    I don’t know if there are any morphological differences that would distinguish Standard English from other dialects.

    You kidding?

    Regarding syntax, I think there are differences in sentence structure, word order, and syntactic rules and how they apply to putting words together to formulate a sentence.

    Annnd… cut and print!

  330. Rather, “You kiddin’?”

  331. Jesus, Y, just as I was regretting the time wasted arguing at lunch, you post that! At least there’s a lesson here: skimming even a hundred comments can be falsely economical, because it wouldn’t have taken me nearly an hour and change to really read them — what I spent writing and referring and hyper-linking — and if I’d seen your quotes, along with the ones I caught myself at the end, I never would have bothered. If Veritas had shot from the hip instead of faking it, Googling here and there and overall painting his naked self so that he appeared in the distance to be wearing a suit, we might just have been told that syntax is something the church charges you for splitting infinitives with Cam Girls; that better doesn’t imply worse or, in fact, mean anything at all; that morphology is a term derived from X-Men; and that entropy, like pornography, is something you just know when you see it (it’s ent trees that cause chaos, as Tolkien proved — a common mistake, for which we would have been gently forgiven). Could have saved a lot of time.

  332. Yeah, that last sentence Y quoted is a thing of horrible beauty, and I missed it myself.

  333. Regarding phonetics, I think there are differences in sound articulation, pronunciation, and phonetic rules and how they apply to putting segments together to form a word.

    Regarding orthography, I think there are differences in graphemic rules, spelling, and orthographic principles and how they apply to putting letters together to represent speech.

  334. And regarding Sindarin, I think it is one of the many (wonderful) languages spoken by the immortal Elves.

  335. “He’s got no fucking clue how to talk normal.”

    I assume that whoever told m-l the story censored it slightly. See my Frye quotation above (search for “texture”).

    James, I do not think your time was wasted: you delivered your message with a force that the rest of us could not easily have matched. Ex Hattica semper aliquid novi.

  336. Douglas Hofstadter conversing with a computer program (search on that page for “Nicolai”):

    DH: What are feet?

    Nicolai: Feet are 12.0 inches.

    DH: What are arms?

    Nicolai: That information is classified.

  337. marie-lucie says:

    JC: “He’s got no fucking clue how to talk normal.” – I assume that whoever told m-l the story censored it slightly.

    I think I read the story somewhere, a few years ago. It is quite likely that whoever wrote it censored the quotation somewhat! But the gist of it was the point, however the “texture”: too much “education” had made the poor guy unfit for human communication.

    James, I do not think your time was wasted: you delivered your message with a force that the rest of us could not easily have matched.

    Absolutely!

    Ex Hattica semper aliquid novi.

    (Smiling face)

  338. John, you know Robin just read The Lord of the Rings for the first time this past year? Actually all but the last 30 pages — she does that with books she loves, finishing them like a year later, and it drives me crazy. But she already got The Silmarillion, so in the event Google shuts down she’ll be able to provide certainty about Sindarin, as well as details, in another year or so. Seriously, though, communication has improved remarkably — at least when I’m in one of my nerdier moods. She especially liked my ent joke. And if not for appreciation of mediocre ent jokes, we might as well all have ent wives, i.e, (in case anyone else is paying attention) no wives at all really. There’s also the sex thing, but we’re talking about our nerdy moods here, so . . . wait, what the hell am I talking about? Nerdy sex is awesome! Even if you can’t get from mood to character, the mood has you losing your virginity all over again! I like to be Glorfindel, but for some reason she prefers me as Gloin. Rather befuddling when the green eyed monster is having his way. You wouldn’t believe the guys I’ve given nasty looks at our local market. I’m joking, of course. I’m not a jealous husband. Just keep those Gloin lookalikes away from me. They’re out there.

  339. Thank you, BTW, John and M-L. Makes me feel much better about my day. And hey, it was the first time I got to launch straw men indoors — kindly propped and left standing for me by Veritas — before stomping on them and micturating on the pieces. To micturate is to mock with the with the cutting wit of a Scotsman, right? You’d think Irishman, but no, another tricky etymology. Somehow Veritas himself gave me that impression (how ungracious am I?), but I wonder . . .

    You shall regret the encouragement!

  340. Well, if you are Gloin, she must be Galadriel. See the Very Secret Diaries. And please tell Robin from me that she can safely read the end. For those of us who love Middle-earth, there is no such thing as reading The Lord of the Rings only once, and it will not end with the words “Well, I’m back.” (By the way, Sam speaks a non-standard English, and Tolkien called him the true hero of the story, which is true enough.)

  341. Veritas odium parit says:

    jamessal says:

    “And where the fuck does one submit a faux pas?”

    Very simply: First, one has to commit the blunder, then transcribe it, and then give, offer, (submit) it to whomever.

    Quite elementary.

  342. marie-lucie says:

    Faux pas means literally ‘false step’ – stepping outside of the approved path (and perhaps bumping into others as a result). That’s a strange thing to “submit” to anyone.

  343. Like Wile E. Coyote, he keeps coming back for another anvil!

  344. Actually, Veritas was quite right in criticising my use of “worse than” in that passage. Interpreting the opposite of “better than” as “worse than” was an elementary error on my part.

    What Veritas is arguing is not that other varieties of English are worse than Standard English, but that they are not as good as Standard English. There is a difference, and Veritas’s picking up on my mistake is actually quite encouraging. It means that Veritas recognises that other varieties of English are all good; the problem is simply that they are not as good as Standard English.

    While Veritas’s clarification of the underlying premise is encouraging, I feel that there is still a problem, that is, Veritas’s unswerving belief that Standard English is better than other varieties of English in an absolute sense, leading to a refusal to recognise the existence of aspects or situations where other varieties of English might actually be better than Standard English. This flawed perception is what leads to some of his less felicitous assertions. Because Veritas believes that Standard English is inherently better than other varieties, and thus always better than other varieties, he finds himself making some poor calls.

    One that many people have picked up is his assertion that “one can wear a suit where it’s not required, but one cannot wear a t-shirt where a suit is required”. This clanger is a natural result of Veritas’s belief in the absolute superiority of Standard English in all circumstances. In order to avoid this kind of error, Veritas needs to adjust his notion that Standard English is intrinsically better and substitute a criterion of appropriateness to the situation or purpose.

    Another poor judgement is his assertion that certain types of text (the specific sentence concerned entropy) could not be expressed in non-standard English. As many commenters here demonstrated, this was less than convincing, both because the sentence in question was actually a poorly formulated example of Standard English, and because the content could indeed be paraphrased or explained in non-standard English if the need arose. Of course, it would be inappropriate in written prose to use a non-standard form of English to write about entropy, but it would be quite possible to explain it in non-standard English if necessary, assuming that people had acquired the requisite concepts. (Veritas may be implying that people who don’t speak Standard English are too uneducated to understand the concepts involved, but this is patently incorrect.)

    Other commenters have demonstrated the narrowness of Veritas’s belief that spoken varieties of language are by definition less complex or subtle in their expression than written language, with specific reference to an area where Veritas appears to have considerable knowledge and expertise, namely, the Classics.

    Despite problems with Veritas’s approach, I think it is encouraging that he acknowledges that all varieties of English are inherently good. There is hope yet for a meeting of minds.

  345. In order to avoid this kind of error, Veritas needs to adjust his notion that Standard English is intrinsically better and substitute a criterion of appropriateness to the situation or purpose.

    But that’s the whole point at issue! If he were capable of making that adjustment, he would long since have done so. And while your parsing of the better/worse thing to put him in a good light is kindly and ingenious, I’m quite certain he does think other varieties are worse. His whole line of argument shouts it to the heavens.

  346. What Veritas is arguing is not that other varieties of English are worse than Standard English, but that they are not as good as Standard English.

    I fail to see the difference, except in connotation. Is there really something more substantial here? Obviously “worse than” doesn’t mean “bad,” but that doesn’t mean “better” doesn’t imply “worse.” And nevertheless, as Hat pointed out, given Veritas’s other writings, it was hardly a mistake on your part to read his “worse” as “bad”; he obviously considers the not as good (as SE) varieties of English bad. What am I missing, Bathrobe?

  347. I think our fuzzy friend is simply extending a hand to Veritas, trying to draw him in; a laudable ambition, but (I fear) fruitless. Veritas prefers pissing into the tent from outside.

  348. Obviously I agree, Hat, except I’d replace “into” with “onto” and make clear that the tent is extremely water retardant.

  349. There’s more better varieties and less better uns.

  350. des von bladet says:

    I, for one, am no better than I ought to be and none the worse for that, as the actress remarked to a passing parsing bishop.

  351. Veritas odium parit says:

    languagehat says:

    “Yeah, I’m going for “troll,” though I try to avoid that word. I’m bemused by the fact that the quality of the opposition in this thread has declined so drastically from the thoughtful and well-spoken candle back in 2005 to this pathetic flailing.”

    Are you really confused or are you amused? Your choice of words is confusing to your readers, which are the consequences of malapropisms, or is it neologisms. But it’s neither,
    Mr.Languagehat, it’s just your way of taunting.

    Your definition, (and that of your entourage of helpers) of a troll is anyone who offers an opposing viewpoint from the unanimous opinion of your blog’s associates, which comprises 99% of its members. They’re your associates, because they are under the auspices of the moderator, Mr.Languagehat. They write for you and essentially they proselytize for you. Their snide comments follow your dictum of condescension. It’s the modus operandi for all these kinds of blogs, which is always comprised of a team of operators who think in synchronization with the blog’s owner. The invocations are reciprocal as are the adulations.

    N.B. Marjanović’s “Telling a blog owner how to deal with his own blog? Keep dancing for us, troll.” is an example of this adulation, for he completely dismisses, and apparently approves, of your incivility; it’s irrelevant to him because he also is a participant to this behaviour. When an opponent is adamant and rational in his argument then the language pedants begin with their indecorous employment of prolix tautology, followed by condescending puerile expletives, which is never the proper method for a winning argument.

    Anyone who stumbles, or is a mere bystander, to this thread of vitriol will clearly understand who the victim is. All they have to do is read my initial post and take it from there. After all, ira furor brevis est.

    My position is a one-note dispute, generated by my exclusive interest in etymology and word usage. In my estimation Standard English is better than a non-standard dialect. I base my theory on the definition of better and how it applies to a standard dialect.
    My stance on this issue invoked the enmity of all the pseudo-linguists on this forum, because essentially their animus is politically motivated. Let’s be honest, why would a difference of opinion on a single word create such truculence.

    Keep in mind, Mr.
    Dodson, what you’ve said has been transcribed, you can’t take it back, and if you think that what you’ve said is substantive, civil, thought provoking and honest then you’ve underestimated the intelligence of your readers.

    “You’re just one of a whole tedious crew of blathering ignoramuses for whom DFW is the be-all and end-all and anyone who criticizes him in any way is to be attacked with all guns blazing. But you do have the distinction of being the most blathering and ignorant of the crew, and I’m getting tired of it.”

    That’s not intellectual speaking. That’s just a man who’s fighting for a cause, which is not related to language.

  352. My dear chap, I fail to see what benefit you’re deriving from your visits here. You’re not going to convert anyone else, and no one else is going to convert you.

  353. modus operandi for all these kinds of blogs, which is always comprised of a team of operators who think in synchronization with the blog’s owner

    This is arrant nonsense. The denizens of this blog are people who are interested in language; that’s it. There have always been cases where people don’t see eye to eye with Hat and don’t accept some of his ideas, at times giving rise to heated discussion. But people who are willing to express and explain their ideas in a rational way will get a hearing. I myself have had a few ding-dongs with Hat, which haven’t led to my ostracism from the “entourage of helpers” or “team of operators”, as you term it. You are receiving a rocky welcome because you are too quick to dish out insults and dismiss other people’s arguments in an offensive manner. You still haven’t engaged the many criticisms of your stance — for instance, you haven’t responded constructively to my criticism of your clumsy invocation of the AFD definition of “better”, which is the first, basic building block of your argument. You simply hide behind blanket accusations that other people are engaging in “non sequiturs”. Not a very constructive response.

    As for David Foster Wallace’s paper, I have a less critical view than Hat, but I certainly feel that it contains a lot of inanities. That said, not even DFW’s views are as extreme as yours. Read DFW’s uncharitable views on “snoots” and you will see that he doesn’t regard Standard Written English as “better” than other varieties. At its most basic (leaving aside a lot of his more contentious or inane statements and attitudes), his point is that Standard Written English is essential to get by in modern society and that learning it is an indispensable part of any kind of education. You haven’t taken that approach. You are simply relying on the slipshod invocation of a dictionary definition of “better”.

  354. Sorry, that should have been “AHD definition”.

  355. ə de vivre says:

    My dear chap, I fail to see what benefit you’re deriving from your visits here. You’re not going to convert anyone else, and no one else is going to convert you.

    You say that as if conveying information is the only function of language :).

  356. my exclusive interest in etymology and word usage

    And you do know that we have one of one of the intertubes’ highest concentration here of specialists of historical linguistics and etymology, don’t you?

  357. You say that as if conveying information is the only function of language :).

    Heh. Touché!

    And by the way, Veritas, I have frequently changed my mind about things based on the arguments of other commenters here, many of whom are smarter and better-informed than I. The fact that I have not changed my mind based on your arguments certainly says something about one of us.

  358. I just noticed this at one of Veritas’s diatribes:

    If a scholastic education is better than not having one, then it follows that speaking in Standard English is better than not being able to.

    This is a wonderful illustration of the muddled thinking that has marked his argumentation until now. What it should say is:

    If having a scholastic education is better than not having one, then it follows that being able to speak in Standard English is better than not being able to.

    Anyone would agree it’s better to be able to speak Standard English than it is not to be able to speak Standard English. The ability to speak Standard English is a valuable asset. But it does not follow that it’s automatically better to speak in Standard English…

  359. If a scholastic education is better than not having one, then it follows that speaking in Standard English is better than not being able to.

    And of course John Cowan has already addressed this one.

  360. I just noticed that Mr. Veritas does make use of singular they. More power to him!

    But what interests me here is Mr. Truth’s kind of rhetoric. God knows, I am not the one to criticize other people’s manner of speaking, having a very clunky one of my own, but I do find it interesting and somewhat characteristic. What I see is a bit odd usages and constructions that do not obscure meaning, but make me as a reader a bit uncomfortable, in an interesting way. Maybe some of those constructions actually go beyond the norms of SWE. A manner of the argument contradicting the argument itself, what not to love. A few examples from the last epistle:

    unanimous opinion of your blog’s associates, which comprises 99% of its members
    It’s either unanimous and 100% or 99% and not unanimous. If we interpret it as “unanimous opinion of 99% of blog’s associates” (whatever that might be) what would it really mean? Opinion of 99% of people which is as good as unanimous? Or maybe this blog has members and associates and those two are not the same, but have 99% overlap?

    It’s the modus operandi for all these kinds of blogs, which is always comprised of a team of operators who think in synchronization with the blog’s owner.
    Operators? Synchronization? What does operator mean in this context?

    for he completely dismisses, and apparently approves, of your incivility
    You cannot dismiss and approve something at the same time, right?

    indecorous employment of prolix tautology
    This sounds great, but does it have a concrete meaning or is it just an expression of the overall disapproval?

    My position is a one-note dispute
    Can position be a dispute?

    That’s not intellectual speaking
    Is intellectual a noun or an adjective here?

    I want to stress again that I am not criticizing Mr. Truth. I am just enjoying this method of argument, which to me shows that the author is not completely serious about the substance of the argument and likes the process of arguing itself. And makes it shown by slightly subverting conventions of SWE!

  361. Baumwood von Bladet says:

    (I went to school with Prolix Tautology. Lovely girl, and I won’t hear a word against her. Sad to hear she’s reduced to indecorous employment these days.)

  362. Veritas odium parit says:

    Bathrobe says:
    “— for instance, you haven’t responded constructively to my criticism of your clumsy invocation of the AFD definition of “better”, which is the first, basic building block of your argument. You simply hide behind blanket accusations that other people are engaging in “non sequiturs”. Not a very constructive response.”

    I shall reiterate the definition as it applies to Standard English. I chose the AHD solely for the reason that it’s available on my bookmarks.

    Merriam Webster: “higher in quality
: more skillful
: more attractive, appealing, effective, useful, etc. more attractive, favorable, or commendable, more advantageous or effective…”

    I think Standard English can be described as being more appealing, more advantageous, effective, useful, favorable and commendable. These attributes are definitions for the word better; therefore, Standard English would qualify as being the better and more favorable dialect based on the word’s definition. I understand that it’s all very subjective and solely based on opinion, but a majority shares that opinion.

    “You are simply relying on the slipshod invocation of a dictionary definition of “better”.”

    Another straw man. What are you saying?! I have no idea. Please edify me on how I sloppily invoked the dictionaries’ definition. It has nothing to do on whether the word is an adjective or an adverb. The definition is what it is, and for the majority of people it applies to Standard English.

    I’ll simplify the argument for you and offer a different comparison but I hope a more lucid illustration. Standard English is a Ferrari automobile, and non-standard is a Kia. In the world of reality everyone would desire the Ferrari and think it is the much “better” vehicle. You might not, and that’s your prerogative, based on your subjective opinion. However, if we compare the two automobiles with all their components, the Ferrari will win through, in terms of what it can offer. If you think Madonna is a better singer than Pavarotti, based on your opinion, then I can’t argue with you. Is Faulkner a better writer than Hemingway? Is Beethoven a better composer than Mozart? It’s all relative.

    What I’m trying to say is that you don’t think Standard English is better than non-standard, I respect your opinion, but I don’t agree, end of the debate.

  363. Veritas odium parit says:

    D.O. says:
    “I just noticed that Mr. Veritas does make use of singular they. More power to him!”

    Actually, I’m not an advocate of singular “they”, a typographical error, which I couldn’t correct, sorry to disappoint.

    I’m flattered that you’ve assiduously perused my comment to detect my grammatical peccadilloes. Of course a grammatical inaccuracy cannot literally be a peccadillo, but I like the word and besides ““When I use a word,…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    I understand that one of the many tactics of the blog’s associates is to disparage the grammar of their opponents, always a last resort when they’re at the losing end.

    I said: “The unanimous opinion of your blog’s associates, which comprises 99% of it’s members.”

    “It’s either unanimous and 100% or 99% and not unanimous.”

    Juvenile sarcasm will get you nowhere, and neither will your lack of reading comprehension.

    Let me reconfigure the sentence to simplify it for your edification.
    The opinion of your blog’s associates is unanimous, and they comprise 99% of your members.
    The blog’s associates are unanimous, but not the 1% who are not under the auspices of Mr. Languagehat.

    It’s all very elementary, if you understand Standard English.

  364. I think Standard English can be described as being more appealing, more advantageous, effective, useful, favorable and commendable.

    It can be. It also can be, and has been, described (by J. Y. T. Greig) as the “silliest and dwabliest of all the English dialects […] artificial, slovenly to a degree, absurdly difficult for foreigners to acquire, and except to ears debased by listening to it [that is to say, to RP pronunciation], inharmonious. […] It obliterates distinctions, tends to replace all unstressed vowels to the same natural grunt, and then — as if by some obscure process of psychical compensation — diphthongizes and breaks up vowels that in other Standards are cleanly and simply articulated.”

    end of the debate

    Let us hope so.

  365. You might not, and that’s your prerogative, based on your subjective opinion. However, if we compare the two automobiles with all their components, the Ferrari will win through, in terms of what it can offer.

    Now it is clearer. You have, however, no knowledge at all about the analogue of automobile components in languages, so your judgement on what different varieties of languages can offer doesn’t worth much.

  366. Baumwood von Bladet says:

    The opinion of your blog’s associates is unanimous, and they comprise 99% of your members.
    The blog’s associates are unanimous, but not the 1% who are not under the auspices of Mr. Languagehat.

    That takes care of members and associates, but what about associate members? In particular, unauspicious ones. (Asking for a friend.)

  367. Jan Drake says:

    The only relevant response to this rant is: He got ya! Hilarious.

  368. @jamessal: “Apparently I missed something I can’t help ridiculing: “It’s rare that non-standard dialects have extensive and complex sentences because they lack written representation and books on grammar to encourage sophisticated and elaborate language and thought.””

    To show why ridicule is called for, you have provided three links, two of them to books on AAVE. The third one is to McWhorter’s The Word on the Street, which seems to (CMIIW) only discuss one dialect in any considerable length and depth, the same old AAVE. This has nothing to do with the merits of your case, but you cannot counter the “it’s rare that” claim with just one example.

  369. It has nothing to do on whether the word is an adjective or an adverb. The definition is what it is, and for the majority of people it applies to Standard English.

    How quaint. A person who presumes to pontificate about language but dismisses the relevance of parts of speech.

    Let’s take your definition and see how much of it applies to English:

    adj. Comparative of good.
    1. Greater in excellence or higher in quality. “English is better” = “English is greater in excellence or higher in quality” — this is fine.
    2. More useful, suitable, or desirable: found a better way to go; a suit with a better fit than that one. “English is a better language” = “English is a more useful, suitable, or desirable language” — this is also ok.
    3. More highly skilled or adept: I am better at math than English. “English is better at expressing abstract concepts than Latin” = “English is more highly skilled or adept at expressing abstract concepts than Latin” — definitely leaves something to be desired because “highly skilled or adept” applies to people.
    4. Greater or larger: argued for the better part of an hour. “We strove for the better English of the country” = “We strove for the greater (or larger) English of the country” — Decidedly awkward.
    5. More advantageous or favorable; improved: a better chance of success. “We feel we had a better English than before” = “We feel we had a more advantageous (more favourable, improved) English than before” Acceptable, but not a great exemplar of this usage.
    6. Healthier or more fit than before: The patient is better today. “English is better today” = “English is healthier (more fit) today” — Not really what this example is about.
    adv. Comparative of well2.
    1. In a more excellent way.
    2.
    a. To a greater extent or degree: better suited to the job; likes it better without sauce. — Unusable. How do you use an adverb with the noun English?
    b. To greater advantage; preferably: a deed better left undone. See Usage Notes at best, have, rather. — Unusable. Ibid.
    3. More: It took me better than a year to recover. — Hard to see how it could be used with “English”.
    n.
    1. One that is greater in excellence or higher in quality. “English is a better” = “English is one that is greater in excellence or higher in quality” — “English is a better” is nonsense.
    2. often betters A superior, as in standing, competence, or intelligence: to learn from one’s betters. “English and French are your betters” = “English and French are superior to you in standing, competence, or intelligence” — Basically nonsense, because “betters” here should refer to people, etc. who are superior in standing etc.

    You think it’s ridiculous to go through nitpicking like this? Of course it is, but if you were serious about arguing your point you would not have thrown down a bunch of definitions in a large blob and claimed that ‘Standard English certainly fits into the many categories of what is defined as “better” by English dictionaries’. Quite a few of the definitions cited are irrelevant or inappropriate; the inclusion of adverbs and nouns was especially stupid. They should have been left out or ruled out. That is why I regard your appeal to the dictionary as slipshod and slovenly. A person who was as careful and conscientious about language as you pretend to be would not have been so lazy in presenting those definitions.

    Standard English is a Ferrari automobile, and non-standard is a Kia.

    I’m not sure why all your comparisons involve issues of money and snob value. Why can’t the different registers in language be treated like the tools in a toolbox? A good tool kit will have a range of tools that can be used for every possible eventuality, including special-use tools for major or difficult jobs. A poor toolkit would include only basic tools, and shoddy versions at that. But a tool kit that included only sophisticated, special-use tools and left out many tools considered too mundane would be lacking in balance. Having a full suite of tools is what is important in judging a person’s mastery of language, not having one single marvellous tool.

    Standard English is an essential component of a full-range linguistic tool kit in order to deal with the demands of modern society. But it’s only a part of the tool kit, not the be-all and end-all of tools.

  370. Veritas’s remark is somewhat ambiguous: you can read it as “only a few dialects [other than Standard English] have extensive and complex sentences” or as “only a few sentences in other dialects are extensive or complex”. I believe James was concerned to refute the latter interpretation: for that purpose, any non-standard dialect can be examined to see if it freely allows the construction of complex sentences, which of course it does.

  371. (saved too soon)

    the different registers in language

    As Trudgill’s paper (which I thought was linked somewhere on this vast page, but isn’t) shows us, it’s a mistake to identify either the standard with high register or style, or high register or style with the standard. “The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip” is Standard English in a low style, compared to the middle-style equivalent “Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey” and the unbearably pompous “Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination”, but all three are equally Standard English. By the same token, “Father were very tired after his lengthy journey” is middle style in a non-standard dialect, and “There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys” is a non-standard dialect (a different one) employing the register of physical geography. (All examples from the paper.)

    I have probably mastered more styles and certainly more registers than my basically non-intellectual daughter has, but she can fluently handle two dialects, AAVE from her peer group and Standard English from her parents, as well as a continuum of intermediate varieties, which I cannot do at all. So the tools in people’s toolboxes are very unevenly distributed, and education can only partly fix this, if it is even fixable at all. For a paleface like me to speak fluent AAVE would make me the object of suspicion, possibly of contempt and hostility; by the same token, for a long time darkskins who spoke Standard English, even with an AAVE or Spanish or Native accent, were by all reports outcasts from both worlds.

  372. I am quickly approaching the age in which being accused of doing something juvenile feels like a compliment…

  373. @John Cowan: “Veritas’s remark is somewhat ambiguous: you can read it as “only a few dialects [other than Standard English] have extensive and complex sentences” or as “only a few sentences in other dialects are extensive or complex”.”

    I read it in the former way. I could also interpret it as “it is unusual to encounter extensive and complex sentences in most non-standard dialects.” I don’t want to argue the merits of this claim (beyond pointing out that certain complex subjects are seldom if ever discussed in any dialect but Standard National) but pointing out that AAVE is capable of elaborate sentence construction is not enough to ridicule it.

    What could work is evidence that AAVE is not one but a multitude or continuum of dialects.

  374. There certainly is, as I noted anecdotally, a series of varieties between basilectal AAVE (and indeed beyond it into various creoles to which it is related) through different mesolects like the one my daughter uses much of the time, to fully Standard English. This sort of penumbra pretty much exists wherever standard and non-standard dialects coexist.

  375. And really, the idea that AAVE is some sort of uniquely expressive dialect and all others are inferior would be asinine. Proof of concept is all that’s needed here.

  376. To show why ridicule is called for, you have provided three links, two of them to books on AAVE. The third one is to McWhorter’s The Word on the Street, which seems to (CMIIW) only discuss one dialect in any considerable length and depth, the same old AAVE. This has nothing to do with the merits of your case, but you cannot counter the “it’s rare that” claim with just one example.

    I was well the past the point of carefully countering any part of the slop slung by Veritas. I hyper-linked what I could with one Amazon search: 3 books, each with a different approach to the same dialect. Imagine what could be accomplished with five searches! Or ten! Anyone doubting that ridicule was called for can do those searches, and if they remain unpersuaded, they could even venture past the comfortable confines of Amazon. Lumbee, Appalachian, Southern, Latino, Cajun: are you really saying there are no books on these English dialects? If not — if you’re just criticizing my comment itself — I’d argue the above could all be easily inferred from the hyper-links.

  377. Thanks for putting that more pithily, Hat!

  378. marie-lucie says:

    JC: As Trudgill’s paper … shows us, it’s a mistake to identify either the standard with high register or style, or high register or style with the standard.

    I find this mistake is often made in talking about Canadian French: some people in Canada seem to equate “standard” with “academic” or “high register”, which leads them to use stilted vocabulary and syntax inappropriately while in everyday speech French speakers would probably use exactly the same words on both sides of the Atlantic.

  379. I understand that one of the many tactics of the blog’s associates is to disparage the grammar of their opponents, always a last resort when they’re at the losing end.

    And here I was, just about to see the light, to embrace the belief that grammar (as you use the term) is important to logical, critical thinking! But apparently grammar is so insignificant that by criticizing someone’s you reveal yourself to be desperately losing an argument. Whining, it seems, can undermine ministry — especially when the complaint is baseless. Nobody’s been criticizing your grammar, but rather your writing and thinking. An illustration: “the world of reality” is about as ugly a phrase as I’ve ever read, its grammatical perfection notwithstanding. Also, cosseted as you’ve shown yourself to be, you shouldn’t be trying to dole out reality checks, not even elegantly. In fact, you should probably avoid statements about the world altogether.

    I’m flattered that you’ve assiduously perused my comment to detect my grammatical peccadilloes. Of course a grammatical inaccuracy cannot literally be a peccadillo, but I like the word and besides ““When I use a word,…it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

    You like the SAT words you know so much that you use them even when you yourself don’t think they suit your sentences; what any decent reader might casually notice you, unsurprisingly, think requires assiduous perusal; and you’re so eager to show that you can quote perhaps the most famous passage of Through the Looking Glass that you’ll do it even if the sentiment undermines just about every sentence you’ve composed yourself in the same forum: your little flourish reveals all that, while leaving a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who appreciates good prose. This isn’t just ridicule, though it is that too; it’s relevant to the arguments at hand, in that it shows how linguistically limited you remain in spite of the high value you place on Standard English. English statements both more insightful and stylish are made every day in every dialect the language has. To use your own analogy, your Ferrari lacks an engine and even a decent sheen, and you have no idea how to simonize it, let alone get it running.

  380. But he knows that his car is better than your car, and that’s what’s important.

  381. des von bladet says:

    Usagistes often write awfully; signalling has to have a cost. Having given it almost no thought, I assume tge goal is to maintain an in-group sense of elitism while actively discouraging new recruits to dilute the experience.

    (Phillippe Patek watches were exhibited in full page adverts in the Economist every week when I could still even, but I still despise steampunk chronometry.)

  382. Thanks for some apt comments from JC, ml, and others. Yes, upon reflection, my toolkit comparison is just as flawed as the car/watch one. Many analogies are possible, for instance, that of the monoculture in agriculture and forestry, or of industrial standardisation, but they are just analogies, incapable of capturing varieties of language in their many aspects.

  383. Leaving aside disagreements on minor points, I would appreciate if the learned discussants could make this one clear for me. How do linguists apportion the general English vocabulary among the various dialects, especially between Standard English and all others? Is the bulk of Merriam-Webster the exclusive domain of Standard English, or is it considered common property of all dialects?

  384. Standard English is not a dialect in the first place. There are written national standards (each of them a spectrum of registers) which, although not identical, are similar enough from one English-speaking country to another to guarantee full mutual comprehensibility. There are also much more loosely defined spoken standards, each with its own phonological system; their boundaries are fuzzy and they shade into regional and non-“normative” social dialects or accents. Some areas of the English lexicon are “dialectal” in the sense that they are locally or regionally restricted (Texan, Geordie, NYC, etc.); others are “national” (Americanisms, Canadianisms, Australianisms, Britishisms, etc.), but the rest is freely available, or rather stratified into degrees of formality, not divided geographically or socially. It so happens that in formal situations people are more likely to approach whatever is regarded as the “prescribed norm” of a given time and place, but abstract, technical or scienticic vocabulary can also be used in less formal settings and doesn’t have to be accompanied by standard syntax or upper middle class pronunciation.

  385. Veritas odium parit says:

    marie-lucie says:

    “Faux pas means literally ‘false step’ – stepping outside of the approved path (and perhaps bumping into others as a result). That’s a strange thing to “submit” to anyone.”
    What’s wrong with strange?

    That’s what it means literally in French, but it’s rarely used in that sense in English. I think you know that.

    As it’s defined in English it means: an embarrassing social mistake, blunder, and a social blunder.

    I used it in the right sense and I already explained how it could be submitted.

    My terminology might have been a little unorthodox, but that’s how I write. Please, I’m not writing a thesis, this is just revealing repartee on an Internet forum.

    Nota bene: Revealing for me.

  386. Standard English is not a dialect in the first place.

    Why not? It differs in its morphosyntax, not merely in its vocabulary, from other varieties of English. If a variety must be regionally restricted to be called a dialect, then it is not a dialect, but I don’t see why that’s a requirement; likewise, if a variety must be associated with a specific accent (phonetics and/or phonology), then it is not a dialect, but I don’t see why that’s a requirement either. I think Trudgill is entirely right to call it a dialect.

    Some areas of the English lexicon are “dialectal” in the sense that they are locally or regionally restricted

    Indeed, it is possible to create constructs that will not be understood by people of other regions (e.g. AusE Kiwi dole bludge rort probe begins, ScE Please uplift your messages outwith the store) or will be most likely misunderstood (e.g. NAmE Johnny went to the bathroom in his pants). But these are exceptional.

  387. marie-lucie says:

    Piotr, JC: The term dialect does not mean the same thing to everybody. Perhaps it is more typical of Europe to use it in opposition to “national standard”, but among North American linguists (since any regional dialects are quite recent) every socially definable form of speech is a dialect.

  388. Speaking of submitting a faux pas sounds fine to me. For instance:

    “Always scrutinise your writings carefully lest you submit a faux pas for publication”.

  389. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: submit a faux pas for publication

    Perhaps your understanding of faux pas extends to a piece of work. I don’t recall encountering this use in English. I wonder if other native speakers agree with you.

  390. I wouldn’t normally consider a piece of work to be a faux pas, although it could be. But a piece of work could contain a faux pas.

  391. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: I begin to see. For example, if you involuntarily wrote something that could be misunderstood as a personal attack on someone?

  392. I would consider that to be a likely example, but it would be wise to check with the more literate and learned members of the blog :)

  393. I’d say “he submitted a faux pas” would make sense if one submitted for publication a paper which was marred by something personally embarrassing to someone else. The usage by our soi-disant arbiter of correctness, “he should have done a little research rather than submit a faux pas,” grates, both for ‘submit’ and for ‘faux pas’. I wouldn’t speak of ‘submitting’ a comment in a blog post, and especially not a single statement within a comment. A faux pas might be accidentally giving away a commenter’s name (causing them personal discomfort), but not an erroneous statement or a typo.

  394. Veritas odium parit says:

    languagehat says:

    “My dear chap, I fail to see what benefit you’re deriving from your visits here. You’re not going to convert anyone else, and no one else is going to convert you.”

    The benefit is immeasurable, and you’re not giving credit to your team of intelligentsia. I learn how they think in their enclave of conformism.

    “And by the way, Veritas, I have frequently changed my mind about things based on the arguments of other commenters here, many of whom are smarter and better-informed than I. The fact that I have not changed my mind based on your arguments certainly says something about one of us.”

    No, it says something about both of us; we have conflicting opinions.

    I’m very proud of my ignorance, it enlightens me to my lack of knowledge. I wonder if your knowledge enlightens you to your ignorance.

    “But he knows that his car is better than your car, and that’s what’s important.”

    I don’t think it does.

    Well, at least we both enjoy Somerset Maugham.

  395. Why not? It differs in its morphosyntax, not merely in its vocabulary, from other varieties of English.

    Of course there is a pan-English standard morphosyntax (with limited “national” or “regional” variation), and a more-orbut there is no standard pronunciation, so at least one necessary component of a “full” dialect (in the strict sense) is missing. It makes more sense to treat, say, “Standard Irish English” or “Standard Australian English” as dialects, and “UK Standard English” used by speakers of the mainstream RP-like accent can be considered a dialect (this is what I presume Trudgill has in mind), but “standard English” in general is a range of supradialectal styles and registers rather than a dialect.

  396. marie-lucie,

    I don’t use the word “dialect” to mean “a non-standard variety”. I’m merely pointing out that there are many dialects of English which could with equal reason be described as “standard”. A dialect is a social or geographical variety distinguished by its vocabulary, morphosyntax and pronunciation. We have a handy term (“accent”) to refer to differences in pronunciation patterns only, not necessarily accompanied by lexical and grammatical differences. That’s because English pronunciation is standardised at best on a national scale (and even the pronunciation of most people in any English-speaking country can’t be descibed as completely consustent with the “national norm”). By contrast, Standard English vocabulary, morphosyntax and spelling are shared globally. I prefer to call Standard Engish a style, since this kind of “standardisation” refers primarily to written (“literary”) language, does not include pronunciation at all, and is available to speakers of any dialect if they feel the need to communicate in a very formal way.

  397. It makes more sense to treat, say, “Standard Irish English” or “Standard Australian English” as dialects,

    Except that then you have to call the SE of Ireland many different dialects, none of which is standard in Ireland, because Ireland lacks a standard accent. Similarly in America, there is an accent with a few of the properties of standard accents in other languages (it is understood everywhere) but lacking in many others (it is not aspirational, and lacking it does not limit your social success). Indeed, there are as many SE accents as there are languages, for there are speakers of English everywhere, and a Polish accent (say) of SE is as much SE as any other (which is not to say that all Poles who speak English speak SE, of course); my mother spoke SE as her L2 with a strong German accent.

    “UK Standard English” used by speakers of the mainstream RP-like accent can be considered a dialect (this is what I presume Trudgill has in mind)

    Definitely not. I do urge you to read the paper: it is only 17 pages and exceedingly clear.

    this kind of “standardisation” refers primarily to written (“literary”) language

    Trudgill gives a figure of 12-15% for people in Britain who are native speakers of SE (in all accents). I know no comparable figures for the U.S., where distinct accents are traditionally called distinct dialects (and indeed tend to follow former dialect boundaries in the East), but I should think it would be rather higher.

    and is available to speakers of any dialect if they feel the need to communicate in a very formal way

    “Available” only in the sense that they can learn to control it as a D2, as Trudgill himself has. It’s true that there aren’t very many differences between SE morphosyntax and that of any other specific dialect of English, but the ones that exist are very salient. If your D1 demands I be, you don’t simply grade into I am when you want to be formal; there is a distinctive switch not different in kind, but only in degree, from switching between an L1 and an L2. This distinction is admittedly somewhat less clear in practice, because many people nowadays have no or few models for D1 formality, though AAVE-speakers can hear preaching in either formal AAVE or formal SE with an AAVE accent (or any other accent, of course). Per contra, as a SE D1 speaker, I control a full range of styles in my dialect, but I control no other dialects, as noted above.

  398. John,

    OK, it’s really a terminological dispute. It’s been a while since I last read Peter Trudgill’s 1999 article, and didn’t remember his argument clearly. Yes, he eliminates all other possibilities and is left with “dialect” as the only remaining option, though he goes on to say that it’s “an unusual dialect in a number of ways” (not having an associated accent being one of them). Note also that he calls it “the dialect of English used in writing” in the last paragraph.

    I have no problem with that if we agree to define “dialect” in such a way that it doesn’t have to be a complete linguistic system. Or one can simply stick to the more general term “variety” and explain which structural features distinguish it from other varieties. There might be a further difficulty, though. There are hardly any truly idiosyncratic features of Standard English. Those listed by Trudgill are shared with many other varieties, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dialect that has most of them, or even all of them, being otherwise non-standard. Standard English can be defined as the sum of forms and features that are accepted as normative globally, rather than by contrasting it with “dialects” sensu stricto.

    I know Peter Trudgill personally and can testify he’s accentwise a Norwich man and proud of it. I hope he doesn’t mind if I tell you of a message he recently received from a Bedford college teacher. She’d made her class do some work based on Trudgill’s research, and they fell so much in love with it that they dressed the classroom wall with blown-up photo of their hero, and converted it into a screensaver too. Several of them have vowed to take linguistics at university. Peter bloody well deserves a little personality cult.

  399. I learn how they think in their enclave of conformism.
    Nous sommes heureux d’être à votre service.

    I’m very proud of my ignorance, it enlightens me to my lack of knowledge.
    New Socrates: I know that I know nothing, and I am proud of it.

  400. OK, it’s really a terminological dispute.

    Well, sure. We have this stock of inherited technical vocabulary, and we have to figure out how to best adapt it to it the facts on the ground, preserving what we can of what the terms meant in the past. (In my own work, I have similar problems with the word “character”.)

    it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dialect that has most of them, or even all of them, being otherwise non-standard

    The list certainly isn’t exhaustive.

    Peter bloody well deserves a little personality cult.

    Amen! whether said /ɑːˈmɛn/ or /eɪˈmɛn/.

    New Socrates: I know that I know nothing, and I am proud of it.

    From The Left Hand of Darkness:

    The person on the path at Otherhord [a sort of monastery] looked with mild curiosity at my nose, and answered, “Then perhaps you’ll want to speak to the Weaver? He’s down in the glade now, unless he went out with the woodsledge. Or would you rather talk first to one of the Celibates?”

    “I’m not sure. I’m exceedingly ignorant—”

    The young man laughed and bowed. “I am honored!” he said. “I’ve lived here three years, but haven’t yet acquired enough ignorance to be worth mentioning.” He was highly amused, but his manner was gentle, and I managed to recollect enough scraps of Handdara lore to realize that I had been boasting, very much as if I’d come up to him and said, “I’m exceedingly handsome…”

    “I meant, I don’t know anything about the Foretellers—”

    “Enviable!” said the young Indweller. “Behold, we must sully the plain snow with footprints, in order to get anywhere. […]”

  401. In my own work, I have similar problems with the word “character”.

    Biologists have similar problems with subspecies, varieties, morphs, and other “infrasubspecific subdivisions”. Everybody who wants to divide a multidimensional continuum is bound to have them.

  402. @John Cowan: There also the pronunciation /ɑːˈmen/.

  403. There is also the question of whether /oˈmeɪn/ and /ɑˈmin/ are also variant pronunciations, or whether they are separate lexemes. As I’ve noted before, at least one person I know has /ʃwɑ/ and /ʃvə/ as distinct lexemes both spelled schwa, the former for the sound, the latter for the Hebrew diacritic.

  404. there is a distinctive switch not different in kind, but only in degree, from switching between an L1 and an L2

    Hat: I perceive that this is a nice instance of rhetorical punctuation. If you found this in a text you were editing, would you move the first comma to after “switch” in accordance with structural punctuation? (Of course some styles would call for removing all the commas.)

  405. Interesting. I’d be tempted to make it “a distinctive switch — not different in kind, but only in degree — from…”; it’s not exactly wrong as is, but it makes me itch.

  406. Veritas odium parit says:

    D.O. says:

    “Nous sommes heureux d’être à votre service.”

    I wonder why you chose to submit this in French? I assume it’s to flaunt your polyglottish knowledge, accordingly you’ve substantiated my point: let me flaunt my knowledge to hide my ignorance.

  407. Apparently our ignorance is bad, while yours is good.

  408. He knows his diamat, you know: if pieces of knowledge are in agreement with diamat, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to diamat, they should be destroyed.

  409. David Marjanović says:

    If this debate were held in a public arena you would be laughed off the stage.

    Debate is whatcha put on de hook to catch de fish.

    It often comes as a surprise to Americans that scientists never hold debates even remotely like those of an American university debate club (or of debate.org). The reason for this is simple: debates establish who is better at rhetorics, not which idea best fits the data.

    which is never the proper method for a winning argument.

    I’m not laughing at you in order to substitute that for a winning argument. I’m laughing at you because you’re funny. 😐

    Standard English is a Ferrari automobile, and non-standard is a Kia. In the world of reality everyone would desire the Ferrari and think it is the much “better” vehicle. You might not, and that’s your prerogative, based on your subjective opinion. However, if we compare the two automobiles with all their components, the Ferrari will win through, in terms of what it can offer.

    See? You are funny.

    Sure, a Ferrari can go faster. That’s an advantage for a few uses – and useless for most others. However, a Ferrari is red almost by definition; red cars can be pretty hard to see in many situations. If I ever end up buying a car, it won’t be Ferrari Red; it will be SCREAMING YELLOW to minimise the risks to other people. A Ferrari is ridiculously expensive; I assume that it’s put together especially well*, justifying part of the price differential – but you mostly pay for the good name, not for the actual quality of the actual thing. Being a racecar, a Ferrari is rather large, a disadvantage whenever you’re not driving it; and it is too low to pass over uneven ground without taking damage. Finally, if you own a Ferrari, people will chuckle about the likely size of your penis.

    * I don’t know that, though. The only expensive car brand that I know has a reputation for exceedingly high quality is Rolls Royce.

  410. Veritas odium parit says:

    “I don’t know that, though. The only expensive car brand that I know has a reputation for exceedingly high quality is Rolls Royce.”

    Well, then you don’t know too much about automobiles. Regardless, I’ll compromise, make the comparison to a Rolls Royce and a Kia, we still know what the better car is, and my point still stands.

  411. David Marjanović says:

    OK. This still leaves the nagging suspicion that even with a Rolls Royce you mostly pay for the good name.

    (And to paint it yellow, you’ll need to be completely immune to peer pressure. :-) )

  412. I’ve been told that there was an era around the turn of the millennium where red Ferraris were regarded as commonplace among the (soi-disant) ‘real’ money, and yellow ones showed you were in the right crowd. (Not just in with it).

    Yellow is faster too, anyone can see that.

  413. Veritas odium parit says:

    David Marjanović says:

    “OK. This still leaves the nagging suspicion that even with a Rolls Royce you mostly pay for the good name.”

    That’s not true, but that’s not the argument.

    My Ferrari/Kia comparison was allegorical. My argument has nothing to do with automobiles, and you know it.

    I can opine that James Joyce is a “better” writer than Dan Brown and you can expostulate endlessly that he isn’t, and you have the right to that misguided opinion. I can’t argue opinions. What I have realized in this entire debate is that your position, and those of other’s on this forum, is based on an ideology rather than the pragmatic differences between better and substandard.

    In a utopian world it would be lovely that these differences didn’t exist, but in the world of reality they do. For this reason the majority of people want to go to the best (better) schools, universities, etc. Your argument isn’t about whether Standard English is better than non-standard, because you’ve essentially admitted that it has certain qualities that would logically define it as being better. You just have an aversion to the word “better”, because it denotes a distinction of superiority that you find offensive. But that offensiveness has nothing to do with the actuality of the fact.

    If that fact didn’t exist, (now I know you’re going to jump on this) you wouldn’t be able to express your opinion as fluently as you and others have on this topic.

  414. You equate non-standard with substandard, but they are not the same.

  415. marie-lucie says:

    JC: You equate non-standard with substandard, but they are not the same.

    Seconded.

    VOP: the majority of people want to go to the best (better) schools, universities, etc.

    Some parents make sacrifices to send their children to such places with great reputations and quite often the children don’t do well there, not because of the academic programs but because of other conditions such as disfunctional social environments.

  416. The problem, Veritas, is that you keep conflating “socially advantageous” with “technically superior”. The two have to be kept conceptually distinct; otherwise we will just keep running round in circles, as we have been at this thread.

    It’s easy to argue that this is the “world of reality”, but to claim that there is no difference between social advantage and technical excellence because “that’s the way it is” is not just lazy; it’s logically incorrect and, to boot, quite self-serving. The conclusion might be the same — “it’s better to have mastery of Standard English” — but the path to the conclusion is totally different.

  417. In your view of the world, Veritas, foot-binding in China was “better” because it was de rigueur and had an extremely high level of social approval. If you wanted to get married you had to get your feet bound (unless you were a Manchu). Everybody agreed that foot-binding was “better”.

    Was it also “technically superior”? No doubt you could argue that it was, because it gave women that wonderful mincing gait and also, apparently, strengthened certain muscles that enhanced the pleasure of sex.

    In the “real world”, foot-binding was just “better”, both socially and technically. That seems to be the type of argument that you’re advancing about Standard English.

  418. What I have realized in this entire debate is that your position, and those of other’s on this forum, is based on an ideology rather than the pragmatic differences between better and substandard.
    Every viewpoint is based on an ideology, even yours.

  419. Veritas odium parit says:

    “Every viewpoint is based on an ideology, even yours.”

    You couldn’t be more mistaken. My opinion isn’t based on an ideology, it’s based on the reality that Standard English is more advantageous.

  420. My opinion isn’t based on an ideology, it’s based on the reality that Standard English is more advantageous.

    That’s just your opinion.

    Mr Veritas, you obviously haven’t changed your mind, nor have you succeeded in changing anyone else’s. But your mantra that Standard English is better than non-Standard English in the same way that a Patek Philippe is better than a Casio or a Ferrari is better than a Kia isn’t becoming any more convincing for being repeated ad nauseam.

    You’re failing to address legitimate and substantive criticisms that have been made of your argument, retreating into potshots on minor points and assertions that while it’s all a matter of opinion, your own opinion is based on reality. I admire your tenacity but you’ve clearly lost the debate. I suggest it’s time to wind it up.

  421. It’s not terribly germane, but these comparisons to fancy watches and cars don’t really seem on point to me. (Does that make them “off point”? I’m not sure.) Speaking standard English has a cost associated with it under certain circumstances, but most of the time it is, at worst, value neutral. On the other hand, having a watch worth ten thousand dollars or a car worth a hundred thousand has some very real opportunity costs; there are things I would much rather spend my money on than a fancy sports car, and I could get a lot of utility just from selling the car and buying something else. On the other hand, I cannot get anything of generic (that is, non situational) value by speaking in a nonstandard variety of English.

    So it seems to me that comparison is only really apt when talking about the watches and cars of people in the 0.1%, for whom* there is really no concern that they can’t afford any everyday object that they might want. I was not born into vast wealth, but I was born into an environment in which I could acquire standard American English as my first language.

    *This “whom” was completely spontaneous and natural in my ideolect.

    Edited just because I can, this being my first comment since the new commenting features were added.

  422. There’s an opportunity cost to learning to jump on one foot, but (a) you paid it a long time ago (assuming you have normal physical development) and (b) you can’t sell it, because it’s neither a saleable object nor a saleable skill. Acquiring a non-standard dialect is much like that.

  423. You couldn’t be more mistaken. My opinion isn’t based on an ideology, it’s based on the reality that Standard English is more advantageous.
    Oh, but you see, my opinion is also not based on an ideology, but on the reality that “advantageous in many circumstances” doesn’t mean “advantageous under all circumstances”, and that “frequently advantageous” and “prestigious” don’t mean “better in all respects”.
    To expand a bit on that – I have seen no-one in this discussion claiming that Standard English isn’t advantageous under many circumstances, or that this doesn’t make Standard English better suited than other varieties for many purposes. It’s just that you equate “prestigious”, “socially useful”, or “being what society at the moment accepts as standard for purposes of business, academic discussion and polite conversation” with “better”, while most of us here don’t seem to do that. Equating these things is as much based on an ideology as not doing it. (Of course, it’s also possible that you belong to those people to whom “ideology” is not a neutral term, but a dirty word meaning “any opinion that differs from mine”.)

  424. Veritas odium parit says:

    Bathrobe says:

    My opinion isn’t based on an ideology; it’s based on the reality that Standard English is more advantageous.

    “That’s just your opinion.”

    You know very well that it’s not “just my” opinion.

    “Mr Veritas, you obviously haven’t changed your mind …You’re failing to address legitimate and substantive criticisms that have been made of your argument, retreating into potshots on minor points and assertions that while it’s all a matter of opinion, your own opinion is based on reality.”

    It’s fascinating how you’ve distorted this debate by manipulating the dialogue with non-sequiturs, straw-man arguments and all sorts of circumlocutory language to counter my one-point argument. Subsequently, you follow your disagreement by admonishing me for acting in the same manner. An impartial party would immediately perceive which side has the more robust argument.

    You said, “That’s just your opinion” when you are quite cognizant that it’s not “just” my opinion; there are others who agree with my position. Furthermore, you and others on this forum have agreed that Standard English is more “advantageous”. Are you now going to dissect the word, advantageous, and come up with some kind of irrelevant derivation of the word that wouldn’t apply to Standard English? As I told Languagehat, I’m getting an immeasurable education from this debate. And as I wrote: “What people believe prevails over the truth.” I can’t fight that truism.

    I’ve implied and stated that Standard English is better than non-standard. I’ve supported that assertion with evidence that was relevant to my position, whereas, you and others have introduced ancillary information, which is essentially a distraction from the topic. There is absolutely nothing abstruse about my argument.

    “You’re failing to address legitimate and substantive criticisms…”

    The criticisms either have no value or are irrelevant to the argument.

    People who speak Standard English benefit from a far wider global reach than non-standard English, a fact that did not just occur.
    Medieval Europe was a mix of unintelligible and rapidly evolving dialects. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. points out, “ If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying.”

    Furthermore, without Standard English, works by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Marlow, et al. would be unintelligible to most English speakers, and certainly to Americans.

    I used the automobile allegory to simplify my position. If you don’t think a Ferrari, or Rolls Royce, is a better vehicle than a Kia, that’s your prerogative; I can’t argue with you. And you certainly can’t argue with me because I think Standard English is better than non-standard.

    We’re just talking past each other. You’ve expounded on the fine attributes of a non-standard dialect, and I concur, but unfortunately those qualities are not recognized by academia in certain contexts. I understand and I’m fascinated with dialects, jargon, slang, and all sorts of registers in language. They’re vibrant and indispensable to our language and I would never argue that point.

    “I admire your tenacity but you’ve clearly lost the debate.”

    We should leave that to an impartial party.

  425. Veritas odium parit says:

    “Oh, but you see, my opinion is also not based on an ideology, but on the reality that “advantageous in many circumstances” doesn’t mean “advantageous under all circumstances”, and that “frequently advantageous” and “prestigious” don’t mean “better in all respects”.”

    Provide one example where Standard English is not advantageous, and elaborate on why it wouldn’t be better.

  426. Hattics, this isn’t getting anyone anywhere. Let’s all just stop. Invincible ignorance is not open to argument.

  427. Seconded.

  428. manipulating the dialogue with non-sequiturs, straw-man arguments and all sorts of circumlocutory language

    This is your standard response to anyone who disagrees with you. It would be useful if you could point to actual examples, which you have so far refused to do. It would also be useful if you could make an intelligent response to specific points raised against your argument, which you simply ignore.

    I agree with John Cowan. There is no use continuing the “debate” as long as Veritas continues to retreat into vague accusations of “twisting the facts” and cracked-record assertions that he is simply “correct”. Let’s just stop here.

  429. …or at least segregate the comment streams that turn into endless battlegrounds into a separate list, so that the recent comments list is not swamped by David God-almighty Foster Wallace and IndoEuropean Gottseibeiuns Controversy Interviews.

    I bet there are a lot of comments to other LH posts that would arouse interest if people found out about them in the recent comments list.

  430. @bathrobe: That doesn’t tell you when the comment was made. I am actually working my way through those, lingering on the promising ones.

    While I Iappreciate the hand-to-hand combat in the high volume threads, I’d like to be able to participate in the recent but obscurer ones also.

  431. Gary: The nonsense is pretty much confined to those two threads. Go back and read any of the older ones and find something to say, and they’ll pop up to the top. There is no such thing as a dead thread here.

  432. marie-lucie says:

    At least in the Indo-European thread it is possible to learn something (if you are interested in that sort of stuff), but this thread is just running around in circles, everybody repeating their position. There is no possibility of compromising or adding relevant new stuff, so there is no point in continuing this! Our host does not like to close threads. I agree that potential commenters should just stop participating in the current vicious circle, no matter how strong the temptation to sound off.

  433. @JC, it does seem like there’s not the same sort of takeup lately as there used to be on comments to threads that are off the front page, because they are very quickly run off the Recent Comments list. This too shall pass.

    Personally I use your Commented-On list as my gateway to the hattery, thanks for building it!

  434. I agree that potential commenters should just stop participating in the current vicious circle, no matter how strong the temptation to sound off.

    I agree too, and I actually stopped posting on the IE thread, but one morning I visited Hat and found that twebty new posts were added there overnight (in my time zone), so I succumbed the temptation and joined the mêlée (or should it be melée now?) again. I’m sorry for that and now I’m leaving both overloaded threads to let them rest dormant.

  435. marie-lucie says:

    Piotr, I meant this particular thread (DFW) from which nobody is learning anything any more. I for one learn a lot from your comments on the IE thread (but you don’t have much to learn from the rest of us there!).

    la mêlée : I think that this word is remaining intact. You can’t just remove the circonflexe from an e without making it into a schwa, which no one does. It is being removed from a, i, o, u unless there is a good reason (according to the reformers) to keep it on. The alternative to mêlée would probably be mélée. I have not looked at the list of 2000+ words – I don’t intend to change my spelling habits, which reflect my own pronunciation.

  436. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t think anyone here has argued that Standard English shouldn’t exist, or that it has no advantages anywhere. The argument is merely that it’s advantageous in some but not all situations.

    Medieval Europe was a mix of unintelligible and rapidly evolving dialects. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. points out, “ If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying.”

    That’s a really vast exaggeration. I have no trouble holding conversations where everyone speaks their own dialect when the other parties grew up at least 600 km away from me. For that matter, I’ve also witnessed conversations – a bit difficult, but still fluent enough – where different people spoke Polish, Czech and Slovak. (The Czechs understand Polish right away, they say. The Poles report they need to get used to the Czech sound system for a day or two, but then it’s no problem. Slovak is intermediate between the two in some of the most noticeable respects.) Polish and Croatian is a harder combination, and more one-sided, but still works better than not.

  437. @David Marjanović:

    I’ve also witnessed conversations – a bit difficult, but still fluent enough – where different people spoke Polish, Czech and Slovak.

    I wanted to link to a previous thread discussing the mutual intelligibility between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, but I’ve despaired of finding it — there have been just too many mentions of the topic across dozens of threads.

  438. I’m curious about what the practical linguistic reality was like in postwar Czechoslovakia. Were children regularly taught the other language in school, or were people just sort of expected to wing it? Was there an asymmetrical situation, with Slovak being treated as a minority language despite its putatively coequal status? Was Russian used at all as an intermediary, in the same way that a Dane and a Swede might speak to each other in English today?

  439. Then I’ll bring up another anecdote to further the spread: When my son started in school here in Sweden, age nine, he got Swedish pronunciation down in short order, of course — but he simply never noticed that some Danish words didn’t exist in Swedish. Because they worked for him, of course, once his class mates got used to them.

    Even years later I heard him talk about his room as mitt varelse (Danish værelse, Swedish rum) and use selv om as a conjunction (Swedish även om = “even if”).

  440. Provide one example where Standard English is not advantageous, and elaborate on why it wouldn’t be better.
    We have talked about that already. There are envrionments where people speak non-standard, and speaking standard makes you stand out and can get you mocked or rejected, the same way as speaking non-standard can make you stand out and get rejected in a standard-speaking environment. I don’t have personal experience of this in an English language situation, but I spent my childhood in an area of Northern Germany where people spoke Low German or mixtures between Low German and Standard German, and I was made fun of for speaking Standard.

  441. @Lars:

    Even years later I heard him talk about his room as mitt varelse (Danish værelse, Swedish rum)

    known to English-speaking science fiction readers through being used (in the very different native Swedish sense) in a series of apologies for fascism.

    and use selv om as a conjunction (Swedish även om = “even if”).

    Not själv om, with phonetic adaptation?

  442. Veritas odium parit says:

    marie-lucie says:

    “…but this thread is just running around in circles, everybody repeating their position.”

    I agree, but I’m not solely the responsible party; therefore, I appreciate your inclusion of everybody.

    I’m trying to respond to rebuttals and questions, but obviously to no avail.

    I’m not here to sabotage the thread, I’m here to try to understand and question a position contrary to mine. However, we’re all talking past each other, but I thought that I was quite amenable with my observations, naturally exclusive of the quid pro quo mockery.

  443. From what I can make out, in Czechoslovak times the entire population of Czechs and Slovaks were passively bilingual: that is, they could understand and read the other language, but typically did not speak or write it. Teaching was done in the native language; national radio and TV broadcasts were scrupulously divided into Czech and Slovak halves. For practical reasons (there are about twice as many Czech-speakers as Slovak-speakers), foreign books and films tended to be translated into Czech but not Slovak, and this continues today, so that most Slovaks remain passively bilingual in Czech but many younger Czechs do not know Slovak. Native speakers of Czech in Slovakia, and native speakers of Slovak in the Czech Republic, have the right to use their languages in official matters. Mutual intelligibility in conversation (with the usual adaptation strategies) remains quite high, as the spoken languages form a dialect continuum.

    Officially there are no Czech/Slovak dual nationals, which led to the odd situation of a Slovak national living in the Czech Republic becoming Minister for Transport for about a year (in a caretaker government) before he was naturalized. There is no current movement for reunification, but in polls about half the people of the two countries taken together consider that division was a mistake.

  444. It continues to boggle my mind that Slovaks, who (as I understand/remember it) were heavily against splitting the country in two, nevertheless voted for a man who pledged to do it, and did in fact do it when elected. Another exhibit of the follies of democracy for this anarchist to cherish.

  445. Better jaw, jaw than war, war, as Churchill said, and I greatly prefer ballots (speaking of doublets) to bullets.

    As for the Slovaks, I think independence was the better of two bad deals on offer. Historically Czechs and Slovaks had been treated equally since the 1970s despite the Slovaks’ technical minority position in Czechoslovakia. The right-wing Czech government wanted to change that in favor of a basically Czech state with only minority rights for Slovaks. In effect, they were in the position of the two boys trying to divide a pizza: one wants it all, the other wants a 50-50 division, so an adult comes along and proposes a compromise of 75-25.

    But of course all sources are biased here, and I may very well be talking nonsense.

  446. Indeed, but I don’t think anyone was threatening war over the dissolution or otherwise of the late Czechoslovakia.

  447. David Marjanović says:

    most Slovaks remain passively bilingual in Czech

    In 2005, I briefly lived in an apartment in Paris rented by a Slovak, then 23 or 25 years old (I forgot), had put plenty of books in it – equal numbers or so in Czech and in Slovak.

    In 2007, a Slovak who was then 19 years old told me he didn’t even count Czech as a foreign language. To be fair, I never heard him say [lʲ], so it’s possible that he was from western Slovakia (which would most likely mean Bratislava in the very southwestern corner of the country – the city itself participates in the Austrian border).

  448. själv om

    Danish selv om a fossilized combination with obligate allegro phonology, and om in the sense of “if” is obsolete — the compound is not transparent to a nine year old. (Om is still used in the related sense of “whether”).

    I could conceivably have analyzed the Danish (written) form and come up with själv om as a sort of translation loan, back when I was learning Swedish myself — if so, I don’t remember it.

  449. Veritas odium parit says:

    David Marjanović says:

    Medieval Europe was a mix of unintelligible and rapidly evolving dialects. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. points out, “ If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying.

    “That’s a really vast exaggeration. I have no trouble holding conversations where everyone speaks their own dialect when the other parties grew up at least 600 km away from me.”

    This comment is a perfect example of why this thread will be in constant perpetuity ad nauseam, because of these argumentum ad absurdum comments.

    First, you’re asserting that Hirsch exaggerated his information. Do you have other information that would disprove his claim?
    Second, You can’t compare today’s dialects with those of the medieval era. Furthermore, the differences today are mostly grammatical, but other than that the dialects are not mutually unintelligible as they were five or six hundred years ago.
    Although in Italy Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects are quite unintelligible to northern Italians and to Italians in general who do not speak those dialects.

  450. marie-lucie says:

    VOP: If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying.

    I too think that this is a gross exaggeration. It might be appropriate to places like present-day New Guinea where most of the population lives in narrow valleys separated from each other by steep mountains covered with thick jungle, so that transportation and communication are very difficult and have always been so, and even related languages can be very different from each other.

    You mention Italy before the unification, but in addition to geographical obstacles (not quite so important as in New Guinea) the peninsula was politically divided for many centuries so that few people travelled outside their region. Within each region though, there was some linguistic unity centered on regional capitals (and also the influence of Tuscan as a literary language). I don’t know the details of Germany and Austria during the same periods, but similarly, the situation was not on a par with New Guinea’s.

    In Southern France there were dialects of Occitan, and although in a way “each village had its own dialect”, differences between individual villages were minimal and someone could have travelled on foot or in a horse carriage from Bordeaux to Marseille, going through hundreds of communities without encountering serious difficulties in understanding or making themselves understood.

  451. In India the cliche is that 100 km takes you to mutual unintelligibility.

    he city itself participates in the Austrian border

    “Where is the Hungarian border, Johnny?”

    “In the park with my aunt, and my mother doesn’t like it!”

  452. Veritas odium parit says:

    marie-lucie says:

    “You mention Italy before the unification…”

    No, I did not, I referred to the present.

    In Naples Italy, and in the Campania region, mostly everyone speaks the Neapolitan dialect. The dialect is spoken by educated and non-educated Italians. The difference is that the educated Italians can easily alternate from Standard Italian to the dialect. The Neapolitan dialect is not clearly understood by Italians in the other regions of Italy. The Sicilian dialect is so distinctive it is considered a separate language from Standard Italian.

    Conversely, the Milanese dialect is mostly unintelligible to the Southern Italians.

  453. David Marjanović says:

    You can’t compare today’s dialects with those of the medieval era. Furthermore, the differences today are mostly grammatical, but other than that the dialects are not mutually unintelligible as they were five or six hundred years ago.

    Where are you taking “mostly grammatical” from? The sound systems vary on a much smaller scale than the grammar. 50 km to the west of where I grew up, people consistently turn initial [s] into [h]. 50 km to the east, all the old diphthongs become monophthongs – but two diphthongs that have merged for me are kept separate there (as two different monophthongs). About 50 km in any direction, and the fortis/lenis distinction goes haywire. For noticeably different grammar I’d have had to go 500 or 600 km west or northwest.

    When the Swiss speak, however, I understand about half when I try really hard.

  454. First, you’re asserting that Hirsch exaggerated his information. Do you have other information that would disprove his claim?

    Veritas, do you have any information that would substantiate Hirsch’s claim?

    Here’s a longer quotation from Hirsch’s essay:

    If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying. A dialect map for the fourteenth century would show isoglosses marking off domains of mutual unintelligibility between speakers … What’s more, these languages changed radically over time. A fourteenth-century Rip Van Winkle waking from a sleep of a hundred – rather than twenty – years might find it hard to understand the speech of his children’s grandchildren.

    Now, I don’t know enough about languages in Mediaeval Europe to authoritatively state that Hirsch is wrong about mutual intelligibility. But “four villages away” is very difficult to believe, and the idea that a language could change enough in only a century to cause serious comprehension difficulties is frankly incredible.

    On the other hand, what Hirsch says about “isoglosses” is just nonsense — he clearly doesn’t understand what the word means. This misuse of terminology is revealing: it shows that Professor Emeritus Hirsch is a common or garden variety bullshitter — someone who speaks with an air of calm authority on a subject he knows nothing about.

  455. marie-lucie says:

    VOP: About Italian dialects (possibly separate languages), the reason they are still alive and well is that unification is recent (about 150 years old).

  456. We actually have some insight on language variation from medieval times, from texts written in dialect or with dialect influence, and if you look at (say) Middle English or Middle High German, texts written 100s of kilometers apart are different, but mutually understandable. So “three or four villages apart” looks like a huge exaggeration (except, of course, if the next villages were across a language border).

  457. what Hirsch says about “isoglosses” is just nonsense — he clearly doesn’t understand what the word means. This misuse of terminology is revealing: it shows that Professor Emeritus Hirsch is a common or garden variety bullshitter

    I’d say that’s a little harsh: it looks to me like a minor mistake, using isogloss in place of isogloss bundle. One isogloss doesn’t make for mutual unintelligibility, but a fat enough bunch of them does.

    The term isogloss is a misnomer anyway.

  458. The term isogloss is a misnomer anyway

    That’s interesting … why?

  459. marie-lucie says:

    Hirsch: A dialect map for the fourteenth century would show isoglosses marking off domains of mutual unintelligibility between speakers …

    I don’t see this as ambiguous. He clearly means “isogloss bundles”, not each single isogloss independently separating zones of mutual unintelligibility.

    It is true that the term “isogloss”, literally ‘same speech’, is a misnomer as it is a line separating two linguistic zones on the basis of a single difference (therefore having no feature of its own), unlike for instance “isobar” which indicates ‘same pressure’, a single shared feature along a given line. However, “isogloss” once defined (rather than etymologized) still has a useful technical meaning.

  460. It separates areas showing contrasting features, while other “iso-” lines in scientific usage (isotherms, isobars, isobaths), are contour lines connecting points that have the same value of something. Greek ἴσος means ‘equal’ (hence isosceles, isomorphism, isopod, isotope etc.)

  461. I guess “heterogloss” just hasn’t caught on.

  462. marie-lucie says:

    MM: Neither has “homogloss”.

  463. And nobody thought of schizogloss, which is perhaps just as well.

  464. Schizoglossia, or black man speak with forked tongue.

  465. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Thank you for looking up schizoglossia. The word does not seem to have caught on, as I had never seen or heard it before. Sociolinguists discuss the phenomenon of disliking one’s own socially disfavoured speech under the topic of diglossia (the presence of two quite distinct social varieties of a language), a word which has no remotional connotations in itself. Schizoglossia would be too close to schizophrenia to avoid the connotation of severe mental disturbance affecting speech.

  466. The construction of “isogloss” seems fine to me. Isotherms, isobars, etc. are lines that run perpendicular to the direction in which the temperature, pressure, or whatever is changing. That is the same effective meaning as isogloss. The point of confusion appears to arise from quantities like temperature, pressure, or elevation (almost) always change continuously, whereas discontinuities in language are commonplace. Nevertheless, I think that the term “isogloss” seems perfectly well founded (and I understood it immediately the first time I encountered it, by analogy to my understanding of isobars and such.)

  467. There are lots of “misnomers” in science, but nobody gives a damn about their being misnomers as long as they have been co-opted for successful communication. Atoms aren’t really ἄτομοι, biological evolution doesn’t consist in unfolding a predetermined grand plan, and the laryngeals are not really laryngeal (not all of them, at any rate).

  468. marie-lucie says:

    Etymology is not everything: once a word is created and passes into the language, its origin becomes irrelevant as its semantic content evolves through usage.

    That’s why its form (phonology and morphology) is the major clue that links it to its origin and its cognates, rather than its semantics.

  469. Misnomers might be really confusing for the students, though. Things like heat capacity, exchange forces, and second quantization are really confusing. Maybe by the time one encounters second quantization they learn to pay no attention to what different things are called and go straight to the definition, but that cannot be said for heat capacity.

  470. And when electrons travel from A to B, we say that “electric current” flows from B to A.

  471. I agree that “heat capacity” is bad, but what’s wrong with “second quantization”? I found the meaning to be perfectly natural the first time I encountered it. As to the sign of the current, Ben Franklin had no way to tell which kind of charge it made sense to call negative and which positive; he had a even chance of getting it right, and he didn’t.

    http://xkcd.com/567/

  472. I know. But later generations found it more practical to leave the convention as it was than to “repair” it. Frozen accidents of history account for a lot of our terminology.

  473. The sign problem with the electron charge is the best known example, but there are many ugly historical artifacts in the standard units of electromagnetism. Many years of teaching E&M has made them second nature to me, but I still dislike them.

  474. Well, this maybe not the place to discuss “second quantization”, but the reason I dislike it is that nothing is being quantized for the second time, it is just the different representation of the same thing. Maybe this is the case where tastes vary.

  475. Electromotive force is not a force; lead pencils do not contain lead; guinea pigs are not pigs; koala bears are not bears; peanuts are not nuts; Arabic numerals originated in India; the list goes on.

  476. marie-lucie says:

    But all those things and beings are very similar, or somewhat linked by association, to those designated by the plain word. In the case of Arabic numerals, they may have originated elsewhere but were transmitted to Europe by Arab scholars. These links are usually more memorable than scientific ones which are often not perceivable by the human senses. For instance, the panda bear ‘s closest relative is not a bear species or subspecies but another animal which is not only much smaller and of a different colour but much less bear-like in general appearance.

    Classifying species then is like classifying words: similar appearance is often misleading, leading to “faux amis”, while “cognates”, the result of evolution from a common ancesstor, are often quite different from each other in sight or sound.

  477. For instance, the panda bear ‘s closest relative is not a bear species or subspecies but another animal which is not only much smaller and of a different colour but much less bear-like in general appearance.

    That turned out not to be the case. Giant pandas are indeed bears; their nearest relatives are South American spectacled bears, which with pandas constitute the top-level division of Ursidae. Red pandas are musteloids, related to weasels, raccoons, and skunks. They both eat bamboo, but that’s convergent evolution.

  478. marie-lucie says:

    Well, to err is human.

    Was eating bamboo the only thing the true and fake pandas had in common? in that case I understand the conclusion was hasty. Do you know more about the classification criteria?

  479. Needless to say, countless features they have in common are ancestral (inherited from the common ancestor of all carnivorans, all mammals, all vertebrates, etc.), so for example facts such as “both red and giant pandas are furry, feed their cubs with milk and have four limbs” are not particularly revealing. The question is how they should be subgrouped within Carnivora. The primary split within Carnivora is into Feliformia (“cat-like”) and Caniformia (“dog-like”), and diagnostic anatomical innovations place both pandas on the dog side of the division. Further subgrouping based on morphological characteristics is difficult because many carnivorans lead similar lifestyles resulting in convergent adaptations. Even the famous “false thumb” that both pandas have (and adaptation so unique that its independen development in different taxa seems unlikely) is in fact a dramatic example of convergence. We now have fossil evidence that the ancestors of red pandas developed a pseudothumb before they turned herbivorous; it was an adaptation for tree-climbing, not for gripping bamboo stalks. However, as they switched to bamboo-eating, it came in handy for manipulating bamboo, just like a similar feature evolved by the giant panda for this particular function.

    The recent reclassification of carnivorans is based on molecular rather than anatomical or behavioral data. DNA sequencing is no longer expensive, DNA analysis provides a neatly uniform framework for comparing all species, and since most substitutions in DNA sequences are invisible to natural selection, it’s easier to rule out adaptive convergence. Of course molecular taxonomy has its own problems (and statistical techniques developed to cope with them), but its generally more reliable than morphological comparison. David Marjanović can correct my amateurish explanation and add a lot to it.

  480. David Marjanović says:

    We now have fossil evidence that the ancestors of red pandas developed a pseudothumb before they turned herbivorous; it was an adaptation for tree-climbing, not for gripping bamboo stalks.

    The once mighty red panda empire. I recommend the whole article to everyone; it mentions that spectacled bears have false thumbs, too.

    generally more reliable than morphological comparison

    I wouldn’t say so; it’s much easier to do, however, and generally easier to get right. Phylogenetic analysis of morphological data is simply a huge amount of work; in most of the cases where molecular data revealed big surprises, that work had never been done.

    Avian family tree

    Already slightly outdated in that neoavian phylogeny isn’t a perfect tree.

    (Note the second author’s interesting name.)

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