DESCRIPTIVISM AS SLAVE MORALITY.

Mark Liberman at the Log quotes a message from a correspondent who, after some high-minded insults (“disingenuous … smug … misrepresentations …”), gets down to brass tacks:

At the end of the day, Descriptivism appears merely to be another form of Nietzsche’s concept of slave morality, which is the dominant morality of our day. Emily Bender’s remarks, as quoted in your post of 10/28/06, offer a typically tedious, humorless, and self-righteous example of this type of morality. Descriptivism, like most such ideologies, merely reflects the values and tendencies of the society it serves. In this case, those tendencies are a frantic race to the intellectual bottom, where language and the Humanities are concerned; a perversion of the concept of democracy; a mutation of the virus neophilia; and a telling instance of that great logical fallacy of modern times: Post hoc, ergo hoc melius.

I continue to be fascinated and baffled by this particular form of mental derangement. It’s harmless, I suppose, but the irrational conflation of grammar and morality is common enough it must serve some basic need (and I note with amusement the accompanying delusion that tossing around italicized Greek and Latin shows one’s own superior nature). At any rate, read Mark’s post for a nice demolishing of both “Kevin”‘s misapplication of Nietzsche’s ideas and Nietzsche’s own mistaken etymologies.
Personal to “Kevin”: if neophilia were a virus name, it would not be italicized according to AMA style, and “Humanities” should not be capitalized and your Latin is ungrammatical and says the opposite of what you want it to say.

Comments

  1. Well, that’s just, like, your Post hoc, ergo hoc opinionus, man.

  2. John Emerson says:

    Shut the fuck up, Josh. You have no frame of reference here. [*Josh will get the joke*]
    The grammar / morality identification is rooted in grades 6-8, where every English / French / Chinese teacher tries to get their students to abandon a few key features of the local dialect and oral as opposed to written language. Always unsuccessfully, in the vast majority of cases. But this kind of training is part of what selects people for advancement within the educational and class system. Rejecting it is like rejecting the established order, and anyone who does that risks slipping back into the unwashed, barbarous mass of the unsaved.
    Ivan Illych’s “Vernacular Values” says some interesting things about how this worked in early modern Europe, but this kind of process is pervasive and can be seen in China at last as far back as 500 BC.

  3. Poor old Nietzsche. He deserves a lot of what he gets, but not this.

  4. Well, if we understand virus to be a Latin word here (‘poison, slime, gunk’), then neophilia needs no capital letter — but then the italics are mysterious, since neophilia is a perfectly cromulent English word.
    See also my comment at the Log.

  5. david waugh says:

    I have often heard that Nietszche wasn’t anti-semitic. He seems to be fairly anti-semitic in these quotations and also to have been an early exponent of the Aryan theory (originally a linguistic theory) which later appears in Nazism.

  6. Arthur Crown says:

    …the irrational conflation of grammar and morality is common enough it must serve some basic need.
    The basic need is to conflate morality with whatever is being talked about. In architecture, for example, modernism is justified all over the place on moral grounds. Adolf Loos wrote one of his great essays, Ornament And Crime, on those lines in about 1910. The critic Kenneth Frampton once said, ‘remember, it isn’t called Ornament IS Crime’, but it might just as well have been.
    I wrote a comment about Mark Liberman’s piece, at Language Log (where I’m Les S. Moore).

  7. John Emerson says:

    Like many others of his time, Nietzsche conflated languages, nations, cultures, peoples, and nations, and he seemed to think of these groups as having very definite qualities. To me that was his mistake, not anti-Semitism especially (and he also says many good things about Jews). He was also anti-German, anti-Christian, and anti-modern, and he mostly seemed to be pro any group just in order to set up being anti some other group. He was just happier with the anti stance.
    I still like my summary: he showed that Christians that they were really Jews deep down, and he showed the free-thinkers that they were really Christians deep down, and that way he succeeded in insulting pretty much everyone in Germany.

  8. fimus scarabaeus says:

    Every man wants his freedom to be at the top of the heap, but he doth want to have dominion, otherwise known as domination, so those that they can spout their knowledge to to laud it over those that fail to grasp language, it be so in each of the disciplines.
    Descriptivism / Presciptivism is just another schoolyard game played by the older kids on the quad/campus. He who gets the the most flags waiving is deemed the winner.

  9. John, the pedant who recontextualized my descriptivism, I can’t go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
    [The idea of reframing Lebowski as a conflict of linguistic ideologies is as tempting as it is bad. Or vice versa.]

  10. I’m talking about drawing a schwa in the sand, dude.
    (I’m sorry — I couldn’t help myself.)

  11. That should be “Dude,” shouldn’t it?

  12. For “more on the relationships among Viennese intellectuals, progressive politics, plain buildings and plain writing”, see “The evolution of disornamentation“, 2/21/2005.

  13. John Emerson says:

    I just used your Lebowski quote over on Crooked Timber. (Not “yours”, exactly, but I went there from here and you had just reminded me.)

  14. Aw, man. That German philosopher really tied the diverse humanistic disciplines together.

  15. Perhaps I should shoulder some of the blame for this. “Kevin” left a similar comment (under the moniker “A Toussenel”) on my post “On Prescriptivism”. Note that my acknowledgement that his comment is ‘somewhat more intelligent’ compares to an earlier bit of trollish abuse. I didn’t even bother responding to the Nietzsche stuff.

  16. Also, Kevin’s Latin is not ungrammatical: ‘hoc’ here is the ablative of comparison (e.g. from Wiki, ‘Cornelia est fortior puella Flaviā’, Cornelia is a stronger girl than Flavia). Kevin’s Latin says, ‘After this, therefore better than this.’
    Finally, correcting Nietzsche’s etymologies is like shooting fish in a barrell, and as Slawkenbergius observes there, beside the point.

  17. Arthur Crown says:

    ML: see “The evolution of disornamentation”
    Yet another great post.
    But if Strunk=Mies, then surely E.B.White=…not…Philip Johnson? Aahhh! Analogy to Miesian modernism is a good argument against Strunk &White (a picture is worth a thousand words).
    Yes, Vienna was the place to live in those days, like NY now, maybe, but with better cake. Wittgenstein dabbled in architecture in his early twenties. He did some brilliant work, and gave it up. He knew it wasn’t worth his full attention, he just wanted to learn enough to instruct Loos where he was going wrong. On the other hand, if Adolf Loos and Karl Krauss were here today they would have great blogs. Wittgenstein? I don’t think so.

  18. Also, Kevin’s Latin is not ungrammatical
    Really? OK, I bow to your superior Latinity. Sorry, “Kevin”!

  19. “And I note with amusement”…was there ever a more supercillious phrase?
    Could you explain to us what is delusionary about “tossing around” Greek or Latin phrases? Perhaps you’d agree to extend the same qualifier to your oft quoted Russian?
    The only one deluded as to their own superior nature is he who, through dismissive convenience, finds the messenger easier to oppose than the message!

  20. “Kevin”? Is that you?
    I have nothing against quoting foreign words and phrases; as you note, I do it all the time. I find it amusing when people feel compelled to show off their allegedly superior culture in contexts like this. Particularly when they make mistakes in doing so.

  21. IANAB (biologist), but I’m pretty sure that binomial nomenclature is usually italicised. David Marjanović, OM will most likely be able to set me right (he usually does).

  22. Arthur C. Crown says:

    ‘Kevin’, are you there? They’re being so rude to you. Possibly it’s because being mean to Mark Liberman is like mugging Father Christmas. But, you initiated a great blogging moment, so thanks for that.

  23. I’m talking about drawing a schwa in the sand, dude.
    Someone ought to assign IPA symbols to famous figures. Clearly we’ve pegged The Dude’s spot on the list, but there’s no reason to stop there.

  24. And who are you to judge whether he/she’s alleged culture is superior or not, based solely upon the inclusion of a foreign phrase or two? It seems certain pedants wear their learning less lightly than others.

  25. John Emerson says:

    The Coens discovered Tara Reid, you know, in this very movie. Was she that way before she played Bunny Lebowski? Did they put her on the downward path?

  26. binomial nomenclature is usually italicised
    Ah, but viruses have not been assigned binomial nomenclature since 1966, when the International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses was established. This is the kind of thing a true pedant has to know.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    And “neophilia” wouldn’t fit into the International Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature anyway, even though I know very little about that code.
    Back to the topic:
    Nietzsche, alter Fascho-Fritz, lach dir ins irre Fäustchen! Wir haben uns übermenschelt. — Ernst Jandl
    (Yes, that is a diminutive of a verb in there. Sort of. I think.)

  28. David Marjanović says:

    While I am at it, post hoc, ergo melius would have sufficed. The extra hoc looks like an attempt to squeeze a 3rd-person personal pronoun into the phrase, and that’s so unlike Latin…

  29. In fact, the Coen brothers discovered, years and years before The Big L, a young lady named Bunny Lebowski for whom they’ve helped engineer a stunning Kaufmanesque “career” in character as Tara Reid. Their film was only the end of act I. It’s an open secret in the industry, cousin in that sense to Roderick Jaynes (figuratively and literally; Rod and Bunny share an uncle), but IMDB keeps it hushed up.

  30. “an attempt to squeeze a 3rd-person personal pronoun into the phrase, and that’s so unlike Latin”
    I’m afraid this is nonsense, David.
    On the origin of the phrase:
    Here: “Antoine Augustin Cournot (1801-1877) avait coutume de définir par une maxime latine : post hoc, ergo melius hoc.”
    And here (pdf): “Il s’agit là bien sûr d’un sophisme, d’un sophisme ordinaire constitutif de la mentalité proprement moderne, dont Louis Weber, en 1913, a donné la formule: “Post hoc, ergo melius hoc”—”Aprés cela, donc mieux (ou meilleur) que cela”. [Louis Weber, Le Rythme du progrès (1913), pp. 22-24.]”
    God, anyone would think I’m defending this guy.

  31. I might add, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, that it makes rhetorical sense to italicise ‘neophilia’ both as a non-naturalised word and for speaker-emphasis, regardless of AMA conventions; and even the capitalisation of ‘Humanities’ serves the purpose of ironic hypostasis. I appreciate that LH and his readers may not like “Kevin’s” sentiments, but these stylistic and linguistic nitpicks are simply not very forceful.

  32. so, does posting a string of advertisements in chinese count as showing one’s own superior nature, or is as i think it is: just plain weird.

  33. hilding says:

    Off-topic
    Here is something funny about Miklukho-Maklai and New Guinean languages (in Russian). I guessed it would be as pleasing to your omnivorous taste as it was to mine.

  34. God, anyone would think I’m defending this guy.
    That’s OK, we all understand that if you’re too picky about your clients you won’t have any clients. That’s the nature of being a Public Language Defender.

  35. Here is something funny about Miklukho-Maklai and New Guinean languages
    Thanks, that was great. For those who don’t read Russian, the gist is that Miklukho-Maklai, the first to study the Papuan language Bongu, seems to have learned a simplified variant suitable for communication with foreigners, and misunderstood/misheard a number of words to boot, so that there was a special “Maklai language” the locals had to learn. The bolded sentence in the middle of the post says that while both Maklai and the locals used the word kiringa to mean ‘woman,’ Maklai thought it was a Papuan word, while the locals assumed it was Russian.

  36. “tedious, humorless, and self-righteous”
    Wow. That is some serious irony.
    Anyway, say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.

  37. John Emerson says:

    Don’t worry about Q, he’s a nihilist. Harmless.
    Peter Freuchen (I think) was taught a pidgin version of an Inuit language. When he appeared, communication was very limited. The Inuit conferred furiously for three days and then proceeded to teach him (and each other) the new pidgin they had devised.

  38. Throbert McGee says:

    I think you can make a case for italicizing “neophilia” on the first usage, in order to signal the reader “this is not a typo; it’s a word I made up (or an existing word that I’m using in an unusual sense) just for the occasion.”
    Similarly, I prefer to boldface Cyrillic Russian and italicize the Latin transliteration when they occur in the midst of English text, especially with a phrase like во рту (vo rtu, “in the mouth”), just to hopefully avoid confusing the reader.

  39. A. Crown says:

    …bolded…
    Did you make up that word, Hat? It’s good, I’ll start using it as soon as I’ve figured out how to bold things.

  40. Throbert McGee says:

    Also, notwithstanding the fact that there is precedent for the phrasing post hoc, ergo hoc melius, I would’ve gone with ergo melius quam hoc just as a kindness to readers. (That is, using an explicit than, and with the same word order as in English.)
    Similarly, if I were going to say it po-russki, I’d use:
    после этого, поэтому лучше ЧЕМ ЭТО
    Instead of:
    после этого, поэтому лучше ЭТОГО
    Although both are grammatical, I think the first version is possibly less confusing for people whose Russian is rusty.

  41. Terry Collmann says:

    I liked the cakes joke.

  42. Did you make up that word, Hat? It’s good, I’ll start using it as soon as I’ve figured out how to bold things.
    I did not make it up, but it appears to be proofreading jargon (picked up in a previous life as a proofreader), since it’s not in the dictionaries. And in HTML, you bold things by putting them between angle-bracketed b and /b, thus:
    <b>bold</b&gt
    becoming
    bold

  43. marie-lucie says:

    … Miklukho-Maklai, the first to study the Papuan language Bongu, seems to have learned a simplified variant suitable for communication with foreigners …
    The Canadian writer Farley Mowat spent some time with an Inuit group who did the same thing with him and started to use the simplified version among themselves (at least within his hearing). He was feeling proud of picking up the language very fast, especially since other outsiders had complained to him about how difficult Inuktitut was to learn, until he went to another town and heard the real Inuktitut in all its complexity.

  44. I’ve got to keep an eye out for chances to say “emboldened” in re HTML now.
    Though that might confuse folks into thinking that I mean bold and italic.

  45. John Emerson says:

    Marie-Lucie’s story is the same as mine, except that I got the name wrong.
    I am very fond of Mowat, flaws and all.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Who is Peter Freuchen that you could confuse his name with Farley Mowat’s?

  47. John Emerson says:

    I’ve read about three books about the Inuit, and they wrote two of them.
    “People of the Deer” is a wonderful book.

  48. a. Crown says:

    Ah. .

  49. a. Crown says:

    Thank you.

  50. a. Crown says:

    Thank you.

  51. a. Crown says:

    Thank you.

  52. You’re welcome!

  53. marie-lucie says:

    i read People of the Deer some years ago but don’t recall that FM had a co-author. Maybe it’s my poor memory?

  54. John Emerson says:

    Our wires are crossed. Freuchen wrote one, Mowat wrote the second, and someone else wrote the third. I thought that Freuchen had told the story, but it was Mowat.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, John!

  56. Ah, but viruses have not been assigned binomial nomenclature since 1966, when the International Committee on Nomenclature of Viruses was established. This is the kind of thing a true pedant has to know.

    I lounge corrected.
    I’m eagerly awaiting the day that gene therapy will allow me to become a pedant the easy way.
    Peter Freuchen, Danish Greenland explorer. Married an Inuit, so his Inuktitut can’t have been all bad.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Precisely: the story was not about him at all.

  58. Arthur Crown says:

    By the way, for Mark Liberman & Language Hat, just in case they are not yet convinced that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic, John S. Wilkins in his delightfully forthright and interesting science blog links (via another blog) to the following letter written by Nietzsche to his anti-Semitic brother-in-law:
    You have committed one of the greatest stupidities—for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy. … It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings. I have recently been persecuted with letters and Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheets. My disgust with this party (which would like the benefit of my name only too well) is as pronounced as possible.

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