FRY ON LANGUAGE.

Some of you may remember a post from last year in which I marveled at the Fry and Laurie sketch Language Conversation; I am happy to report that Stephen Fry, in his new blog, has a post called “Don’t Mind Your Language…” in which he deals seriously (well, as serious as Fry ever gets, which is serious wrapped in a delicious coating of good humor and brilliant wit) with the same topic. It is a long post and I urge you to consume every morsel of it; here I will excerpt a passage that, for reasons obvious to anyone who has spent any time here, gave me particular delight:

Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on “none of them is of importance”. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. …

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.
The worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: ‘He actioned it that day’ for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not ‘action’? ‘Because it’s ugly,’ whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for ‘clarity’. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what ‘Five items or less’ means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind.

“It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it”: exactly. That’s a fine summary of everything I’ve tried to say about language prejudice in this blog.
I do have a minor quibble about his example of semantic change that not even the most barnacle-encrusted pedant could object to: “I don’t mind either that the word ‘meld’ is now being used as a kind of fusion of melt and weld, instead of in its original sense of ‘announce’. Meld has changed … that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong in language, any more than there’s right or wrong in nature.” The sentiment is unimpeachable, but meld has not changed in meaning; rather, there is a very old verb meld “To make known (by speech), reveal, declare” (related to German melden ‘to report’), which went out of use 600 years ago, and a very new verb meld “To merge, blend; to combine or incorporate”—probably, as Fry says, a fusion of melt and weld—that first appears in 1936 (D. T. Lutes, Country Kitchen xi. 234 “Apple, currant, and raisin all melded into one sweetly tart aroma”). I like to use bead for this purpose, with its dramatic transition in sense from ‘prayer’ to ‘little round thing.’
But never mind that; I enthusiastically second his eloquent peroration: “If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.”
Thanks for the link, Paul!

Comments

  1. I would quibble also with his disinterest in the difference between “infer” and “imply.” That’s like saying “throw” and “catch” are pretty much the same thing.

  2. If people start using “throw” and “catch” the same, they will mean the same thing. And people will lament the loss of a valuable distinction and wring their hands and write letters to the editor, and the language will go on its merry way. It seems to be very hard for people to assimilate the knowledge that language change may cause momentary confusion to generations that aren’t used to the new forms, but it never causes an inability to communicate. A distinction that is lost here is regained there. There are always multiple ways to say things. Redundancy is a feature of language, not a bug.

  3. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Stephen Fry also has a podcast which you can have delivered to your computer.
    I read something earlier today about this debate (sort of), it’s from the wiki article on Vernacular:

    Leon Battista Alberti’s Grammatichetta vaticana was written between 1437 and 1441, but not printed until 1908, which is why its influence is debated. Alberti was concerned with showing that dialects also had structures by mapping them onto Latin, whereas his fellow grammarians Giovanni Francesco Fortunio (Regole grammaticali della vulgar lingua, 1516) and Pietro Bembo (Prose della vulgar lingua, 1525) strove to establish a norm dialect that would qualify for becoming the Italian national language.

    I’m not knowledgeable enough about the history of linguistics (no kidding) to tell whether that’s true, or if the person who wrote the wiki article just liked to think it was. Alberti was indeed a great researcher, not least on the subject of perspective.

  4. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There was a post on Language Log a couple of months ago that had examples of infer meaning the same as imply from several centuries ago, 16th c. I think it was. Look it up, I think it was Mark Liberman’s post. Anyway, it showed that anyone who makes snotty comments about people who don’t know the diff are on pretty shaky ground.

  5. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    ‘is’

  6. “If people start using ‘throw’ and ‘catch’ the same, they will mean the same thing.”—LH
    Sure, but if your kid starts saying “catch” to mean “throw,” you gently correct her. I understand the idea of language change, but at what point do you stop pushing back at heretofore incorrect usage? Isn’t there a difference between words gradually becoming enriched with new layers of meaning, and words morphing by misuse into their opposites? (And as a copy editor, do you correct infer-imply mixups, or just let the drift happen?)
    On preview @AJP, I’m not being snotty, I’m just raising the questions above. I’m not sure the 16th century usage validates misuse today, however, if the words have separated into distinct meanings during the intervening centuries.

  7. fimus scarabaeus says:

    Dah brung /took

  8. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to imply that you were being snotty, Martin.

  9. I’m not sure the 16th century usage validates misuse today
    It’s not just 16th century usage, though. The MWDEU provides examples from every century since. Not that we need them: we all see INFER to mean IMPLY almost every day; it’s just now a (small) segment of the population is convinced the usage is wrong.
    About copy-editing, I would “correct” the usage in question but only to appease that segment of the population who’d be offended (because of their mistaken beliefs about language). No one else would care either way, so why not? (Same for COMPRISE, DISINTERESTED, et al.) One shouldn’t go about waging linguistic warfare with others’ texts.

  10. Redundancy is a feature of language, not a bug.
    Nice line.

  11. “Redundancy is a feature of language, not a bug.”
    and Redundancy, diversity, flexibility are features of human nature, not a bugs.

  12. And as a copy editor, do you correct infer-imply mixups, or just let the drift happen?
    Oh, of course I correct it when I’m wearing my copyeditor hat; that’s what they pay me for.

  13. John Emerson says:

    There’s Jekyll Hat by day and Hyde Hat by night, and then at midnight he turns into a pumpkin.

  14. John Emerson says:

    There’s Jekyll Hat by day and Hyde Hat by night, and then at midnight he turns into a pumpkin.

  15. Crown, there is an interesting discussion of Alberti’s grammar in Cecil Grayson’s British Academy lecture on him (1963), and also in Angelo Mazzocco’s “Linguistic theories in Dante and the Humanists”; the latter dates the grammar to 1443 and posits its influence as great but indirect, through the channel of the famous humanist Cristoforo Landino. An interesting subject, certainly.
    LH, isn’t all this “come on you anti-prescriptivist reds!” a bit too easy? Fry is very likeable and intelligent, but are his views on this subject especially interesting?

  16. i could care less. or wait, no, i couldn’t,
    speaking of things being used to mean the opposite.

  17. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Thanks, Conrad. If you can’t get by on your architectural critic’s income you could always run The London Library.

  18. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Shouldn’t that be Jekyll by night and Hyde by day?
    And, of course, Martin, I ought to have said I didn’t mean to infer that you were being snotty. A better example than ‘throw-and-catch’ is teach and learn, which are almost the same in Germanic languages; and yet the only confusion is to English speakers and others who are used to a heavier-handed distinction.

  19. ToussianMuso says:

    Before I say a word in defense of those who plead at times for some consistency in language use, let me launch into a fierce disclaimer.
    As a linguist, I sometimes have difficulty explaining to non-linguist friends and family that the study of language is really more descriptive than arbitrary, and thus is more empirical than one might think. Language evolves, and no word of any language has one “correct” usage for every time and circumstance. What is important is that speakers of a given language share some common understanding of how it is being used. And there’s the rub.
    Sometimes when people speak of “correct” language use, they are just being misguidedly snotty, but at other times they are (ironically) making themselves misunderstood, when what they really mean by “correct” is “coherent” (I would put Lynne Truss in this latter category). In a limited way, there is indeed such a thing as correct and incorrect use of language insofar as it allows or impedes comprehension by speakers of the language in question. In other words, the way one uses language is “correct” if it is consistent with the way its speakers use it.
    If you remain stuck in a stubborn insistence on archaic, unnecessary, hair-splitting distinctions that nobody really makes (i.e. ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ – who cares?), you will be left behind, fossilized in the natural evolutionary process that all languages undergo. On the other hand, if you insist, in the name of linguistic libertarianism, on using language in whatever way suits your fancy at the moment contrary to how it is actually used, nobody will understand you. Either way, the purpose of language is defeated.

  20. Fry claims that people who don’t like apostrophes in the wrong place are boors who cannot appreciate the glories of the language. Absolute rubbish and very insulting, and I suspect that as so often, the piece is deliberately overblown and provocative.
    And I’m sorry, there is is an important difference between disinterested and uninterested. One shouldn’t have to think through what Fry desribes as the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether ‘disinterested’ is used in the ‘proper’ sense of non-partisan, or in the ‘improper’ sense of uninterested because of simply sloppy, lazy usage.
    if your kid starts saying “catch” to mean “throw,” you gently correct her. I understand the idea of language change, but at what point do you stop pushing back at heretofore incorrect usage?
    Excellent, Martin. Let’s hear you, LH and jamessal :-)

  21. Except there are no grounds to insist on the correctness of a distinction between disinterested and uninterested. Both have been used historically in both meanings. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=511
    That’s not to say, of course, that no one should maintain that distinction in their speech if they want it, simply that they should realise that observing the distinction in one way (i.e. using disinterested to always mean impartial) is no more or less arbitrary or justifiable than observing it in the other (i.e. using disinterested to always mean not interested), or, indeed, not observing the distinction at all and relying on contextual disambiguation.

  22. “teach and learn, which are almost the same in Germanic languages”
    And in older or regional English too: “That’ll learn you.” The same is true of French apprendre.

  23. “teach and learn, which are almost the same in Germanic languages”
    But not in current English. One is action, the other is receiving. It’s simply wrong to say they are interchangeable. “Will you learn me to drive?” may be understandable, but that doesn’t make it correct English in any definition of the term, for me.
    I am not a linguist (do all linguists share the let-it-all-hang-out idea?) so I don’t find the “it was used in 1632 in this or that sense” argument convincing. It is the definitions and usage in my lifetime that have formed my opinion. For example, I have always heard a clear distinction between disinterested and uninterested. I like the distinction. I find it very useful. It does, in my opinion, lead to greater clarity if the distinction is preserved.
    But then I’m simply an old fogey, who hates for example the recent change of use of impacted, a perfectly valid medical term for a condition of a tooth, now used because people are too lazy to say “had an impact on”.
    And another thing … :-)

  24. Fry is very likeable and intelligent, but are his views on this subject especially interesting?
    Come now, Conrad, that’s a bit rich coming from you. When did you metamorphose from a lover of rich discourse and things well said (even if wrong, like those crackpot medieval etymologists of whom you are so fond) into a Plain Man who wants Plain Truths Plainly Spoken, None of Your Fancy Talk?
    if you insist, in the name of linguistic libertarianism, on using language in whatever way suits your fancy at the moment contrary to how it is actually used, nobody will understand you.
    As a linguist, you should know that you’re propping up a straw man. Nobody insists on using language in whatever way suits their fancy at the moment contrary to how it is actually used; can you give me a single example outside of Humpty Dumpty? What descriptivists “insist on” is the right of speakers of a language to use their language as seems best to them without busybodies telling them they’re doing it wrong, and the fact that they’re using it and being understood by their interlocutors is prima facie evidence that the “nobody will understand you” thing is a crock. Frankly, I find it hard to see how anyone trained in linguistics could believe such a thing.

  25. I don’t find the “it was used in 1632 in this or that sense” argument convincing. It is the definitions and usage in my lifetime that have formed my opinion. For example, I have always heard a clear distinction between disinterested and uninterested. I like the distinction. I find it very useful. It does, in my opinion, lead to greater clarity if the distinction is preserved.
    Prescriptivism = Solipsism. I’m not sure what else there is to say. Here we have a perfectly intelligent man who simply will not be bothered with facts. He has “heard a distinction.” Hence, there is one. Hence, he will extrapolate rules from his perception — rules that he will then impose on the world, calling people who do not follow them “ignorant” and “lazy.” While imposing these rules he will — perhaps stricken by a sense of the precariousness of his position — grope for words that, while already proved inappropriate, give his argument the appearance of being grounded in history: preserved, hitherto. He will disregard this comment as coming from rabid linguistic anarchist. Better leave a smiley… :-)
    (To address the one substantive point, though: nobody ‘s saying it was used in sixteen-whatever therefore it’s fine; they’re saying it’s been used SINCE sixteen-whatever therefore it’s not NEW. To say DISINTERESTED to mean UNINTERESTED is somehow new or wrong is not only to ignore centuries-old history but your own.)

  26. “When did you metamorphose…?”
    Never! I’m not talking about plain truths plainly spoken. I’m all in favour of fancy language. But I also like interesting (even if wrong) ideas. If the sole appeal of Fry is his style, then OK; it just seems that you’re preaching to the choir on this one (and those not in the choir never will be—the potential debates, while undoubtedly interesting, have been rehearsed and rerehearsed here to the point of oblivion).

  27. But if we can convert just one, Conrad! Just one!

  28. And by the way, LH, not all medievals were silly about etymology. Here’s St. Thomas:
    “The etymology of a word differs from its meaning. For its etymology depends on what it is taken from for the purpose of signification: whereas its meaning depends on the thing to which it is applied for the purpose of signifying it. Now these things differ sometimes: for “lapis” [a stone] takes its name from hurting the foot [laedere pedem], but this is not its meaning, else iron, since it hurts the foot, would be a stone. On like manner it does not follow that “superstition” means that from which the word is derived.”
    Admittedly, he still has his etymologies wrong (‘laedere pedem’ is almost certainly from Isidore, I can’t be bothered to look it up)–but his views on etymology as a whole must surely cheer your realist’s heart.

  29. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    No, teach and learn aren’t interchangeable in most English dialects, and that’s my point. What I’m trying to learn you, Paul, is that in other languages you use one word for both actions, with confusion only for those who are used to making an English-type distinction.

  30. ‘Buy’ and ‘sell’ are quite distinct, and in the same vein so are ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’. But in Chinese ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’ are not distinct at all. Both are 借 jiè, used in different grammatical constructions (向他借钱 xiàng tā jiè qián = borrow money from him vs 借给他钱 jiè gěi tā qián = borrow money to him). Strangely enough, the language still gets by OK.

  31. Isidore 16.3.1: “Lapis autem dictus quod laedat pedem.” Damn my own pedantic scrupulum.

  32. To say… is somehow new or wrong is not only to ignore centuries-old history but your own.
    No! No!No!No!No!No!No!No!No!
    Should be: To say… is somehow new or wrong is to ignore not only centuries-old history but your own.
    I grind my teeth at faulty parallelism. Those guilty are lazy illiterates who should spend weekends in jail. Grrr….
    Separately: did anyone see Clever Monkeys on PBS last night? Quote: “If Diana Monkeys hear a string of calls by a Campbell’s Guenon they behave as if they were hearing a sentence. Their ability to understand other species gives scientists a running translation. Some calls add detail: “maybe” or “not urgent” [re: predators]. If the sounds are in a different order it means something else. Grammar — the basis of true language once thought of as uniquely human.”
    I’m curious to hear what the linguists out there think of that. (Sorry if the quote’s not a hundred percent accurate: I was rushing to transcribe it last night, pausing and rewinding the Tivo, with TRUE BLOOD coming up, and I couldn’t find transcript online just now.)

  33. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I want to ask Jamessal and Language something: in Jim Owen’s American Tongue in Cheek he says he likes to say ‘irregardless’. Now I can understand not making a big thing of someone else’s using irregardless, but would you go so far as to use it yourself? Isn’t that so extreme as to be verging on a kind of saintly nuttiness?

  34. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Yes, borrow and lend are the same in Norwegian, too. I forgot that. As you say, it’s no problem.

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Are any of these monkeys linguists?

  36. Crown: Jim QUINN ;-) makes a point throughout the book of breaking all the “rules” (different THAN, LESS with count nouns, etc.) while still writing clearly. It’s more about poking fun and showing How Silly than arguing rigorously or even articulating a sensibility for the reader to emulate. (Though, to me, it’s no less effective for that). IRREGARDLESS I actually kind of like.

  37. Crown: I would urge you not to refer to the LH readership as monkeys.

  38. John Emerson says:

    In the local dialect here “learn” and “borrow” often mean “teach” and “lend”:
    “You borrowed money to that bum? You’ll never see it again. That’ll learn you.”

  39. John Emerson says:

    In the local dialect here “learn” and “borrow” often mean “teach” and “lend”:
    “You borrowed money to that bum? You’ll never see it again. That’ll learn you.”

  40. …we prefer ‘primates’.

  41. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    That was an actual laugh out loud comment.
    But, ok, you can use irregardless if you want, but I’m sticking with irregardful.

  42. Oh dear, Jamessal, hurling the spears again (raises shield, ducks)…
    I haven’t seen a response to Martin’s: if your kid starts saying “catch” to mean “throw,” you gently correct her. I understand the idea of language change, but at what point do you stop pushing back at heretofore incorrect usage?
    That’s the point, I feel.
    Also, just because borrow and lend, etc, are the same word, the meanking changed by the context, doesn’t mean they should be interchangeable in English, where they are not the same word.

  43. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    The way other languages treat borrow – lend, teach – learn, etc. is only mentioned to show that there are other ways of doing things besides the one currently predominant in English. The reason to talk about it at all is because people predict all sorts of calamity if change to the English language is not resisted, but as Language said people will lament the loss of a valuable distinction and wring their hands and write letters to the editor, and the language will go on its merry way. This was just an example of how that might, only hypothetically, happen.

  44. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I haven’t seen a response to Martin’s: if your kid starts saying “catch” to mean “throw,” you gently correct her. I understand the idea of language change, but at what point do you stop pushing back at heretofore incorrect usage?
    That’s the point: when your kid says catch to mean throw, then you gently correct her. If a group of Martians starts using ‘catch’ to mean ‘throw’ because of the different gravity, then you don’t start writing letters to The Daily Telegraph about how pretty soon they’ll be saying ‘buy’ to mean ‘sell’ and how estate agents are going to get really confused, blah, blah, blah.

  45. it just seems that you’re preaching to the choir on this one
    Well, for one thing, doesn’t the choir deserve some preaching too? For another, I love Stephen Fry’s use of English, and if I can quote some that is actually relevant to LH, why the hell not?
    And by the way, LH, not all medievals were silly about etymology.
    No, I know that, but you seem especially fond of the ones who were, and you chide me gently when I point out that they didn’t actually know what they were talking about. Fry does know what he’s talking about, and he talks wonderfully, so I don’t see what possible objection there could be.
    Crown: I would urge you not to refer to the LH readership as monkeys.
    On the other hand, we don’t want to exclude any monkeys who may be reading LH, do we?

  46. I haven’t seen a response to Martin’s: if your kid starts saying “catch” to mean “throw,” you gently correct her. I understand the idea of language change, but at what point do you stop pushing back at heretofore incorrect usage?
    Yeah, what Crown said. I thought I addressed the point pretty definitively by showing that none of the usages in question was in fact “heretofore incorrect”
    If you’re asking more generally when I think it’s appropriate to correct somebody’s language at all, then my answer is the same as yours I’m sure: when it isn’t clear. Only, as I see it, language is so dynamic and each instance of communication SO unique ;-) that it’s best to judge it case by case, not to impose arbitrary rules or go searching for ambiguity where it doesn’t exist. I’ve never misunderstood anybody using the fourth definition of INFER.

  47. On the other hand, we don’t want to exclude any monkeys who may be reading LH, do we?
    Just so long as we keep the vampires out. (Any other TRUE BLOOD fans out there? I am so loving that show.)

  48. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I like a drop of warm fresh blood.

  49. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    All the monkeys with computers are too busy typing the complete works of Shakespeare to read LH.

  50. I really enjoyed Fry’s column, and have been interested to see its fame spreading. I first came across a link to it from a post by Jim Bisso at AWADtalk, and then after adding it to my list of links I saw it at the Log and then here. I don’t think that it has generated quite such heated debate even on Fry’s own page as it has here.
    I was fascinated by this comment:
    “A better example than ‘throw-and-catch’ is teach and learn, which are almost the same in Germanic languages”.I had not realised that English had broken from its Teuton brethren on this one, and because in Hindi the difference between “teach” and “learn” is the length of a vowel – “sikhana” vs “sikhna”. Since my ESOL clients are almost all Sikh, the temptation to make bad, clumsy puns is a constant hazard.
    The other thing I wondered about after reading the comments in this thread had to do with hats. LH, you said that when wearing your copy editor’s hat you would correct the “infer/imply” confusion because that’s what they pay you for. I understand that, but it made me wonder, at what point would you be able to pass over such a usage change in your professional role? When does the prescriptivist profession acknowledge the change as accceptable?

  51. at what point would you be able to pass over such a usage change in your professional role? When does the prescriptivist profession acknowledge the change as acceptable?
    That’s a very good question, or rather two very good questions. The first, which involves only myself, is easier to answer: when in my judgment it will not be problematic for the readers of the text I’m editing. I’ve been allowing singular they in texts for a while now, and have had no complaints; obviously I wouldn’t let it pass in a high-flown text whose author would obviously despise it, but I can’t actually remember editing such a text.
    The best answer for the second I can think of is: when it’s accepted by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or The Chicago Manual of Style, the most widely used dictionary and style guide respectively.

  52. Er, I’m assuming by “the prescriptivist profession” you meant editing; individual prescriptivists, as far as I can determine, never accept any change whatever.

  53. Er, I’m assuming by “the prescriptivist profession” you meant editing;
    You assumed correctly and answered most satisfactorily. Many thanks.

  54. Maybe a some of the fuss kicked up by prescriptivists is from a horror (which I share) of people not even caring about the distinction between (say) “imply” and “infer.” I don’t care what words people use — whatever will get the job done in their speech community is fine by me — but I want people to care about understanding what other people mean. I wonder, in fact, whether this particular example surfaces so often because it’s precisely the kind of distinction oafs will refuse to make (whatever language they’re using for it.) Having grown up in the sticks, I suffered a lot more from people refusing to entertain nuance than I did from people imposing correctness. It’s really, really unpleasant to be stranded among yahoos who don’t care what you mean. & it’s easy to confuse that caring with the vocabulary of the people who do the caring, when you get out of (let’s say) Springfield, Oregon :-) I wouldn’t put all of the prescriptivist impulse down to snobbery. Some of it is a kind of PTSD of thoughtful people stuck among people who hate thoughtfulness.

  55. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I think you’re right Dale, as far as you go. You don’t mention that the horror leads to the fear that oafs are taking over the world and then all nuance will be gone for ever, and, and … and in fact I don’t think it’s correct to say that they’re effecting a sort of passive change in the language by wiping out other people’s speech and thought patterns. It’s true that oafs cause active change in language (new words) as often as non-oafs do, whatever your criteria for an oaf is (some would say bureaucrats are oafs — oaves?), but the long-term effect is that their words only add to the language. There are lots of examples, but take Orwell’s Newspeak (a good wiki article) in 1984: by satirizing political euphemism he enriched our language, because he enabled us to identify versions and examples on our own, but what he was afraid of (modification) hasn’t happened.

  56. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    ‘are’

  57. a horror (which I share) of people not even caring about the distinction between (say) “imply” and “infer.” I don’t care what words people use — whatever will get the job done in their speech community is fine by me — but I want people to care about understanding what other people mean.
    So then how does using “infer” to mean “hint” inhibit people from caring to understand what other people mean? Or were those things not supposed to be connected?
    The bit about “nuance” also needs expanding if you want to tie your hatred of oafs to the debate over prescriptisvism. “Nuance” is a crutch word for prescriptivists: no matter how many times they throw it out there, bemoaning the loss of THOUGHT and SUBTLETY, they never explain how preserving (read: manufacturing) distinctions between sets of phonemes actually increases nuances. Do they really believe that we’re all at risk — if people go on using the fourth definition of infer — of forgetting the difference between “hint” and “surmise”? And if not, what the hell are they talking about?

  58. Graham Asher says:

    “they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be” … er, yes, Mr. Fry – just like you, except that you are being even more superior by showing off your lofty disdain for this supposed legion of pedants while revelling in your own command of the language. Fry’s article is badly written, trite and self-congratulatory.

  59. stranded among yahoos who don’t care what you mean
    Been there. In the African American community here it consists of people telling black children not to pay attention to academic subjects, because that is “acting white”. Within my own family it has meant criticism of someone who uses standard English or doesn’t do manual labor–”doesn’t do real work, just pushes a pencil”. In the neighborhood where I live it means a gratuitous use of profanity about every third word as a substitute for having real ideas.
    This is not the same as someone who just doesn’t have the opportunity to learn how to communicate with standard English vocabulary. Last summer I heard a motivational speaker, I forget the name, with an AA/Hispanic background who very much cared about communicating complex ideas. In the African American community where he grew up, the average person has a vocabulary of about 800 words, as opposed to the 2000-3000 (?) that university freshman have. So people who grow up where he grew up can’t communicate with people in the middle class–even though he was a curious person and very much wanted to. Interestingly enough, he was quite good with the call-response preaching style, so even though he didn’t have a university level vocabulary, he was able to use this speaking skill to get to where he wanted to go. Proving once again that sometimes it’s not WHAT you say as much as HOW you say it.

  60. Maybe some of the fuss kicked up by prescriptivists is from a horror (which I share) of people not even caring about the distinction between (say) “imply” and “infer.”
    Exactly. Dale and Martin earlier make the points I have been trying to make – but much more cogently.
    Jamessal: You really can’t say that trying to preserve nuances is “manufacturing” them. Either they are there, and being diluted, or they are not.

  61. The Hat wrote
    “Nobody insists on using language in whatever way suits their fancy at the moment contrary to how it is actually used; can you give me a single example outside of Humpty Dumpty?”
    What about Heidegger and existentialists? Wiki:
    “… arguing that Being and Time does not follow the norms of scholarly writing, i.e. defining new terms as they are introduced … for the later Heidegger, in particular, intelligibility was ‘suicide for philosophy’.”

  62. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Paul, which of the cogent points hasn’t been answered?

  63. Paul: What do you say to the fact, documented in the MWDEU and over at Language Log (link earlier in thread), that people have been using “infer” to mean “hint” SINCE the 16th century? Does it not make you question your beliefs just a little that a “distinction” so precious to you that you express “horror” over people ignoring it hasn’t actually existed for almost 500 years? From the MWDEU: “…the commentators’ [read: meddling prescriptivists' attempting to manufacture distinctions] distinction — roughly, that “imply” always means transmission and “infer” reception — is wishful and has not existed in usage since 1533.”
    Plus, Dale’s comment? Really? The one where he says a lot of people are stupid and talk stupid and he doesn’t like that? I’d thought you were aiming higher.

  64. Throws spear, pounds chest…

  65. What about Heidegger and existentialists?
    They weren’t redefining words so much as taking words in other languages and using the usage and definition to try discover something profound. What is “being”? Does knowing how the word is used in German shed light on existence? Or what about “praxis”? Written in Greek, no less. I swear I will never again read anything that delves into the word “praxis”-life is too short.
    BTW, is anyone else listening to Miriam Makeba who died yesterday? I’m enjoying the clicks in the language from her “click song” and some of the other YouTube clips.

  66. Jamessal: meddling prescriptivists’ attempting to manufacture distinctions
    Hat: And people will lament the loss of a valuable distinction and wring their hands and write letters to the editor, and the language will go on its merry way.
    I would argue that the attempt to preserve nuances that are being diluted is just as valid as allowing “drift”.
    In the case of learn/teach the nuance has so far been preserved, (except apparently in certain areas of rural Minnesota), but in the case of can/may and “they” for third person singular the drift has become codified into the rules.
    How can you say that either “drift” or “preserving nuances” is always good or bad? Is all change good? Is all tradition bad? Or the other way around? It seems to me that either view is equally inflexible and undesirable.

  67. David Marjanović says:

    we all see INFER to mean IMPLY almost every day

    Interesting. I’ve never seen it. Apparently scientists keep them apart.
    Incidentally, in German, leihen and borgen both mean “lend”, and ausleihen and ausborgen both mean “borrow”. That is — in my kind of German. It’s way too late at night to check what other distributions I remember.

  68. Jamessal, yes, I was saying there is no connection, but that one is often perceived. I’m not sure what you thought I was saying, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what I meant :-)
    Good night, sweet dreams, all!

  69. Dale: Thanks for clarifying. And goodnight to you too!

  70. John Emerson says:

    Nijma: “learn” = “teach” is widespread in the Midwest. For example, “Huckleberry Finn”, though I’ve heard it live from real people.

  71. John Emerson says:

    Nijma: “learn” = “teach” is widespread in the Midwest. For example, “Huckleberry Finn”, though I’ve heard it live from real people.

  72. John Emerson, learn/teach
    Yes, I would say not just around Fungus Flats where you come from but also South Dakota and Iowa. I haven’t heard it recently though, except to intentionally add local color–maybe that generation is disappearing. Or maybe since I don’t smoke anymore I’m not in places where I’ll be likely to hear it.

  73. The more I think about it, the more I think using “learn” for “teach” (never the other way around) is ironic in the examples I’ve heard. “That’ll learn ‘em.” used as “That will teach a lesson by example to some person or varmint or critter that is too dense for verbal explanations.”

  74. thanks for this post.

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