LANGUAGE IS THE PEOPLE’S.

I just ran across Language Is the People’s, subtitled “Notes from the copy editor.” Dan is “a full-time quality assurance technician (read: proofreader) based in St. Paul, Minnesota” who has also worked as a copy editor, and his Manifesto plants its flag in the very middle ground I try to inhabit:

I’ve found that even if you’re in a position where you have to enforce arbitrary rules like the AP styleguide’s preference for adviser over advisor, there’s no harm in knowing that language prescriptions like those in your usage guide are neither magic nor objectively “correct.”
This knowledge can even help you to be less arrogant. There’s no reason to look down on a writer for using which in a way which you wouldn’t, especially when you find out that many other people have the same correctness conditions as that writer. You might recast a sentence with that sort of which in order to fit with internal style rules or promote clarity or satisfy the language cranks in your audience, but all that’s about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.
There’s also no reason to — as I often did in the past — stop a conversation to enforce a language “rule” when what the speaker said was completely intelligible to you. The latent classism in pointing out that “ain’t isn’t a word,” or the fact that, yes it is, aren’t the point. The point is that you are the people, the language is working for you, and if you didn’t have some WTF reaction to how the speaker is talking, then there’s no reason to bring Strunk and White into this. As they say, or should.
Lest we forget: Language belongs to the people.

Amen, and if people would worry less about whether language is “correct” and more about whether it’s used well, the world would be a better place. (Dan has an interesting discussion of “descriptivism” as bogeyman and as reality here.)

Comments

  1. Thanks for the link; I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for many years now.
    Originally the title of my blog was “Notes from the Copy Editor” and “Language is the People’s” was the subtitle, but thanks to my confusing front page graphic, I think that the two titles are prettymuch interchangeable at this point.

  2. Not to mention how hurtful it is to “correct” another’s style.
    “My grandmother, she… ”
    “No, your grandmother, don’t add ‘she’ after.”
    “My grandmother died.”
    Whoops.

  3. Thanks for the pointer to Dan’s site, LH. I hope that I can eventually read the res of his posts, as currently the only one I can access is his post on descriptivism. Every other link there is timing out for me, in Firefox and IE.

  4. I’m working as a copy editor these days (well, over here I’m a sub-editor) so I have to say: ditto on the amen, brother.

  5. Intersting LH. New to your writing and enjoying it a lot. I recall listening to Julian Barnes discussing the New Yorker’s famously sticklish copywriters in an interview. He joked that you couldn’t write that the moon orbited the Earth without it being checked. He also mentioned that the checkers would enforce rigourously the rules governing the use of which in the magazine. Interestingly, this fabulous writer said he couldn’t even remember what the rule was!

  6. As usual, I think the arguments of the “moral descriptivists” are shortsighted and more political than logical. While I would certainly agree that language evolves and “belongs to the people,” not some arbitrary group of gatekeepers, I think it is important to acknowledge the mechanisms by which it evolves.
    The presumption that “anything goes” and everything must be tolerated equally flies in the face of the actual process of competition that occurs and which determines future usage conventions. If the people who use “ain’t” in their language are to be allowed to do so, then those who denigrate such usage must equally be allowed to argue such a choice and promote their preference. If all usage is artificially and proactively put on equal ground, protected from debate and competition, then language becomes chaos and communication, ultimately, becomes impossible.

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    I agree with most of the excerpt LH posted, but no this:
    “…but all that’s about making writing better, not about right vs. wrong.”
    There is such a thing as better writing, but it rarely has much to do with stuff like how you spell “advisor” or even whether you use “that” or “which” for a restrictive relative clause. Those are matters of style, in the narrow sense of a publication wishing to be internally consistent about such things. Even if we stipulate that there is value in such consistency, the actual choices are arbitrary.

  8. Richard Hershberger says:

    ‘The presumption that “anything goes”…’
    Would it matter to you to know that no one actually makes this presumption, and that this is a straw man? (No? I didn’t think so. Well, then: carry on.)

  9. >>Would it matter to you to know that no one actually makes this presumption, and that this is a straw man? (No? I didn’t think so. Well, then: carry on.)
    Funny, I have seen quite a few who do, but all right then…where do you draw the line between a) the language Jill chooses to use is okay and unimpeachable (although unpalatable to others) but b) the language Jack uses is impermissible?

  10. Terry Collmann says:

    “I have seen quite a few who do [believe that anything goes]”
    To quote Bob Dylan: “I don’t believe you.” Name one. Quote us someone who has ever said this.
    My wife, who is a middle-class Dubliner, says: “I amn’t”. This is perfectly standard in Dublin grammar and, indeed, understandable to those who have grown up in communities that say “I’m not” and those who say “I ain’t”. It’s as much an acceptable variation of English as the fact that she says “scallions” for what I call “spring onions”.
    If she started saying “I no art” for “I am not”, descriptivists of the most liberal stripe would hold up the red card of unacceptability because (a) there is no community dialect which says that and (b) it’s unclear.
    That’s all descriptivists do; they say: “Real communities have this and this language usage and individuals in those communities are understood and accepted in their communities when they employ those usages.” Anyone who says: “Well, that’s not my comnmunity’s usage, so it’s wrong” is marching with Jonathan Swift’s Big-endians against the Little-endians.

  11. jamessal says:
  12. The flaw in your reasoning is that communities don’t spontaneously generate usages overnight. And your rather transparent attempts to shift the issue don’t change that fact.
    The members of a small MMORPG may coin terminology and usage specific to their environment and requirements which may, in a year’s time, become widely used and understood within a more general population. Any competent observer must assign legitimacy or illegitimacy (in context, in terms of position relative to competing usages or a lack of comparable usage) of these variants or neologisms at each stage of their development and spread.
    The more interesting issue, I think, is what basis one uses for assessing a variant’s social cred at each stage of its use, from outlier to dominant form. But I know it garners a lot more applause online to make a simplistic gesture of “standing up for the little guy” with no real understanding of process.
    In any case, I find your tone unpleasant, so I’ve said all I have to say here at this time.

  13. “If all usage is artificially and proactively put on equal ground, protected from debate and competition, then language becomes chaos and communication, ultimately, becomes impossible.”
    Human language can and will never become chaos. That’s like saying the human circulatory system could stop working, for example if we don’t teach anatomy. No amount of debate or scholastic competition will affect our innate faculties.
    The only time communication by language even SEEMS chaotic or impossible is when there’s a generation gap.
    The “equal ground” argument is a straw man for justifying the dictation of correct behavior to other people. Most people who defend the natural use of ‘ain’t’ would not defend usage that is malicious or deliberately confusing. Saying that prescriptive detractors have the right to argue their stance just like how speakers have the right to use their own dialect is like saying that an attacker has the right to punch somebody in the same way that a person has the right to go around guarding his face with his arms. Which is all beside the point. The real issue is that prescriptivists betray their complete ignorance of language (and formal/cognitive linguistics) when they go on about their hysterical fears of societal collapse or when they report their gutteral reactions to incorrect usage.
    “where do you draw the line between a) the language Jill chooses to use is okay and unimpeachable (although unpalatable to others) but b) the language Jack uses is impermissible?”
    You don’t have to drawn the line. Communities (or the language instinct, if you will) draw the line for themselves. If somebody’s language is unpalatable to you, it’s your own problem, because they obviously acquired their personal dialect in a community that you are not a part of– like with ethnic cuisine, you can accept it, or you can exclude yourself from tasting it. Unless of course they have something to gain, in which case they would be accommodating to your complaints. The language Jack uses is impermissible if it violates Universal Grammar, which Jack would never even dream of doing unless he was joking, so we don’t have to worry about it.
    Some people will pretend (or even believe) that the debate about language is about “best practice” or “comprehensibility” when actually it’s about whether arbitrary prescriptive rules are a significant integrative component of language. Which they aren’t.
    It’s weird how even pretentious language mavens (to use Steven Pinker’s term, though he might have taken it from someone else) have fun reading about etymology and about how words change over time, yet they do not tolerate changes when they themselves are amidst them. (I’m referring here to David Foster Wallace’s disgust with “consensus” linguistics.) Some of our most cherished words come from somebody’s mistake long ago.

  14. May I make the radical suggestion that there are times to be prescriptivist, and times not to be ?
    I believe that many areas of formal communication, in print or broadcast media, generally need rules, stylebooks if you will, for consistency and, well, “style” in the other sense.
    I don’t think “ain’t” or “amn’t” would be appropriate on the BBC or ABC news, or in the Times on either side of the pond. But it would be acceptable, and not noticed by its audience, on a rap radio station. And of course in casual speech.
    Regional accents, if generally understood, are acceptable, but not regional words that would not be generally understood. (BTW, the BBC’s recent introduction of a continuity announcer with a rich deep Jamaican accent provoked a lot of adverse comment from retired colonels and blue-rinse ladies in the Shires, and I do think it was a little bit deliberately provocative !)
    And I think there are times when the free approach can lead to distortion of meaning, because of lack of attention. Take insure, ensure and assure, for example. Just because some people use them interchangeably does not mean that they do not have specific and still valid individual meanings.

  15. May I make the radical suggestion that there are times to be prescriptivist, and times not to be ?
    Nobody’s saying anything different. I’m a copy editor, and the guy I linked to is a proofreader; we make our living enforcing prescriptivist rules. The point is not that there should be no rules, the point is exactly that there are times to use them (in formal communication) and times they’re not needed, and nobody should be taken to task or looked down on for not using them when they’re not needed.

  16. Richard Hershberger says:

    “The point is not that there should be no rules, the point is exactly that there are times to use them (in formal communication) and times they’re not needed…”
    The analogy I use is that snoots who insist on formal language at all times are like someone who wears a business suit to go to the beach. He looks foolish, and he looks even more foolish if he goes about berating the other beach-goers for not being similarly attired.

  17. Exactly!

  18. anon1234 says:

    The correct grammar is the grammar that elicits the desired response from the intended audience.
    Consider a political op-ed in the New York Times, an article in a particle physics journal, and an ad designed to sell Hannah Montana records to ten-year-old girls. The correct grammar in each case is likely to fail completely in the others.

  19. “The correct grammar in each case is likely to fail completely in the others.”
    That’s only ‘correct’ in the sense of correct clothing for particular social gatherings. It’s a facade, invested with meaning. It’s not ‘correct’ in the sense of 2 + 2 = 4 being correct. The differences between the three modes you mentioned is not really an issue of grammar in any serious sense, but more one of vocabulary, register, and tone (haughty rhetoric versus calculated jargon versus brazen slang), and then content.
    In online debates the term grammatically ‘correct’ is wrongfully used to make allegations in the mathematical sense; it’s taken to be a matter of right versus wrong when actually what’s at hand is a matter of propriety in the eye of the beholder. It’s used as a pedantic jab, usually irrelevant to the topic at hand, and rests on what amounts to arbitrary prescriptive rules. (The difference between arbitrary prescriptive rules and arbitrary natural rules is that you need formal teaching for the first type. In time, even a child understands every nuance of the ambient spoken grammar, without formal instruction.)
    Pedants are hysterical about these things because they know they’re defending a house of cards, and they have their psyche staked on it.

  20. “many areas of formal communication, in print or broadcast media, generally need rules, stylebooks if you will, for consistency and, well, “style” in the other sense.”
    See: House of Cards. Reading/Writing is much harder than speaking/listening, because it’s not an innate human faculty or disposition. For that reason people should never stop striving for clarity in print– I agree. But “consistency” and “style” are usually just cover words for “I fear the collapse of civilization because people are so darn unruly with language!”.
    “the free approach can lead to distortion of meaning”
    Yeah, but every word we use in our language has been distorted from some previous form and meaning. In a lot of cases, the distortion was actually better than the original, in that it was more intuitive or allowed some new level of efficiency or productivity. Some languages don’t even have an explicit past tense, and they get along fine. You’re right that subtlety can be lost, but there’s something to be said for homonyms, and killing two birds with one stone. Some formal distinctions are not worth the memory space.
    “insure, ensure and assure”
    Case in point there: those used to be the same word! These minute differences are highly fluid, over time. Anyway, the only pair that is really ever mistaken, that I know of, is when people really mean “ensure” but they’re not sure if it’s spelled differently than “insure”. It’s spelling, not semantics. People always know whether they’re assuring a person, insuring a house or vehicle, or ensuring an event, but they might spell the last one wrong. It’s pretty forgiveable since they’re the same word when you speak them.

  21. > It’s pretty forgiveable since they’re the same word when you speak them.
    In-, en- and as- are the same sounds ?
    A similar case, to my way of thinking, came up in a local magazine this week. It spoke of “ex-patriots” instead of “expatriates” because of the similar sound, I presume. Unhappily, not the first time I’ve seen it (once … shock, horror … in The Times – post-Murdoch).
    I am, by the standards of the blog and those commenting, a prescriptivist. But I would never presume to correct someone’s speech, unless it was in a jokey way to a very close friend (or to my wife – she constantly corrects my sloppy usage of “less” instead of “fewer”, and I do ditto with her when she uses “over” instead of “more than”).
    But in writing – and I obviously take the point of audiences mentioned above – NTY, science journal, pop sales – I remain a stickler for what I was taught was correct English.
    Full steam ahead, Mister, all guns blazing … :-)

  22. jamessal says:

    (or to my wife – she constantly corrects my sloppy usage of “less” instead of “fewer”, and I do ditto with her when she uses “over” instead of “more than”)
    Of course all joking with spouses should be encouraged, but I still can’t help pointing out that there isn’t any basis for avoiding “over” in favor of “more than.” Even Bryan Garner calls this “a baseless crotchet.” I’m guessing the supposed rule has something to do with “over” being a more obvious (spatial/orientational) metaphor and therefore less literal, precise, whatever. But that becomes manifestly silly when you consider how many of our most literal expressions are in fact metaphors — i.e., language deriving from complex and systematic thought processes that are themselves metaphoric (orientational, ontological, metonymic). See: “Metaphors we Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.**
    **Not being anything resembling a linguistic philosopher myself, I have no idea whether the book has any currency today. (The bit about literal expressions actually being metaphors seems true on its face, though).

  23. jamessal says:

    I disagree about “less” and “fewer” too, of course. But — pace our blazing guns — I think we should take this one step at a time.

  24. Step by step …
    “Over” and “more than” – it’s Pavlovian for me, drilled into me by the best editor I ever worked for, at a time when my working life was translating UPI’s American English into English English for British newspapers. “There were over a thousand people there” – no, there were “more than a thousand people there”.
    My wife has a similar argument about “less” and “fewer”, but she has been less successful then the old editor and it isn’t drilled into my brain. She’ll be home soon and I’ll enlighten anyone who is still interested … :-)

  25. “less” has been used with count nouns for 1000 years. It’s part of standard English. The prescription against it is like the no-split-infinitives rule: there is no grammatical basis for it.

  26. it’s Pavlovian for me, drilled into me by the best editor I ever worked for
    No arguing with that — habits are habits. Though, of course, this doesn’t at all speak to the correctness (logical or even aesthetic) of using the one in favor of the other.
    She’ll be home soon and I’ll enlighten anyone who is still interested
    I’m always interested to learn how people came to imbibe their mistaken views… ;-)

  27. “> It’s pretty forgiveable since they’re the same word when you speak them.
    In-, en- and as- are the same sounds ?”
    I only meant that ensure and insure are the same word when spoken. Try it for yourself. Assure isn’t part of the mix (and I don’t believe it’s ever confused with the others in speech nor in writing, except in an acknowledged speech error). Pronounce ensure and insure inside of a sentence. They’re the same. Phonetically there’s tons of words in English that are spoken exactly like other words, and even other phrases, within a continuous stream of speech. (Don’t pronounce the words in isolation, cause you’ll be kidding yourself.) It’s just like how “Rosa’s”, “Roses” and “Rose’s” are pronounced the same in some dialects, the same with Merry/Marry/Mary.
    But, all three words originated as the same word. So the argument that the 3 words have different, subtle meanings today, is actually a promotion of distortion. It was a branching distortion, instead of a collapsing distortion, but still.
    Spelling itself is a highly arbitrary and arcane art, especially because pronunciation changes– inevitably, always– so fluidly over time, but spelling is digital and sticklers prefer to keep spelling the same. Written communication is so common today that most people harbor false assumptions about [spoken] language that derive from spelling. For example, we actually form some plurals by adding a Z, not an S, onto words. (“Bags”.) “Church” and “tree” start with the same sound. The letters Q, X, C are currently completely useless when you think about it. These are trivial or even boring examples, which are mostly simple matters of heritage. In short, spelling/writing is a brilliant tool for communication, but a terrible basis for ever forming a single idea about language itself. In fact, if you editors want to talk about consistency, spelling itself is the most inconsistent thing around, as it stands. It’s highly consistent as a representation of words, but awfully misleading as a representation of speech.
    Did you know “green bean” is pretty much pronounced “greeM beans”? Nobody would ever comment on this, or point this out, in a layman discussion of language, because nobody notices it. It’s called assimilation. Spelling on the other hand is a conspicuous unnatural behavior that people can easily process consciously, unlike spoken language.
    As for ‘over’ and ‘more than’: you can look at a thermometer and say “it’s over 80 degrees!” What do the handbooks say? There’s a metric that we use to compare quantities. In the case of temperature it’s literally over, but also more than, 80 degrees. OK. I think the natural trend is toward imagining things as scales rather than discrete quantities. In the case of people, “over” seems to emphasize that there’s some notable benchmark, on some scale, that has been surpassed. Besides that, ‘over’ is fewer words, and superficially simpler in syntax. I’m more confident in that explanation than the one about the mental role of gradient scales.
    I know of no professional field other than editing, certainly not any academic , artistic, scientific, or industrial field, that is so conservative in the following mentality: “this is what we have been given; this is what we were taught; we will guard it as immutable and eternally proper.” The trust in the wisdom of the ancestors is staggering. The wisdom of print-pedants is taken to be superior to whatever folk wisdom governs the spoken language of the rabble, but obviously if the rabble didn’t have the right idea all along, nobody would be able to understand each other today.
    Journalists flopping around like fish out of water in the face of things like the web– the World Wide Web, full of Web Sites and web logs because the age of the inter-net work force is under way– is a sad sight. And on the other hand, we have relatives telling us “say John and I, not John and me” even in cases where you and John are the object of the sentence– proof positive that people are much better at rote prescription than they are at analysis.
    Style guides are practically just a hugely padded excuse made our of a lack of simple insights about better competition. They give specific guidelines for maintaining trivial distinctions between obsolete words, because that’s a lot easier than qualifying good writing with agreeable criteria. Honestly, who can look at any given publication or at journalistic output as a whole and say “Wow, good thing they are consistent about the nuances of typography” instead of “Wow, I wish they had a better education about the subject they are writing about.”

  28. Whoops, first sentence of last paragraph should read:
    “Style guides are just a hugely padded excuse made out of a lack of simple insights about better composition.”
    Out, not our. Composition, not competition. Guess I could use an editor.
    (My mistake is an example of an ‘acknowledged speech error’, a term that I said earlier. It’s a speech error, rather than a piece of evidence that my dialect has collapsed the meaning of the two words.)

  29. Actually, style guides are mainly about maintaining consistency in the use of punctuation, capitalization, references, and the like; grammar is a tacked-on afterthought and should really be dropped, not that I expect that to happen any time soon. But yes, you’re quite right that editing is a conservative profession.

  30. jamessal says:

    Did you know “green bean” is pretty much pronounced “greeM beans”? Nobody would ever comment on this, or point this out, in a layman discussion of language, because nobody notices it. It’s called assimilation.
    Yes. As John McWhorter puts it in his lecture series, “The History of Language,” a great deal of language change is caused by “laziness of the mouth.”
    But, all three words originated as the same word. So the argument that the 3 words have different, subtle meanings today, is actually a promotion of distortion. It was a branching distortion, instead of a collapsing distortion, but still.
    I quite like this little judo move.

  31. “Less” and “fewer”. My wife has now reminded me ….
    Her example is : “There is less sugar, but there are fewer grains of sugar.” Less is for “general objects” while fewer is for “countable objects”.
    It actually doesn’t bother me, but it does bother her. That’s life.
    As others don’t understand why people like me prefer the grammar and spelling they were taught over their formative years, so I don’t understand why it’s so important to allow people to say or write whatever they like on the grounds that the language changes anyway. It does, but I don’t see that it needs to be encouraged, as the vast majority don’t even scratch the surface of the incredibly rich language that exists….
    I don’t know anything technical about pronunciation, but, perhaps to make myself clear, I would pronounce insure and ensure differently, even in a sentence. And I’m afraid I simply don’t understand why anyone would say “greeM beans”.

  32. jamessal says:

    I don’t understand why it’s so important to allow people to say or write whatever they like on the grounds that the language changes anyway.
    No, no, no. You’re the one who wants to impose your views on others, so it’s up to you to make a case that your justified in doing so.

  33. I don’t think it is correct to say that I want to “impose my views on others” (I don’t, I discuss them and argue for what I think is right, I can’t “impose” anything) and must justify that position.
    Countless teachers have “imposed” and do “impose” grammar, spelling and style throughout the education process (at least until University level, and often, then).
    At school and subsequently, I was taught grammatical “rules” and styles – had them “imposed” on me, if you will.
    So they have become automatic for me, and they define what I like to believe is “correct” writing and speaking.
    You may not like the term “correct”, but I think you would have to agree that there must be rules – otherwise we descend into communications chaos. The question is where the lines (rules) are drawn.
    I draw them apparently more tightly than others, who are described here as anti-prescriptivists.
    But you have to draw them not far from me, or there would be chaos. To me, we are discussing the edges, not the essential.
    But I do worry that an “anything goes” attitude will impoverish, not embellish, the written language “because it’s simpler, takes fewer words.”

  34. otherwise we descend into communications chaos.
    This is the “argument” that’s constantly made by prescriptivists, but it’s completely devoid of any relation to reality. Point me to a single historical instance where this has happened. People are very good at communicating and understanding each other (unless, of course, they don’t want to understand each other, which has nothing to do with rules). I would also point out that the vast majority of the world’s languages have no “rules” in the sense we’re talking about (rules imposed by “authorities,” which people must be forced to obey), and yet they manage to communicate perfectly well just speaking in whatever way comes naturally to them.
    If you personally like to make a distinction between “over” and “more than,” or your wife between “less” and “fewer,” that’s fine; I support everyone’s right to use their language however they please. But do not pretend that your choice is supported by anything other than personal preference. You are not staving off chaos, you are simply speaking as you please.

  35. jamessal says:

    I don’t understand why it’s so important to allow people
    I don’t think it is correct to say that I want to “impose my views on others”
    If you’re not allowing somebody to do something, for one reason or another, then you are imposing your views on them. But let’s not quibble. You’ve now articulated you reason, so let’s deal with that.
    I think you would have to agree that there must be rules – otherwise we descend into communications chaos.
    No, I wouldn’t. And neither would anybody who’s taken (and understood) a class in linguistics (the study of language). Language is, as I Am Dall put it before, “an innate human faculty.” Virtually all humans master all the grammar necessary to communicate effectively at a very young age, without learning any superficial rules.

  36. jamessal says:

    Three minutes before my comment even existed it was superfluous! Ah, the internet!

  37. marie-lucie says:

    “Church” and “tree” start with the same sound.
    Surely that is not true for every English speaker? Do you mean chick and trick, chain and train, chuck and truck (etc) are the same for you?

  38. Not for me.

  39. I think he means that ‘tree’ is actually pronounced ‘chree’. Similarly for ‘trick’ (‘chrik’), ‘train’ (‘chrain’), ‘truck’ (‘chruck’).
    However, while the ‘tree’ may sound like ‘chree’, I wonder whether it’s valid to say that ‘tree’ and ‘church’ start with the same sound. For a start, the point of articulation and tongue position different. They may both sound like ‘ch’, but the ‘t’ in ‘tree’ is further forward, with the tongue flattened. Moreover, the ‘t’ in ‘tree’ is articulated in a way that already anticipates the following ‘r’. In fact, ‘tr’ in ‘tree’ might even be better compared to the ‘ch’ in the Chinese word ‘chá’ (it is a retroflex consonant) than the ‘ch’ in ‘church’.
    Secondly, as long as native speakers, helped no doubt by the orthography and the presence of other speakers who clearly articulate the ‘t’ and the ‘r’, are aware that ‘tr’ is a combination of ‘t’ and ‘r’, they are unlikely to think of the word as literally being ‘chree’.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    I have heard some people say ‘chree’ and I agree with bathrobe’s phonetic description, but to me that sounds like a child’s pronunciation, not the most common one among adults. Perhaps we are dealing with a regional difference?

  41. Possibly it’s regional. It may also be a difference between careful speakers and — how should I put it — “natural” speakers.
    It’s actually rather difficult to articulate ‘t’ and ‘r’ clearly and separately. For speakers with a trilled ‘r’ (e.g., Scottish) perhaps it’s not a problem, but if you use the usual English ‘r’, it’s hard not to let the ‘t’ become a fricative that runs into the ‘r’. Whether you pronounce it ‘chree’ or something less blatantly fricative, the fact is that the ‘t’ very easily runs into the following ‘r’.
    A similar phenomenon exists with ‘dew’. My normal pronunciation is identical to ‘jew’. But careful speakers say ‘dyew’, articulating the ‘d’ and ‘y’ quite clearly. Of course, most North American speakers say ‘doo’, which removes the problem altogether.

  42. I’m just listening to Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”. In the line “It’s coming for me through the trees”, the ‘t’ in ‘trees’ is definitely not a clean ‘t’ sound. It’s a fricative that sounds similar to a lightly pronounced ‘ch’. I don’t think her pronunciation is particularly unusual.

  43. [LH: Thank you for giving us the space to pursue this discussion.]
    > I would also point out that the vast majority of the world’s languages have no “rules” in the sense we’re talking about (rules imposed by “authorities,” which people must be forced to obey)…
    Therefore English should have no rules ?
    Why are the rules taught at all ? Why did I battle through what was then called “parsing and analysis”, and spelling tests ?
    Should all English clalsses at school be abolished , beause there is no need for rules?
    Indeed, are we talking about the same thing ?
    I am talking about the written language. Perhaps those differing are concerned with the spoken language – thus the vast majority of those languages with no rules would be spoken only, not written ?
    On the other thread, not being a linguist, I don’t follow the detailed discussion of “tree” and “church”, etc., but there are fine shades here which I don’t hear – I hear tree = tram or church = choose, as I suspect most non-specialists do.
    And I most definitely don’t hear “greeM beans” … :-)!

  44. Therefore English should have no rules ?
    English, like all languages, has rules in the linguistic sense: nouns have singulars and plurals but no duals, verbs have an inflected simple past but a phrasal “past perfect,” words can start with some consonant combinations but not others, and so on. Those rules are learned in infancy and do not need to be taught.
    Why are the rules taught at all ? Why did I battle through what was then called “parsing and analysis”, and spelling tests ?
    The artificial “rules” you’re talking about are taught precisely because they’re artificially imposed to create a special “higher” stratum to separate the sheep from the goats — they are not part of the language. And you battled through them because your parents and teachers told you to, just like you did everything else in school.
    Should all English classes at school be abolished, because there is no need for rules?
    Ideally, but in practice no, because now that we’ve set up the higher stratum people need to learn it so they can navigate it. But it should be seen for what it is, a fancy addition rather than the “correct” language, and people should clearly distinguish the language’s own rules (which no one needs to be taught) from the suit-and-tie stuff they learn in school.
    And I most definitely don’t hear “greeM beans” .
    I assure you you do; you’re just not listening for it. If you have a habit of pronouncing distinctly and separating your words, you may not say it yourself, but it’s almost impossible to say the phrase “green beans” quickly without assimilating the nasal to the immediately following labial consonant (i.e., n becomes m to match b).

  45. I would only add that, with regard to written language, I have nothing against people offering advice and even writing guidelines meant to improve prose (many of the silliest blanket proscriptions that so-called anti-prescriptivists deride, like not ending a sentence with a preposition, seem to have originated as reasonable suggestions for improving clarity and style). I just think it’s wrong-headed to approach any piece of writing and ask not if it’s clear, not if it’s elegant, but is it correct, does it follow the rule? That’s truly letting the tail wag the dog.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    I don’t know anything technical about pronunciation, but, perhaps to make myself clear, I would pronounce insure and ensure differently, even in a sentence.

    How? Surely you don’t pronounce ensure with e as in bed? If not, what sound are you using that’s different from the i in in?

    And I’m afraid I simply don’t understand why anyone would say “greeM beans”.

    Because [m] and [b] are both made with the lips, while [n] is not. To find a language that never turns [n] in front of [b] or [p] into [m], you have to go all the way to Australia.
    Surely you’ve noticed the ng sound in drink? Compare sin, sing and sink… and pay attention to what your tongue is doing.

  47. Surely you don’t pronounce ensure with e as in bed?
    Why not? That seems like a plausible pronunciation to me, if one is a careful enunciator. I think I pronounce it that way sometimes, if I want to make clear which word I’m using (since I make a careful separation in writing between i-, which I reserve for insurance, and e-).

  48. “Should all English clalsses at school be abolished , beause there is no need for rules?”
    We need English class to learn spelling, and learn literature, not to learn rules. Even a blind drunken weirdo on the street who is illiterate knows every rule of the actual English language that all of us do. The rules of grammar are inside the head, not in a book or on a chalkboard. Teaching English, for grammar, is like teaching binocular vision or bipedal locomotion. (Spelling, on the other hand, is like teaching ballet to bears.)
    Pronouncing ‘ensure’ and ‘insure’ differently isn’t careful pronunciation, it’s an act of emphasizing divergent spelling. By the same token you could literally say “saLmon” (the fish), or psyTCHology. Spelling is obsolete, because it preserves the nuances of speech as they were hundreds of years ago. Those nuances were lost for a reason though: they were a waste of time and effort, and everyone subconsciously knew they could get on without them.
    Sticklers for rules (which includes the Hysterical Linguistic Apocalyptic Chaos set) have a fundamental lack of appreciation for the capabilities of the human mind. The number of homonyms/homophones is staggering but nobody has a problem understanding them. I assume you don’t pronounce “weight” and “wait” differently, or “sun” and “son”, or “knight” and “night”.
    Spelling is an artiface, maintained by disgruntled janitors, which is why it’s clunky. Spoken speech (and comprehension for that matter) has the elegance of a stream-lined biological entity, because that’s what it is.
    “if I want to make clear which word I’m using”
    In other words, you want people to know how to spell the word you are using. People already know the difference between insuring an item/person and ensuring THAT some event happens. (the ‘that’ isn’t always explicit: “She would ensure him [A Place In Society]“)

  49. marie-lucie says:

    We don’t usually realize our language has unwritten rules that we never were taught, until we try teaching it to others. We are already so good at speaking by the time we go to school that we only remember what we found difficult there, particularly spelling (unless we are lucky to speak Spanish or another language with more obvious links between spelling and pronunciation). Many people think that it is easy to teach your own language: I think that it is very difficult, because you cannot build on your own experience acquiring your own language in the way that you could build on your own experience of learning math or other typical school subject. For instance, I have detailed recollections of some of the things I found, not really hard, but strange about English at the beginning, and if I were teaching English to French speakers I would know what I should be especially careful to emphasize. But even after several years of teaching French to English speakers there were times when students said “Why didn’t you explain such-and-such to us?” and I could only reply “It didn’t occur to me that you would have difficulty with it.” Some things that would already be in the everyday language of a 3 or 4 year old French child (and therefore no teachers in French schools would even think of discussing them) cause lifelong problems to even very fluent anglophones (and of course the reverse is true for French speakers learning English, or for second-language learners in general). (This is why serious programs for training second language teachers take time and effort, not just a couple of weeks before you go teach in Korea).

  50. Richard Hershberger says:

    To expand on Marie-Lucie’s point with an example from English, consider the phrasal verb.
    Native English speakers have no difficulty with the difference between “put on” (a shirt) and “put out” (a fire) and “put off” (a decision). We know from early childhood that we can say “John put the shirt on” and “John put on the shirt” and “John put it on” but not “John put on it”. The rules of phrasal verbs are so innate that even professional grammarians didn’t notice them until the sometime in the 20th century. But phrasal verbs give ESL students fits. Native speakers immediately recognize that something is off when someone who has imperfectly learned English gets one wrong, but probably won’t be able to identify the general problem, since phrasal verbs never made it into traditional English grammars.
    This also very nicely illustrates a real rule, not a fake one that needs to be taught and retaught to enforce.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Phrasal verbs were indeed one of the things I found most “off-putting” when learning English. Why “sit down” why “sit” should be enough? (etc).

  52. > otherwise we descend into communications chaos.This is the “argument” that’s constantly made by prescriptivists, but it’s completely devoid of any relation to reality. Point me to a single historical instance where this has happened.

    I have real trouble understanding written Haitian Creole, trouble I don’t have with French. I suspect writing the former following the spelling conventions of the latter, as far as they fit, would make things about 90% easier for me, even given the differences in grammar.
    Understanding ad-hoc Latin transcriptions from Yiddish-speakers is work, work I suspect I wouldn’t have to do if I were IRCing with their great-grandparents if they had learned German spelling conventions at school, as I believe many of those who went to school did.

  53. Ugh, a line break was eaten there!

  54. I have real trouble understanding written Haitian Creole
    With all due respect, you would only have a point if Haitians had a problem understanding Haitian Creole. The problems of foreigners are not at issue.

  55. The problems of foreigners are not at issue.

    What? Yes they are, for any definition of “foreigner” that involves people with something other than exactly the same speech community you have, which is something it has to.
    It seems to me not a coincidence that the down with prescriptivism! movement arose with the academic pre-eminence of English-speaking North America, three hundred and fifteen million people with the dialectal diversity of Rheinland-Pfalz or Connaught (okay, maybe I ’m being unfair to Newfoundland).

  56. David Marjanović says:

    But phrasal verbs give ESL students fits.

    That, of course, depends. “John put on it” is not something that would ever occur to a native speaker of German — simply because it happens to be ungrammatical in German, too.
    (Or rather not “happens to” — for all I know, we’re looking at the results of common descent.)

    I have real trouble understanding written Haitian Creole

    You are talking about spelling, not about grammar. If English spelling suddenly stopped following the current rules which only apply “over 85 % of the time” and adopted these here instead (“modestly entitled Romanised English“), you’d have major trouble with reading your mother tongue, even though the rules would have become stricter.

  57. > I have real trouble understanding written Haitian Creole
    You are talking about spelling, not about grammar.

    I’m talking about both. I can’t write “she does be smoking outside the building” and expect speakers of standard English to understand the details of the habitual aspect, despite that the construction is grammatical and understandable to me and to the speech community I grew up in.

  58. Once again, the point you were supporting—”otherwise we descend into communications chaos”—referred to the ability of native speakers to understand each other. The argument is that if we allow “ungrammatical” constructions to go un-sneered-at, people will wake up one day and be unable to understand what their neighbor is talking about, with prepositions and gerunds and whatnot all over the place. The experience of foreign learners is irrelevant.

  59. Once again, how do you decide who is a foreigner? I don’t have a lot of respect for the Scandinavian approach, with four distinct written standards for Continental North Germanic, where one would have been plenty. And Finland-Swedish speakers still have occasional trouble communicating with folk from Scania, and everyone else has trouble understanding the Danes, which I have trouble believing would be possible if everyone shared TV and radio programming.

  60. Richard Hershberger says:

    “Once again, how do you decide who is a foreigner?”
    Were you raised speaking Haitian Creole? If not, your difficulties with it are unsurprising. I suppose I could cluck disapprovingly at the Chinese for insisting on speaking Chinese, regardless of my incomprehension of the language. But this would be silly, now wouldn’t it?
    I think what you might be aiming at is the possibility of a large language community (e.g. American English speakers) breaking up into dialects, and eventually mutually incomprehensible languages. Clearly this can happen, since we have the Romance languages today rather than good honest Vulgar Latin. But it has not been demonstrated that this can happen without a big extra-linguistic push. If we posit a few centuries of Dark Ages, then yes, at the other end we may have people from Oregon and people from Michigan speaking seperate languages.
    The doom-and-gloomers look at influences which tend to create language diversity and conclude that this is just like the Goths overrunning the empire. There are other influences which tend to create language unity. Ignore these and you have no hope of actually understanding how language works.
    The reaction some of us have to the doom-and-gloomers is because that crowd shows little interest in actually understanding how language works, and indeed often condemns the idea of actually understanding this. These people are tiresome know-nothings, and are properly regarded accordingly.

  61. Let me try to be a bit clearer in what I’m saying:

    • Standard (written, let’s say) languages are good and useful things. They make clear, unambiguous communication easier. They make historical research easier—cf. that reading text full of this sort of thing is much harder on folks nowadays than is standard 19th-century English. They make prejudiced decisions on the basis of language use harder.
    • To implement a standard (written) language somewhere for a collection of people living along a dialect continuum, it’s necessary to decide what qualifies as standard and what doesn’t, and for the people using the standard language to follow that, in their use of that standard language.
    • If a particular subset of that dialect continuum doesn’t follow the standard—if it decides to invent its own standard, or if education in the standard is particularly bad, to the extent that thorough competence in the standard is rare—then unambiguous communication becomes harder, and prejudiced decisions on the basis of language use becomes easier.
    • On an individual level, this is also true. Not a written example, but I hadn’t encountered the ‘where are you at?’ construction before I visited the US five years ago or so, and interpreting it on a phone with bad reception needed effort, effort I didn’t want to expend after a transatlantic flight.
    • Most of these points hold for spoken standards, but implementing a written standard by saying ‘X is wrong, you meant Y’ is workable and has historically worked. I’m not aware of any implementation of a universal spoken standard in a given language in this manner.

    Richard, it happened in Germanic Scandinavia, without an big extra-linguistic push—certainly Dutch and Flemish share a written standard despite a few centuries of comparable political and religious differences. And the Scandinavian languages seem to be growing further apart these days, even with much easier communication and travel. As I understand it, the spoken Danish of a hundred years ago was significantly closer to the spoken Oslo Norwegian of a hundred years ago than are the two respective languages today.

  62. Aidan, I think understand your concerns, though I think they’re based in misunderstandings of how language works. First, if Haitian creole is hard for a French speaker to understand, it’s not because it diverged by degrees from some earlier standard French, but rather because, like all creoles, it never was standard – it’s a blend, to my knowledge, and its wikipedia description, at least, makes it seem pretty clear that it’s not a dialect of French, but a different language.
    Language changes all the time, and unpredictably, but language divergence is a result of loss of contact between speakers, or in some cases, from large numbers of people learning a different language, and injecting a number of their first language’s features into their second. Thus creoles, from a group of diverse linguistic backgrounds assembling a common tongue.
    Sadly, paper-writing calls, but I think the concerns you raise are widespread among a good number of educated non-linguists who have no particular desire themselves to grind down linguistic minorities. The misunderstanding comes, I think, from regarding language as some fragile societal construct that needs constant maintenance to avoid decay, rather than a robust, fundamental human trait – as creoles show, that’s not the case. Thus the widespread concern with the ‘ambiguity’ often assumed to come from noncompliance with an arbitrary standard – I’d just search the archives at Language Log; they deal with that a lot.
    One more thing – some central authority promulgating a standard does not make for instant uniformity, and standard language can only discourage prejudiced decisions if, as you say, conformity is absolute, or at least if the variation is below some or another arbitrary level. Rather though, the heterogeneous situation you label as the downside to lack of standardization is in fact the original situation, and to the extent it still occurs it is not the result of sloppiness on speakers’ parts but the perpetuation of the original situation. Well, sadly, the social implications of language regulations are complex, and it would, I think, take a book more than a blog comment to address them adequately. Or at least way more time than I have…

  63. Parvomagnus, the relationship of Haitian Creole to French is comparable to the relationship of Singlish to standard English. Have a listen to this Singlish; the guy in the yellow shirt is acrolectal, the other two less so. It’s clear that it’s possible to speak standard English every day and be understood in Singapore, by Singlish speakers, and that reasonable numbers of Singlish speakers are very close to standard English in their speech; what value exactly would Singapore get from establishing a written standard for Singlish, and diverting resources from teaching competence in the lingua franca of the modern world?
    My difficulty understanding written Haitian Creole is *chiefly* a matter of orthography, not of its grammatical differences from French. I could take the effort and get used to the orthography and all would be fine, but network effects mean it would be even better for Haitian Creole speakers and for native speakers of French if that were not necessary.
    Asserting that the non-Abstand difference between two speech varieties A and B is a question of difference of language, rather than of dialect, is something that linguists in theory leave to politicians. Yes, Haitian Creole is a creole in “genetic” terms, but in practical terms mutual intelligibility is quite high, still. And Jamaica has a creole-mesolect-acrolect continuum that’s not in itself very different from the Old World dialect vs. standard continuum. I don’t see any intrinsic reason why that couldn’t have worked in Haiti.

  64. Parvomagnus, also, for the sake of your own perspective, I had a respectable amount of undergraduate education in linguistics, and had serious interest in postgraduate work in a very specific area of it. That’s not happening, though, and I’m lucky that I find other fields interesting and rewarding enough that I’m happy to direct my energies there. But I don’t think that ‘educated non-linguist’ is a very useful description of me right now, except in a strict professional sense; I’ve a reasonable command of most of the non-Chomskyan ideas of the field, and I seem to be talking to you about case studies of language change and the establishment of creoles that you haven’t come across before.
    (Maybe I should actually get my shit together and write a paper on the dialect I grew up with; would certainly help this sort of argument, hahah.)

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