THE SOCIAL LIFE OF LANGUAGE.

OUPblog has a Very Short Introductions (VSI) series that “combines a small format with authoritative analysis,” and a recent entry is Challenges of the social life of language by John Edwards, a sociolinguist and editor of the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. He lists ten ideas that he thinks people should be more aware of, and most of them, while presenting no surprises to LH readers (“Languages and dialects are not the same thing,” “There are no ‘incorrect’ or ‘illogical’ dialects,” etc.), are well worth publicizing. I did find #3, “Everyone is (at least) bilingual,” strange; while it’s true that “there are no easy measures by which to differentiate bilingual (or multilingual) speakers from their monolingual counterparts,” the tagline summary is just silly. But one statement in #8 “Linguistic prescriptivism and purism arise from the belief that corrections, improvements, or protections are needed to safeguard languages” is not just wrong but dangerously wrong: “Yet every maker of a dictionary must be a prescriptivist.” Not so! Fortunately, the invaluable Kory Stamper, lexicographer sans peur et sans reproche, has a post called “A Compromise: How To Be A Reasonable Prescriptivist” that addresses this very issue:

Here is why we were all in a lather over those articles [by Joan Acocella; see here]: “descriptivist” is not a slur, and neither is “prescriptivist” a title of honor (or vice versa). They are merely terms that describe two approaches to analyzing language use. They are not linguistic matter and anti-matter, and when brought together, they will not destroy the universe in a cataclysm of bombast and “ain’t”s. Good descriptivism involves a measure of prescriptivism, and good prescriptivism involves a measure of descriptivism. What good is a dictionary that enters “irregardless” but neglects to tell you that it’s not accepted as standard English? And how good is a usage and style guide that merely parrots rules with no careful consideration for the historical record of edited prose, or whether this rule does indeed produce clearer, cleaner writing?

There, isn’t that sensible? As is, of course, the entire post; go read it. (I’ll warn you in advance, though, that the comment thread contains the usual contentious know-nothing remarks from the usual sort of pigheaded commenter, in this case going by the nom de guerre “calitri.”)

Comments

  1. Given the amount of bilingualism in the world, I think #3 is a fair approximation to the truth. Francois Grosjean estimates it as over 50% worldwide, and even in the rather monolingual U.S. it’s 20%. Hard to make honest counts, of course.

  2. sans peur at sans reproche
    I only mention it because I can’t remember ever having seen a languagehat typo before.

  3. Kory Stamper seems to be a very nice person. And now there are some very to-the-point polite comments by Ø.

  4. sans peur at sans reproche
    I only mention it because I can’t remember ever having seen a languagehat typo before.
    Whoops! I have, but when I see ‘em, I fix ‘em, as I will now do with this one.

  5. narrowmargin says:

    #8 “Linguistic prescriptivism and purism arise from the belief that corrections, improvements, or protections are needed to safeguard languages” is not just wrong but dangerously wrong… Not so!
    Not so? I don’t understand. Isn’t “protecting” the language exactly what propels the prescriptivists? Isn’t “protecting” the very illusion they harbor? Maybe I’m missing something.

  6. Narrowmargin, I think you misread the sentence (as I did the first time, in fact, reading too fast). What you quoted was the heading; the statement that is “dangerously wrong” is “Yet every maker of a dictionary must be a prescriptivist.”
    If I understand the Hat correctly, the problem is the implication that lexicographers are exclusively prescriptive (i.e., in the “prescriptivist camp”), whereas Stamper argues that most good dictionaries are both descriptive and “reasonably prescriptive”.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    This Edwards fellow is in Nova Scotia, a university or two over from where marie-lucie taught, I think. Don’t know whether they would have crossed paths? #2 is true only for some values of “incorrect” – some language varieties are contextually inappropriate for some types of discourse, whether because of social factors or chicken-and-egg issues a la “no one has previously used this language to talk about inorganic chemistry in so it can’t be done without first coming up with appropriate agreement on the specialized/technical vocabulary needed to have that conversation.” The point in #7 about “power” is sort of tautologically true, but what was so interesting about that Nicholas Ostler book is the variousness of the ways in which languages have become associated with numerous or “powerful” speakers – sometimes the conquered assimilate to the language of the conqueror but not infrequently it happens the other way round, for example. #3 is either wrong or incoherent. If you go into the monolingual hinterlands of the United States and say, well, this little girl knows the meaning of “merci” and “bonjour” from some children’s book and is therefore “bilingual” in French because there’s no bright line you can draw between her and someone with native-level competence in French, I can’t help you.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Just on John Cowan’s point, I don’t think a claim of >50% bilingualism makes a statement that everyone is bilingual a fair approximation to the truth. I don’t think one would accept a statement that everyone is right-handed or everyone is heterosexual as a fair approximation, even though the percentages for those phenomena are much more substantially >50%. Unless it’s like saying well, if you’ve ever picked something up with your right hand or ever had a single moment of seeming attraction to the opposite sex we’re just going to lump you in with the majority because there’s no brightline test.

  9. narrowmargin says:

    That’s what I thought at first.
    But look at the punctuation: after the close quote, LH says “is not just wrong but dangerously wrong”, which seems to me a comment on that quote.
    I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a molehill (to coin a phrase), but I’m thinking of the clarity, which, of course, I could be missing.

  10. Missing out the quoted title, the sentence reads: ‘But one statement in #8 is not just wrong but dangerously wrong’, which seems clear enough – it’s just that the length of the title gets in the way.

  11. narrowmargin says:

    Oh for god’s sake! The first quote was a title!
    Excuse me, folks, I’ve got to defenestrate myself…

  12. I heard from Marie-Lucie today, and she’s been sick. I think she’s recovering now and no doubt she’ll reappear at Language Hat soon.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: This Edwards fellow is in Nova Scotia, a university or two over from where marie-lucie taught, I think. Don’t know whether they would have crossed paths?
    John Edwards is a professor at St Francis Xavier University (StFX for short), in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, several hours away by car from Halifax where I live. He teaches psychology rather than linguistics but does research in sociolinguistics, especially multilingualism. I have met him at regional conferences, but not for several years.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, indeed, you must have written your comment while I was composing mine! It’s been very rough lately but it looks like I will live from now on.

  15. Good. I’m so sorry you were ill.

  16. Sympathies and best wishes for your recovery, Marie-Lucie.

  17. Welcome back, and I join everyone else in wishing you a speedy and thorough recovery!

  18. If I understand the Hat correctly, the problem is the implication that lexicographers are exclusively prescriptive (i.e., in the “prescriptivist camp”), whereas Stamper argues that most good dictionaries are both descriptive and “reasonably prescriptive”.
    Exactly so.
    Just on John Cowan’s point, I don’t think a claim of >50% bilingualism makes a statement that everyone is bilingual a fair approximation to the truth. I don’t think one would accept a statement that everyone is right-handed or everyone is heterosexual as a fair approximation, even though the percentages for those phenomena are much more substantially >50%.
    I completely agree, and was surprised JC would make such a claim.

  19. Oh, I agree it’s greatly exaggerated. But I think most Americans are under the impression that bilingualism is quite rare.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are parts of the world where multilingualism is currently quite common, and others where it is much rarer. Which is which has not been stable over time. To the extent that one of the things that’s driving the growth of multilingualism worldwide in non-Anglophone parts of the world is an increasing number of people learning English (to whatever extent you have decided is necessary to qualify as non-monolingual), it is highly unsurprising that the effects of that trend play out differently in Anglophone countries.
    I see that StFX where Prof. Edward teaches is trying its best to tend the mostly-extinguished embers of the old Gaelic-speaking presence in Nova Scotia, but alas the trendline doesn’t look very good. I expect the political pressure to make Anglophone Canadian kids at least go through the motions of learning French (and the career advantages of mastering it, for certain sorts of careers) might have reduced the space and resources for encouraging/sustaining bilingualism in a different pair of languages (e.g. English/Gaelic), but for all I know Nova Scotia Gaelic was already too far gone before that I believe relatively modern political dynamic had arisen.

  21. I’m not budging a fucking inch. Descriptivists are right, prescriptivists wrong. Recognizing that some words should be marked in dictionaries as not standard, and generally approving of writing advice, doesn’t make a descriptivist partly prescriptivist. It just makes him or her a moderately intelligent person who A) appreciates the science of linguistics and B) isn’t a fucking moron.
    Apologies to friends with ingrained prescriptivist habits. I’m a little cranky.

  22. “Paiens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit”, hey?

  23. I think that’s “Paien ont tort et Chrestien ont dreit.” Aoi!

  24. marie-lucie says:

    RC, your quotation is from an article written in French but by an anglophone couple (their writing is grammatically correct but stylistically not very French). It does not make sense to have singular nouns as subjects of plural verbs, whether in Old or Modern French (the latter as in JC’s modern spelling). The OF nouns here should be Paiens and Chrestiens (and all instances of written s – or of other consonants – were pronounced at the time).

  25. Marie-Lucie: Naah, Rodger is more nearly right than either of us. The critical text (there are several manuscripts) is “Paien unt tort e Chrestiens unt dreit” (the penultimate line of LXXIX), and paien < pagani is indeed plural, whereas the singular would be paiens < paganus. I forget who it is that says that in learning Old French, knowing Modern French is a positive handicap, but he has a point.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for the explanation, JC. Rodger, apologies. But I see that the authors in question failed to change Modern “ont” back to OF “unt”.

  27. Marie-Lucie: Bon retour au blogue, et prompt rétablissement!
    Just to clear things up on the subject of nominal singular and plural morphology in Old French: there was a a two-case declension for nouns. In the most common declension class of masculine nouns (deriving from the Latin second declension) final /s/ marks the singular, and zero marks the plural, *in the nominative case*: hence Old French “Li paiens”/”Li paien” “The pagan/the pagans”.
    In the Object case, confusingly, it is the polar opposite: zero marks the singular and final /s/ marks the plural: hence “Le paien/les paiens” “The pagan/the pagans”. This declension system was lost in the transition from Old to Middle French and (as a rule) the former object case forms were generalized to all positions.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Merci Etienne!

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Nova Scotia Gaelic: there are very few first-language speakers left, but there is a fair amount of interest in it as a heritage language, with several organizations offering courses. This interest often starts from a love of “Celtic” music, some of which is sung in Gaelic.

  30. I was quoting from memory, actually.

  31. As was I, badly. The two-case system is actually exactly what you’d expect from sound changes with no restructuring: nom. sg. paganus, nom. pl.pagani, acc. sg. paganum, acc. pl. paganos become paiens, paien, paien, paiens respectively, after loss of final -m in the Classical period and of all final vowels (save a, which becomes e).
    A dozen nominatives survived into Modern French as separate words, creating nom./acc. doublets: sire/seigneur < senior(em), prêtre/Provoire (proper name) < presbyter(em), copain/compagnon < companio(nem), pâtre/pasteur < pastor(em), chantre/chanteur < cantor(em), maire/majeur < maior(em), gars/garçon < Frankish *wrakjo (cf. English wretch) by metathesis, and (most surprising) on/homme < homo/hominem. In a few cases, only the nominative survives: soeur < soror, peintre < pictor, trâitre < traditor.

  32. Kory Stamper seems to be a very nice person. And now there are some very to-the-point polite comments by Ø.
    Yes, she does. And thank you, AJP. Kory does a good job of gently reminding her commenters to play nicely. But I got a bit too drawn into a confrontation there, tried a bit too hard to be funny, and in the end felt soiled by the experience and regretful for my role in prolonging some unpleasantness. Kory, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

  33. John Cowan: typo alert (I seem to be on a roll these days..:) ): last line of your last comment, “traître”, not “trâitre”.
    Also, while it is true that there was no real morphological restructuring (in terms of the distribution of nominative and accusative forms) from Latin to Old French for (most) masculine nouns, feminine nouns in -E (which lack case-marking in Old French altogether, and have singular -E and plural -ES) owe their undifferentiated -ES ending to a Vulgar Latin generalization of the accusative plural ending -AS at the expense of the nominative/vocative plural ending -AE.

  34. Yeah, French just does not love me as I love her. :-)

  35. marie-lucie says:

    JC, putting the “^” hat on the proper vowel is sometimes a problem for francophones too!

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