Avva, in the course of a discussion of the diamond industry and its ethnic makeup, makes the following observation (after someone has pointed out that language changes of its own accord):
“Language develops, of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have my opinion about the changes.”
This expresses a paradox that has plagued me ever since I began studying linguistics. A linguist has, ex officio, no opinion regarding the facts of the language; it would be like a physicist preferring one subatomic particle to another. Yet a linguist with any feel for the language can’t help but have such opinions; I, at any rate, can’t. I accept certain developments with a cheerful and welcoming heart; “hopefully” as a sentence adverb is an example. Others, like “disinterested” to mean “uninterested,” I have come to accept, however grudgingly, as semantic changes that I have to live with (though I personally will never use the new sense). But there are some that fill me with insensate rage, however unseemly it may be in a person with scientific training, and I fear I will never come to terms with them. Such a thing is the growing use of “may have” to mean “might have”: “If he had started running earlier, he may have caught the ball.” No, no, I cry (soundlessly) every time I see this—he might have caught it! A few years ago, when I began to notice this phenomenon, I started to keep a record of occurrences, but it eventually became futile; it would now make more sense to record instances of the correct usage. And what am I, proud holder of an M.Phil. in linguistics from one of our finer educational bazaars, doing talking about “correct” usage? Correct is whatever native speakers say! Yes, yes, quite correct… eppur si muove lo stomaco. It’s probably just as well I went into editing, where this irrational attitude is an asset.

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