Taming of language

Tuesday, 5th March 2019 ◆ Strangely, I don't cry; AI used to find meaning (10) Linguistics

I used to be a stickler for grammar, and an avid prescriptivist. I would get annoyed at signs proclaiming "5 items or less". I read Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves and was wholly on board: punctuation must be used correctly. I was the annoying person spouting: "I think you'll find it's 'you and I', not 'you and me'." If you were to ask me for a fruit salad, I would suggest a bowl of chopped tomatoes and cucumber.

Well, now I think that's all nonsense. Language's purpose is to aid communication, and if we are able to make ourselves understood then that purpose has been achieved. If we understand and use "5 items or less", then my view is that it is correct.

Prescription or description

Prescriptivism is the idea that there exists a correct way to use language and that we should be encouraged to use language in that way. This is the driving principle for institutions like the Académie française: they publish rulings on what is correct and incorrect use of French.

Descriptivism is the idea that language is controlled entirely by its users; if people use language in a certain way, then that is correct. This is the driving principle for dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary: they record language as it is used right now and will readily add new words and phrases once they enter common parlance. They do not attempt to define what is correct use of language.

Change is inevitable

Here's an extract from the prologue of the Canterbury Tales, an example of Middle English. It was written in the 14th Century.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour

Geofferey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales

Not even the strictest grammar Nazi would expect us to still be talking like this. Language changes over time, it's a fact. The changes which occur in the modern day are not degenerations of the language, they are completely equivalent to the changes which transformed Middle English into modern English.

A quote from Peter Sokolowski, of Merriam-Webster:

Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don't accept the changes made in their own time.

Peter Sokolowski

The French Academy

The Académie française published a mini-article last year about the use of acronyms in French. The first line reads:

The abuse of acronyms and abbreviations is a calamity, as is the proliferation of Anglicisms, but it happens alas, that these evils are combining.

L'abus de sigles et d'abréviations est une calamité, tout comme la prolifération des anglicismes, mais il arrive de surcroît, hélas, que ces maux se combinent., LMK et FYI, 8th November 2018 (translation mine)

The article is reacting to the use of English acronyms in French, namely: FYI, LMK and ASAP. It upsets me that the evolution of language cannot be embraced as the beautiful thing that it is. Yes, language is changing, and yes it is doing so by mixing with other languages. But it is a far cry from an evil or a calamity. It is a beauty.

It is true that presently, due to it's position as lingua franca, English is influcing French a lot. However, in the past the reverse was true. Depending on the source, up to 30% of English vocabulary has a French origin. Even out of FYI, LMK and ASAP, 22% of the words are derived from Old French: information and possible.

Besides, I notice that the article makes no mention of the long-standing use of RSVP in English. The point is, it's a two-way street.

Today's wrong, is tomorrow's correct

Guy Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language is a wonderful pop-linguistics book which talks about how language evolves. It has a delicious section in which Deutscher quotes various writers throughout history (including Samuel Johnson, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift) proclaiming that the English of their time is deteriorating, and that the change must be halted else we will end up speaking in grunts. Of course, this never happened. As Deutscher says:

So the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was.

Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language

Whether they like it or not, what prescriptivists think is wrong today, will be accepted as correct by the prescriptivists of the future. Jonathan Swift, author of Gullivar's Travels, even had a proposal in 1712 to start an English Academy modelled after the French. I am thankful he failed.

I conclude: please don't be a stickler. Embrace and proliferate change in your language!


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