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Language Criticism and the Usage Panel. The Role of Language Criticism in a Multicultural Society Linguistics 3430 Fall 2007. Today’s Questions. Why are some people so concerned about other people’s linguistic innovations? What kinds of arguments count for usage critics?

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language criticism and the usage panel

Language Criticism and the Usage Panel

The Role of Language Criticism in a Multicultural Society

Linguistics 3430

Fall 2007

today s questions
Today’s Questions
  • Why are some people so concerned about other people’s linguistic innovations?
  • What kinds of arguments count for usage critics?
  • What social issues are symbolically at stake in usage controversies?
  • What do we learn about these issues from a longitudinal study of a dictionary’s usage panel?
language criticism in history
Language Criticism in History
  • In every age, language criticism has been concerned with issues that in retrospect often seem incomprehensibly trivial. —G. Nunberg
  • Selected issues of eighteenth-century language critics:
    • Jonathan SwiftBritish author: mob (mobile vulgus), pozz (positive)
    • Samuel Johnson British lexicographer: eccentric (meaning odd)
    • Noah Webster American lexicographer: British spellings, e.g., honour and theatre
    • Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, linguist: notice (as a verb)
language changes
Language Changes
  • We see this by comparing Shakespearean English to current English:

Don Pedro: Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?

Claudio: I have drunk poison while he uttered it. (Much Ado, Act 5, Scene 1)

  • Innovations may disappear or they may become respectable.
  • This is language change.
  • Language change cannot be halted.
so why study language criticism
So why Study Language Criticism?
  • Uninteresting issue:
    • The particular usage issues that critics seize on.
  • Interesting issues:
    • The social issues symbolically at stake.
    • The arguments that the critics use when they reject or recommend specific usage practices.
social issues in language criticism
Social Issues in Language Criticism
  • Usages are linked to social groups.
    • Swift disliked words used by the idle aristocracy.
    • Webster disliked conformity to the British model.
  • Generally, social critics ignore usage habits of traditionally recognized oppressed groups.
  • Exceptions may be made for comical portrayals, e.g., British chavs.
  • And for intra-group critics, e.g., African American social critics and AAVE (Bill Cosby, John McWhorter)
usage critics target linguistic habits of privileged groups
Usage Critics Target Linguistic Habits of Privileged Groups
  • ‘Psychobabble’. Own your feelings. Passive-aggressive. Project. Process. In a good space. Vent.Work through your issues.
  • ‘Youth speak’. I just spaced it. Really. He’s like, ‘Oh my God’. You know?
  • ‘Politically correct speak’. Differently abled. The prison community. Eurocentric.
the arguments used by critics
The Arguments Used by Critics
  • Language criticism in the British tradition assumes a shared conception of intellect: knowledge of Greco-Roman history, Latin, western philosophy and rhetoric.
  • British satirical magazinePunch serves this demographic.
  • Talk about grammar had intellectual merit.
  • John Stuart Mill, British utilitarian philosopher, says in Philosophical Investigations (1843): “the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic”.
the prestige of latin
The Prestige of Latin
  • Educated British citizens were typically fluent in Latin and steeped in Roman literature.
  • Using Latin was the way to gain status and display in-group sophistication.
  • In this intellectual environment, it makes sense to use Latin as a model for English usage.
  • As the British class system breaks down in the 20th century, so does traditional language criticism.
  • England will produce a great radical language critic: George Orwell, but that’s another story.
the decline of grammar
The Decline of Grammar
  • Nunberg: “If we are bent on finding a decline in standards, the place to look is not in the language itself but in the way it is talked about.”
  • An example. Agreement between a pronoun and anyone, each person. Everyone should take his/their test.
modern english usage by h w fowler
Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler

Each and the rest are singular; that is undisputed; in a perfect language there would exist pronouns and possessives that were of as doubtful gender as they, and yet were, like them, singular; i.e., it would have words meaning himself-or-herself or his-or-her [...] We lack the power of saying in one word his-or-her. There are three makeshifts: A, as anybody can see for himself or herself; B, as anybody can see for themselves, and C, as anybody can see for himself. No one who can help it chooses A [...] it is so clumsy as to be ridiculous [...] B is the popular solution. It sets the literary man’s teeth on edge [...] C is here recommended. It involves the convention that where the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important, he and his shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man.

the harbrace college handbook 1950s
The Harbrace College Handbook (1950s)

In formal English, use a singular pronoun to refer to such antecedents as anyone, someone and nobody. In informal English, plural pronouns are occasionally used to refer to such words.

no one finds grammar interesting anymore
No one Finds Grammar Interesting anymore

Nunberg: “The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking about grammatical problems that encouraged thoughtful attention to language, not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules and strictures.”

grammar as an old fashioned pursuit
Grammar as an Old-Fashioned Pursuit
  • Good grammar becomes one of many values that liberal America has forsaken.
  • Grammar is viewed as something that schools used to teach, along with moral values, etc.
  • Grammar becomes identified with conservative politics.
grammar and conservatism
Grammar and Conservatism

The fact that some people are too thickheaded to grasp, for example, that ‘anyone’ is singular, as the ‘one’ in it plainly denotes, does not oblige those who know better to tolerate ‘anyone may do as they please’ [...] And don’t let fanatical feminists convince you that it must be ‘as he or she pleases’, which is clumsy and usually serves no other purpose than that of placating the kind of extremist who does not deserve to be placated. —John Simon, former theater critic, New York magazine

what is the function of a dictionary
What is the function of a dictionary?
  • Users of monolingual dictionaries are highly literate.
  • They use for the dictionary for guidance in verbal self-presentation.
    • Flaunt vs. flout, disinterested vs. uninterested, hark back vs. harken back?
    • What’s the plural of rhinoceros?
    • What does nonplussed mean?
    • What does internecine mean?
    • How does one pronounce hegemony?
    • Should I say a person like me or a person such as myself?
a big lexicographic failure
A Big Lexicographic Failure
  • In 1961 Merriam-Webster publishes the Third International Dictionary.
  • Influenced by Chomsky’s linguistics its editors take a descriptive approach: they include substandard words and abandon labels like improper, colloquial, incorrect.
  • Webster’s Third is widely attacked. The NY Times says:

Webster’s has, it is apparent, surrendered to the permissive school that has been busily extending its beachhead in English instruction in the schools [and] reinforced the notion that good English is whatever is popular… It can only accelerate the deterioration of the English language.

the usage panel
The Usage Panel
  • In 1968, the Houghton Mifflin Company decides to try a third way in its American Heritage Dictionary.
  • Instead of prescribing or describing, it tells readers what a select group of scholars says about controversial usages.
  • These scholars comprise the Usage Panel: 175 writers, public figures, academics.
the results
The Results
  • In 1988, Nunberg asks the panel members to rule on many of these usages again.
  • He also asks them some new questions.
  • Did the panel become more permissive? Yes and no.
  • Their responses differed according to whether they were thinking about traditional usage concerns or usage issues inspired by political ideology.
usage recommendations based on latin etymology
Usage Recommendations Based on Latin Etymology
  • Anxious for ‘eager’ (angare ‘press tightly’)

1968: 23%

1988: 52%

  • Aggravating for ‘irritating’ (adgravare ‘make worse’)

1968: 43%

1988: 71%

  • Transpire for ‘occur’ (transpirare ‘breath across’)

1968: 38%

1988: 58%

latin etymology issues cont d
Latin Etymology Issues (cont’d)
  • Cohort for ‘companion’ (cohors ‘a group’)

1968: 31%

1988: 71%

  • Decimate for ‘slaughter the majority of’ (decimare ‘to kill one in ten’)

1968: 26%

1988: 66%

has our panel simply become more permissive
Has our Panel SimplyBecome more Permissive?
  • The answer is not that simple.
  • The panel is still strict on certain issues:
  • Disinterested for ‘uninterested’. Most Americans are disinterested in politics.

1968: 7%

1988: 11%

  • Hopefully as a sentence adverb. Hopefully, we will not have to leave early.

1968: 44%

1988: 27%

why is the panel giving up on latin then
Why is the Panel Giving up on Latin then?
  • The diminished relevance and authority of Latin and Greek, and of western civilization, as a shared cultural context.
  • Etymology can help us figure out what a word means, but not what the word should mean.
the panel applies some rules mechanistically
The Panel Applies some Rules Mechanistically
  • They occasionally ‘hypercorrect’:
  • Splitting an infinitive. (to boldly go)

It appears that much of my life as a journalist has been devoted to sedulously setting off firecrackers.

Acceptable to 28%

  • Modifying an absolute property (very false)

The American Constitution is still nearly unique in that it offers no self-destruct mechanism.

Acceptable to 28%

rigid adherence to traditional norms
Rigid Adherence to Traditional Norms
  • There’s not much intellectual merit in many of the usage guidelines that the panel is providing.
  • When they consider the usage issues, the panelists make comments like, “The shade of Sister Petra sits watch over this one.”
what do the usage critics care about
What do the Usage Critics Care about?
  • They put thought into questions involving feminist usage issues.
  • These questions were new in 1988.
  • These questions involved:
    • The feminine suffix -ess
    • The use of the masculine pronoun as a generic pronoun
the feminine suffix ess
The Feminine Suffix -ess
  • When the ambassadress arrives, please show her to my office.

women: 13%

men: 28%

  • Mary is such a charming hostess that her parties always go off smoothly.

women: 74%

men: 92%

  • His only hope now is to marry an heiress.

women: 92%

men: 95%

  • Mr. Bhutto’s daughter and political heiress, Benazir Bhutto, returned to Pakistan in April.

women: 28%

men: 37%

which pronoun
Which Pronoun?
  • A writer who draws upon personal experience for____material should not be surprised if reviewers seize on that fact.

his: 50%

other singular (e.g., his/her): 48%

their: 2%

  • A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of____income can be prosecuted under the new law.

his: 46%

other singular (e.g., his/her): 53%

their: 1%

which pronoun32
Which Pronoun?
  • A patient who doesn’t accurately report_____sexual history to the physician runs a risk of misdiagnosis.

his: 37%

other singular (e.g., his/her): 61%

their: 2%

  • A child who wants to become a doctor should be encouraged by___ parents and teachers.

his: 36%

other singular (e.g., his/her): 60%

their: 2%

  • Conclusion. Where a gender bias is possible, the neutral form is used.
  • “The feminist program has [...] succeeded, in that it has forced most literate speakers to reflect on the way in which usage might reinforce gender stereotypes.” (Nunberg)
  • There is no longer a shared conception of literacy or culture. We live in a socially and culturally fragmented society.
  • Public discourse is now about the competing needs and rights of social groups.
  • Today’s language criticism is radical rather than conservative.
  • It aims at eliminating usage perceived as perpetuating negative attitudes toward traditionally recognized oppressed groups.
  • It has been parodied as ‘political correctness’ but this usage program is the only form of language criticism that is meaningful today.
  • When we talk about ‘p.c.’ usage issues, we’re talking about vital social concerns.