What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
Back in February, the following article
was recommended. It is titled What Happens In Vagueness Stays In Vagueness and was the typical jeremiad on how young people were failing to communicate and ruining the language. Like Ben Stein and other conservatives, it assumes that nothing like their criticism has been heard before because it’s never been needed before; only now have the youth become so lazy and careless that they are endangering our language. I suggested the following:
<<Perhaps we can now quote an article that says something good about the
>> current articulation of thought. Frankly, I wasn’t too impressed with the
>> supposed clear thinking of the 40s and 50s and I don’t recall many people
>> articulating much of worth. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention>>
Challenged to come up with something, I found a good one.
It was hard to find and I accompanied the link with:
<<I think I may have finally found the google phrase that works, “the way
teenagers speak”. Simple, huh?
Oh, yeah. My teachers hated “huh”. I guess that’s why I can’t write so good
I then looked through my books and found the passages the following blog entry is based on. It took me a relatively short time to put it together, 2 days maybe, but almost two months to get it to my blog. As an addendum, I add a post I submitted regarding the tone of a post recently submitted to a listserv. My post was too snarky to be posted to the list, so I place it here for your enjoyment. Here ’tis:
” Well, Bob, yes. My point, of course, is that grammar mavens (= experts on
grammar) are inconsistent b/c they don’t know or think deeply about the
grammar of the language. In this case, Leigh complains about professors at
her school who
“… had no idea there was such a thing as
“who” to refer to people, who are all “that” s. How would those teachers
ever grasp the importance of the personal “a”?”
That is clearly insulting and demeaning. The only reason it doesn’t result
in a reprimand is that she doesn’t use names. She goes on to do the same
thing we see over and over, decrying the lack of standards in society…….
and, boy, do I have a great phrase for that, which I’ll mention in my post
on What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness. I mean, if I’m in a
position to criticize others, then I must be really something myself. Right?
But then Leigh trips herself up. She states
“Don’t we say “it’s not us,” in English? We don’t say “it aren’t us.” “
If she were consistent, she
would object to the “us” in “it’s not us”. I mean, really, people who can’t
distinguish the predicate nominative case of the pronoun, “we” from the
oblique case “us” shouldn’t be allowed to post to listservs, right? “It is
not we” would be the grammar mavens dictum (” a statement of opinion or
belief considered authoritative though not binding, because of the authority
of the person making it”), as in “It is not we who must make the sacrifice
but those who come after us” – note “proper” use of nominative and oblique
cases of the pronoun.
Do you see how ridiculous this grammar snootiness is? There’s room for
prescriptive grammar, to be sure, but this sort of snide remark about other
people’s usage demands a response……. and this was mine.
[I added in a personal note to the moderator:] Bob, you needn’t print this on the list if you feel it’s too acerbic. It’s
just that I’m sick of people hiding behind the politeness of others and
hurling brickbats as they please with a sense of impunity. I’ll just stick
it on my blog.
As I said, this never got posted. The last part of this blog is an extended response to this person who believes “that” is not a proper relative for a personal/human antecedent.
The request on flteach was for me to find an article which declares the current state of the articulation of thought to have some good qualities. The thrust of my post was the perennial complaints of the older generation concerning the language of the younger generation and the emptiness of such complaints.
Some years ago I posted to flteach similar complaints about our feckless youth so addicted to entertainment and so bereft of a solid moral foundation; I then pointed out that these comments were written on the eve of WW II about the people who went on to become “the Greatest Generation”. I drew the parallel with the complaints about youth in the ’90s who went on t become our Iraq and Afghanistan war heroes.
Language is only part of this. It is obviously difficult to go in search of an article which has as its theme “kids these days have pretty much the same abilities in language as kids in the past”; it will not find space in a magazine or newspaper. A list member (of flteach) once wrote me saying that teachers go to the listserv to vent and to find something to do on Monday. According to this view of teachers, none want to hear that “kids these days” are no worse than other generations just after they’ve finished grading 130 tests with an average score of 62. Nevertheless, I did find such an article and sent it to the listserv.
OTOH, we might give a thought to anti-teacher rhetoric in the country; if these young people are so inept, who taught them? How much should you pay teachers who, in 12 years, cannot produce students who can write a coherent sentence, let alone a paragraph? And how about students who take three years of Spanish and cannot negotiate a simple landscaping job with a local jardinero? Do those teachers deserve collective bargaining rights? Be careful what you wish for.
Jean Aitchison expresses well this tendency to complain about language: “Before we look at language change itself, it may be useful to consider why people currently so often disapprove of alterations. On examination, much of the dislike turns out to be based on social-class prejudice which needs to be stripped away.
Let us begin by asking why the conviction that our language is decaying is so much more widespread than the belief that it is progressing. In an intellectual climate where the notion of the survival of the fittest is at least as strong as the belief in inevitable decay, it is strange that so many people are convinced of the decline in the quality of English, a language which is now spoken by an estimated half billion people – a possible hundredfold increase in the number of speakers during the past millennium.
One’s first reaction is to wonder whether the members of the anti-slovenliness brigade, as we may call them, are subconsciously reacting to the fast-moving world we live in, and consequently resenting change in any area of life. To some extent this is likely to be true. A feeling that “fings ain’t wot they used to be” and an attempt to preserve life unchanged seem to be natural reactions to insecurity, symptoms of growing old. Every generation inevitably believes that the clothes, manners and speech of the following one have deteriorated. We would therefore expect to find a respect for conservative language in every century and every culture and, in literate societies, a reverence for the language of the ’best authors’ of the past. We would predict a mild nostalgia, typified perhapsby a native speaker of Kru, one of the Niger-Congo group of languages. When asked if it would be acceptable to place the verb at the end of a particular sentence, instead of in the middle where it was usually placed, he replied that this was the ’real Kru’ which his father spoke.
In Europe, however, the feeling that language is on the decline seems more widely spread and stronger than the predictable mood of mild regret. On examination, we find that today’s laments take their place in a long tradition of complaints about the corruption of language. Similar expressions of horror were common in the nineteenth century. In 1858 we discover a certain Rev. A. Mursell fulminating against the use of phrases such as hard up, make oneself scarce, shut up. At around the same time in Germany, Jacob Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm of folk-tale fame, stated nostalgically that “six hundred years ago every rustic knew, that is to say practised daily, perfections and niceties in the German language of which the best grammarians nowadays do not even dream.”
Moving back into the eighteenth century, we find the puristic movement at its height. Utterances of dismay and disgust at the state of the language followed one another thick and fast, expressed with far greater urgency than we normally find today. Famous outbursts included one in 1710 by Jonathan Swift. Writing in the Tatler, he launched an attack on the condition of English. He followed this up two years later with a letter to the Lord Treasurer urging the formation of an academy to regulate language usage, since even the best authors of the age, in his opinion, committed ’many gross improprieties which … ought to be discarded.’ (pp. 7-8) Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay?, 1981)
John McWhorter writes on the history of misconceptions about English in Word On The Street. The first half deals with this topic in a manner noteworthy for its clarity. I can’t quote half a book here but I urge you to read that first half (the second deals specifically with Black English and the Ebonics controversy – a very sad day in the history of race and language attitudes in this country).
More generally, Roger Lass, a major and contemporary scholar of English, states: “There is really no warrant for talking about qualitative differences between languages. A native speaker can (I would argue by definition) do anything he needs to with his language, and in general cannot import into it the ’desirable’ traits of a foreign one. This means that nostalgia for the ’lost excellences’ of one’s own language is irrational, because they were excellent only for speakers who used them natively. It seems likely that there is essentially nothing you can say in one language that you can’t (in some way) say in any other; which in fact follows pretty much from what I would take to be reasonable assumptions about the basic similarities of human brains across cultures, and the similar tasks that languages have to perform in human societies.
These reflections should make us at least cautious about claims that linguistic changes achieve anything of note for languages or their speakers; and, conversely, about accounts which talk of ’harm’ done by changes, or about potential ’collapses’ in linguistic systems ’avoided’ by changes…. what we know of how languages function in speech communities (nobody has ever really demonstrated a clear case of a language whose native speakers had ’trouble’ representing grammatical relations). p. 336 (The Shape of English by Roger Lass, 1987.
There have been clear-headed views regarding the supposed corruption of English. Joseph Priestly, the father of chemistry, found that: “Our grammarians appear to me to have acted precipitately… It must be allowed, that the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language.” The Rudiments of English Grammar, 1761 as quoted in The Encyclopedia of English, p. 79.
Early in the 20th century, as reported in the Encyclopedia of English, p. 90, the view was that: “Come into a London elementary school and see what it is that the children need most. You will notice first of all, that, in the human sense, our boys and girls are almost inarticulate. They can make noises, but they cannot speak. Linger in the playground and listen to the talk and shouts of the boys; listen to the girls screaming at their play – listen especially to them as they ’play at schools’; you can barely recognize your native language…. Ask a boy to tell you something – anything, about a book, or a game, or a place, and he will struggle convulsively among words like a fly in a jam-dish. (G. Sampson, English for the English, 1921)
The subtle complexities of current usage are explored in detail in The Fight For English by the prolific linguist and popularizer, David Crystal, also editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of English quoted above. You’ll read about purported violations of rules you never knew existed and find out why there is no violation or the rule is bogus to begin with.
“American Tongue and Cheek” takes on specific grammar mavens Edwin Newman, John Simon, William Safire, Theodore Bernstein and grammar manuals. What is so interesting about this book published in 1980 is not just that the author is a journalist (a food columnist!) who got sick of the drumbeat of snobbish criticism against common American usages but that he used the simplest tools to undo the mavens. He used The Oxford English Dictionary and other standard sources. Typically, mavens blame the younger generation when in fact the targets of their wrath have long histories in the language.
You can supply your own article on the continuity of good communicative English by selecting any date at which time complaints were lodged and then jotting down the great authors you can think of who wrote after that date. Personally, I’d start with the worst of the barbarians who had such a pernicious influence on English, introducing words like ’skirt’ and even the pronouns ’they’ and ’them’; all these words should be expunged from polite speech, for what good could possibly have come from the Vikings? How could Shakespeare have written his plays or the translators of the King James Version of the Bible done their work given the horrible state of English after all those Celts, Vikings, French and Dutch had done with it?
Well, the simple truth of the matter is that there is no record of any language degenerating into mutual intelligibility. Languages balance themselves out so that communication is maintained. The subjunctive attenuates as modal verbs take over its functions.
But let’s continue with more quotes from linguists.
Here’s more on the nostalgia factor, from an article titled “Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Any More” by James Milroy in Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (1998), p59:
“Those who complain today that standards of literacy are declining assume tacitly that there was a Golden Age in the past when our children, for the most part, could read and write more competently than they can today, and the complaints fit into a pattern of complaint literature that has been with us since the eighteenth century. In these complaints, linguistic decline is associated with moral decline, and this is the most powerful myth of all. For Jonathan Swift in 1712, it was the ’Licentiousness which entered with the Restoration ’ that infected our morals and then corrupted our language. In the nineteenth century, the poet G.M. Hopkins found ’this Victorian English…a bad business’ – a language in decline [the Victorians ??!! – pb]. As for today, a headline in the Observer (4 August, 1996) proclaims that ’written English is dying amid jargon, obscenity and ignorance,’ and complaints of this kind can be found frequently in British and American newspapers. If we were to accept all this, we would have to accept that since the language has been declining since 1700, it must by now hardly be fit for use in writing a chapter in a book like this.” Milroy goes on to quote facts and figures on rates of illiteracy and personal anecdotes of people living in the supposed Golden Age of pre-war England.
In Proper English (1999), Ronald Wardhaugh, p. 149, considers the “… paradox in the whole effort to elevate the masses through education. Improving the masses might tend to decrease social distance. Undoubtedly there has been some decrease in such distance over the last century or two. However, smaller differences then become very important. In a society in which there are vast differences and everyone knows everyone’s place you can still, like Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, use ’it don’t’, but in one in which there is less distance and a greater possibility of movement small differences become extremely important. For those who profess to care about such matters, education, particularly language education, has now become obsessed with trivia in a way that it has never been: we are constantly informed that the graduates of our schools cannot spell, cannot write, speak badly, and do not know their “grammar.” But how many such claims can actually be substantiated and how important are the various matters in which the young are said to be deficient? We need to give serious thought to questions such as these.”
Of course, few will give serious thought when it is so much easier to join the chorus of naysayers and curmudgeons decrying the callow and feckless youth of today.
Now to the “Ouch!” part, personal jabs at the Jeremiahs.
Wardhaugh, on p. 179 gets to it, starting with a quote from Bloomfield.
Leonard Bloomfield, who(m) I will quote in a blog [Word tells me ’blog’ is not a word. Should we excise it?] entry on how languages are taught, wrote in 1944, “Strangely, enough, people without linguistic training devote a great deal of effort to futile discussions of this topic [ain’t] without progressing to the study of language, which alone could give them the key.” Wardhaugh continues:
“What we have are two groups of people who care about the language but care about it for different reasons and in very different ways. In the words of John Sherwood in an article entitled “Dr. Kinsey and Professor Fries” in College English, which discussed the ’old’ and ’new’ grammarians: ’What the two grammars really reflect is two ways of looking at language, two ideals of language, and perhaps in the end two ways of life.’ Mario Pei expressed much the same sentiment in the Saturday Review in commenting on the storm that greeted the publication of Webster’s Third : ’There was far more to the controversy than met the eye, for the battle was not merely over language. It was over a whole philosophy of life.’
At issue is who gets to control the language, who sets the standards. In Paradigms Lost [John] Simon declares that English belongs to those ’who have striven to learn it properly,’ which, of course, begs the question in that word ’properly’. [Finally, a “proper” use of the expression ’beg the question’; it does not mean “raise the question”…….. except now it does because so many people have misunderstood its meaning] Moreover, he tells us that we should preserve ’whom’ if for no other reason than to show that we can force people to learn it, because without it they will remain “ignorant.” Simon believes that only an elite care – or should that be cares? – about language.
In Simon’s view language belongs to gifted individuals like him who use it “correctly”, and not to illiterates and ’bodies of people forming tendentious and propagandistic interest groups, determined to use it for what they (usually mistakenly) believe to be their advantage.’ However, Simon himself belongs to an interest group.”
Wardhaugh goes on to a further exploration of such elitist attitudes. I will inject here my own television encounter with Simon. Many years ago he appeared on the Dick Cavett show with J.J. Dillard, author of Black English, to discuss the propriety of recognizing non-standard speech as legitimate (as I remember the show). At one point, an exasperated Simon exclaimed, “I am not talking about people who are so stupid they do not know the difference between the nominative and accusative case!” I hope that gave pause to some of the viewers inclined to agree with Simon, seeing as how they doubtless had no idea what a case was, nominative OR accusative. What particularly galled me was Simon grew up speaking a case language, Croatian, using another case language, German, as the medium of instruction in his schools, and studying extensively two more case languages: Latin and Greek. But the opportunity is just too delicious to snobs like him to waste on petty respect for the average person not educated in several case languages.
On page 181, Wardhaugh gets to what I consider to be at once the most controversial claim and a true one: “What we have is a classic debate between the conservative and the liberal, the traditionalist and the progressivist, the authoritarian and the permissivist, and the non-scientist and the scientist. In this case the line-up on one side is consistent. The system of beliefs that controls most popular thinking about language is conservative, traditional, authoritarian, and non-scientific.”
Breathtaking…… either in its simplistic linking of political and cultural attitudes or daring in its willingness to see common threads in the thinking of language prescriptivists and political conservatives. I tend toward the latter.
Before giving an example of how one responds to the nonsense of prescriptivists and grammar mavens (NB: there is certainly room for a degree of prescriptivism when you are teaching the standard language. Where students’ home language differs from the standard, prescribing standard usage in appropriate contexts is perfectly rational), I would repeat what simple fact was stated earlier: there is no case of a language “deteriorating” to the point of unintelligibility and confusion. Thus we knock into a cocked hat the oft-stated warning that if we don’t mind our linguistic Ps and Qs, soon no one will be able to understand anyone else [BTW, “linguistic” might be redundant as ’mind your ps and qs’ seems to be associated with correct language use].
Recently, a member of a listserv insulted the professors of the college she worked at by saying:
“Best of luck in trying to get teachers to do what they’re supposed to
do when most of them can’t even write English properly. I taught in a nearby
college last year where the professors had no idea there was such a thing as
“who” to refer to people, who are all “that” s. How would those teachers
ever grasp the importance of the personal “a”?”
Somehow, trash like this is passed on as just her opinion but when such elitist, ill-informed people are called on their insulting behavior, the response is to rush to their defense, saying, “Oh, they’re only concerned about correct speech.” No, they’re not. They’re concerned with what the reviewer Geoffrey Nunberg in the NYT review of Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak (NYT Bookreview 4/3/11) “a campy cover for self-congratulation.”
So the writer of the post is saying that somehow “who” is to be preferred to “that” as the relative pronoun for a human antecedent. Let’s take a look at what the facts are. After all, linguistics is not faith-based, it’s science. In An Introduction To Early Modern English by Terttu Nervalainen (2006), on pp. 84-5 states:
“Relative pronouns introduce relative clauses, which modify nouns and noun phrases. English has three basic relativisation strategies: wh-, th- and zero (a person ’who(m)’/’that’/ / I know). Wh- pronouns distinguish personal from non-personal referents (’who’ v. ’which’), but do not show number contrast (a person/persons who, a thing/things which), and only ’who’ inflects for case (subjective, objective and possessive). That has the same functions as wh- relative pronouns in the subjective and objective case, but it is uninflected and does not distinguish between personal and non-personal referents or number (a person/things that I know). [from here on the material might seem redundant, but I want to show how a thorough understanding of the course of change can render absurd the arguments of grammar mavens]. The zero strategy is found in cases where the relative clause does not have an overt relative marker (a person/ things  I know). Table 6.2 [not reproduced here but clearly showing for Early Modern English relativisers that “that” occurs in both the ’personal antecedent’ and ’non-personal antecedent’ rows] shows the Early Modern English system, which is quite similar to the one we have today.
A formal distinction between subjective and objective case becomes part of the relative pronoun system in Early Modern English, when the subject pronoun who is consolidated in the language. As ’who’ gradually replaces ’which’ with human referents, it also strengthens the animacy distinction. This is yet another case where notional gender appears to be the driving force behind linguistic change in Early Modern English.
The relative who is first attested as a subject relative pronoun in the early fifteenth century in closing formulae of letters and prayers with reference to God (… ’that knoweth God, who have you in his blessed kepyng’ from the Stonor letters; Ryden 1983: 127). ’Who’ began to diffuse from divine to human reference towards the end of the fifteenth century. Because of its origins, it was first used in relative clauses that provided new information about the referent (non-restrictive relative clauses) but were not required to identify it (as is the case in restrictive relative clauses). Example (23) is typical of the sixteenth-century usage. The convention of separating a non-restrictive relative clause by commas is of later date.
(23) All this I shewed to G. Nonne who semeth very lothe that Dobbes shuld have yt becawse he thynketh he will deale streyghtlye with the tenantes…
In the sixteenth century the relative pronoun ’which’ could be used with personal and non-personal referents and in restrictive and non-restrictive functions; ’that’ occurred in both but with a preference for the restrictive function; and the zero relative was confined to the restrictive function alone.”
I won’t quote more from Nervalainen since the rest of the chapter doesn’t mention ’that’.
To end with an admonition to the pessimist mavens: studies consistently show that people who are pessimists about changes they witness as they grow older die, as stated in one program I listened to, on average seven and a half years sooner than more optimistic folks. For the rest of us, we can look forward to that seven year respite from their hectoring and badgering.