Purist was a label I left out of my category title: Shamans, Mavens, Scolds and Guardians, b/c many purists happily take up the task of keeping the language “pure”, in their definition, and wear it as a badge of honor, much like some young women might wear the label “pure”. Guardian might be acceptable to the mavens, shamans, etc., but it is a common self-appellation I thought rounded out the tetrad. Note as I blather on that there really is no consistency between putting guardian in and leaving purist out.
Anyway, purists are vulnerable on the same grounds the other four are: they lack a knowledge base and they are unconscious of the underpinnings of their sense of purity which implies a sense of impurity. So just who is impure? The answer reveals the social nature as opposed to a linguistic nature of their attempts to keep the language pure; they really wish to keep out certain kinds of people. The motivation for this may not be so much that they dislike the people they want to eject from the land of the pure but that they fervently desire a clear separation from them, for language has always been a mark of social demarcation.
And social demarcation is what language purity is all about: the purists wish us to know that they are on a higher level than those who use disapproved of language: many terms are used but illiterate, impoverished, gibberish, low-class, rural (read hillbilly~farmer), urban (read Black), Southern, working-class, colloquial (!), non-standard, sub-standard, and, my favorite, Scotticisms. The language is characterized as imprecise, inelegant, uncommunicative, ungrammatical, and not concise.
But scientific (read linguistic) investigation into these matters reveals none of this to be true. Throughout my entries into this category, I will quote investigators like Labov who have shorn away the pretensions of the purists to possess a superior language.
Another point of vulnerability is the purists’ lack of knowledge of language. Some may call it linguistics and dismiss linguistics as the author of the permissiveness that has resulted in the language heard on the media, etc., blah, blah, blah, but the truth is simply using the OED shows up the purists and their spurious claims. Usages they swear derive from inner-city street gangs of the last 20 years are recorded in good literature going back 200 years; that’s not linguistics, that’s reading. Now some of their shibboleths are destroyed by fairly sophisticated linguistic investigation and research, but a lot is just a decent understanding of the language and of language in general. Hint: variation, change over time, and the push-pull of social cohesion and differentiation.
A typical condemnation of straying from Ms. Grundy’s fifth grade ideas of proper grammar is from The New Republic: “… the dictionary compilers have abandoned a function indispensable in any advanced society, that of maintaining the quality of its language.” The terms primitive, vague, and illogical were applied, echoing those sentiments seen among the SMSG (shamans, mavens, scolds and guardians), not to mention purists. James Sledd, a Samuel Johnson scholar, criticized Webster’s New International 3rd Edition on several points, but reserved his most scathing attacks for the numbskull critics like those of the New Republic: “In your attack on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,” Sledd wrote to the New Republic, “you start off by saying that if a language is â€˜primitive, vague, and illogical,’ the thought of its speakers will be that way too. Maybe you’ll say more about all this. Linguists swear they’ve never found a â€˜primitive, vague, and illogical’ language, but everybody knows he can’t trust a bunch of sneaking professionals. You may have stumbled on something big. Why don’t you just up and name a primitive languages and say what makes it primitive? If you do, you’’ make a reputation for yourself; and until you do, the dirty linguists are likely to say you’re only another amateur, talking through your hat.”
That quote is from The Story of Ain’t, p. 268 and 269.