Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Linguistic Morality

I recently read an article in The Guardian entitled "Achingly Unacceptable." The author, Jeremy Butterfield, is a linguist who claims, early in his rant, that he genuinely endorses De Saussure's maxim that languages, like people, inevitably change--and that, accordingly, it is futile to cling obsessively to linguistic norms that are no longer, well, all that normal. Butterfield asserts that he is trying, honestly trying, to be a neutral observer of linguistic behavior (i.e., a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist).

Clearly, though, as the remainder of the piece indicates, Butterfield is far from successful in this endeavor to reject prescriptivism and embrace descriptivism. Indeed, he devotes the bulk of his article to denouncing English usage which he considers (in spite of his good intentions) as bad, wrong and, yes, deep down, absolutely immoral.

Prominently featured in this veritable Leviticus of linguistic abominations are: the letter "H" pronounced as "haitch" rather than "aitch"; nouns transformed into verbs ("to leverage," "to medal"); brief archaisms substituted for longer modern terms ("to wed" instead of "to get married"); feeble, euphemistic words ("unacceptable," "to address"); Americanisms ("to reach out"); Latin plurals used as singulars ("a criteria"); and, finally, a congeries of random words, phrases, and expressions that defy categorization but that just, well, set his teeth on edge ("achingly," "in terms of").

So, it would seem that this self-proclaimed "enlightened" linguist is not, in actual fact, so very neutral, tolerant, and evolved when it comes to the nitty-gritty of linguistic morality. Butterfield acknowledges, intellectually and rationally, that English speakers manifest a great range of language behaviors. And he knows, in his head, that he should simply accept those behavioral threads as part of the tapestry of the Mother Tongue.

But like the politically correct liberals who "support" gays as long as they (the PC liberals) don't have to see or think about what gays "do," Butterfield--in his heart of hearts--can tolerate English usage that differs from his own only as long as he doesn't actually have to hear or read it. Because that would be, well, too icky. Or perhaps (as I suggested above) immoral--at least "in terms of" (haha), well, Absolutely Good English.

Lest we begin to feel too sanctimoniously superior, let us admit that a great many of us, even the most adamantly descriptivist, have very similarly hostile reactions to linguistic behaviors that we regard with distaste. We know it's OK to write "alright," but we would never write it; we know it's OK to say "at the end of the day," but we would never say it. In short, we resemble the well-meaning but hypocritical fundamentalists who proclaim, vis à vis homosexuality, that they "love the sinner but hate the sin." We love the people who talk "wrong," (and we even acknowledge that it isn't even necessarily wrong), but we just truly hate the icky words they use.

Because I confess to feeling this way quite frequently, I began to reflect upon what I previously termed the "morality of language." IS all language equal or are some ways of speaking and writing more equal, i.e., inherently and morally superior? In short, are there any circumstances in which a universal, verifiable truth might justify at least some of my visceral "prescriptions"?

What I'm seeking, here, of course, is some sort of objective criterion against which the "goodness" or "badness" of linguistic behavior can be ascertained. Clearly, all human beings are endowed with some measure of verbal free will: even those poor souls who have never seen a dictionary, written a nice G in Palmer Method cursive, recited mnemonic ditties about I before E--even the illiterate and unschooled exercise linguistic choice on a daily basis. And where there is free will, there is, of course, sin--i.e., in our context, deliberate defiance of some categorical absolute of Absolutely Good English.

The vital question thus remains: how do we distinguish "valid/appropriate" linguistic behavior from "invalid/inappropriate" (sinful) behavior? What is that damned criterion?

Though I'm not very familiar with linguistics as an academic discipline, I do understand the descriptivist notion of "correctness conditions"--i.e., those language patterns which are observed and respected uniformly by all speakers of a given language unless they choose to be ridiculed and condemned for speaking gibberish. The subject/verb/object word order of English, for instance, is such a pattern. Only folks unfamiliar with English (e.g.,Yoda--who may be briefly forgiven)--and certain government agencies (e.g., the CIA--who have an obfuscation agenda and cannot be forgiven)--deviate from this pattern with any regularity.

So the first and most basic of our Universal Commandments for Moral Language is:

I) Thou shalt honor the internal logic of thy Mother Tongue; thou shalt not employ structures or patterns which render thy utterance unreliable or incomprehensible to other speakers of the language thou hast been given.

This First Commandment is a moral absolute; if it is broken, the very purpose of language is subverted and communication is prevented or severely impaired.

The Second Commandment, however, contains a substantial dose of relativism. This commandment demands that language not only be OBJECTIVELY understood, but that it also be effective in accomplishing a SUBJECTIVE purpose (conveying information, explaining an idea, creating beauty):

II) Thou shalt use language which will produce in the listener/reader the effect that thou, the producer, intendest; thou shalt not employ morphology, diction, syntax, spelling, punctuation, or pronunciation which doth impede or compromise the achievement of this goal.

This commandment, as I mentioned earlier, is much more subjective than Commandment I--insofar as the linguistic "intent" depends upon the presentational subjectivity of the speaker/writer and the "effect" depends upon the interpretive subjectivity of the listener/reader.

Finally, the third Commandment dismisses all other prescriptivism as unessential, as style rather than substance, as forme rather than fond, as fashionable dress rather than content of one's character:

III) Thou shalt grit thy teeth and accept as "acceptable" all language that conforms to Commandments I and II. Thou need not thyself employ language which thou findest, in thy none-too-humble opinion, "icky" or "inelegant" or "unattractive" or "too American" or "too pissy" or "too low-class," but thou shalt not condemn such language as "sinful" and thou shalt not judge unworthy those who do not dress their speech in the same fashion as thou dost thine.

So, to summarize: moral use of language demands that a) we respect the language's fundamental internal order without which meaning cannot be conveyed from producer to receptor, and that b) we introduce into that fundamental order building blocks (word choices, syntax, pronunciation, spellings) that serve a specific communicative end vis à vis an intended audience. Immorality is either misuse of basic structures AND/OR deliberate or inadvertent building-block choices that "miss the mark" and do not accomplish their intended task. All else--we must say it again--is mere fashion.

I conclude, therefore, that both Butterfield and I (as well as almost everyone I know), are generally faithful to Commandment I. Sin, when it occurs, consists principally of "missing the mark"--of using language that is ill-suited to the purpose for which it was framed. In Butterfield's list (above), it is quite possible that, within certain contexts, the following choices could violate Commandment II: "in terms of," "to reach out," "unacceptable." But much depends upon the intent and upon the audience ("to reach out" might be just the right expression for certain, generally American, interlocutors).

Otherwise, it seems that most of Butterfield's verboten list--like most of my own--is less about constitutive correctness than it is about regulations--less about what is essential and more about "how to do it the way it most appeals to me."

Butterfield's objection to pronouncing "aitch" as "haitch" is, of course, nothing but his personal Home Counties prejudice, and can be dismissed as frivolously irrelevant to the fundamentals of English. On the other hand, his fussing about the "verbing" of nouns is more seriously ill-founded : this process is thoroughly natural to English and surely should not be decried by anyone (see Commandment III). Finally Mr. Butterfield's grumbling about "achingly," and "to address," and "to wed"--well, these usages certainly do not break Commandment I; they might, in certain contexts, I suppose, break Commandment II--but I think it unlikely. Essentially, then, aren't they merely fashions, like bellbottomed trousers, that a certain person may find (in a given time and context) unappetizing and unattractive, but certainly NOT linguistically immoral or intrinsically offensive to Mother English?

Mr. Butterfield, it looks as if you--and I--will just have to snap out of our lingering prescriptivism. Yes, style is important--and good delivery will generally make us better followers of Commandment II. But overall, in matters of grave linguistic importance, Oscar Wilde probably had it wrong: sincerity, honestly conveyed--not style--is the vital thing. "Achingly"(alas) is "acceptable." Word.