Janet (j4) wrote,

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Things that annoy me, part n

This week, two apparently conflicting things have been annoying me.

1. It annoys me when people linguistic standards for granted; particularly, when they take for granted that there's a "correct" way to spell/pronounce/punctuate which is completely independent from actual usage. Yes, there has to be some kind of consensus, and yes, usage which obscures meaning could be described as "wrong" in one sense (at least, if you believe that the purpose of language is to facilitate communication), but on the other hand meanings and "standards" shift and change like the sands in the desert. It's inevitable. (I suppose it's also inevitable that people will argue over these things while they're in a transitional period, but I don't have to like it.)

2. It annoys me when people object to native pronunciations of foreign names on the grounds that it's somehow "pretentious", and that it's absurd to be so "precious" about foreign pronunciations when there's a perfectly good English equivalent. This may, at a glance, seem contradictory to the above peeve -- after all, if there's no one "correct" way to pronounce something, what does it matter? Well, ultimately, it doesn't matter very much so long as people know what each other is talking about -- if (and this is a big "if") people don't attach any personal/emotional importance to the words for things. In reality, of course, they do; I'm sure I don't need to point out examples, or well-known Shibboleths. However, the way I see it is that if somebody tells me how to pronounce their name, or the name of something pertaining to themself or their culture, it's only common courtesy to follow their pronunciation.

The problem is, I get irritated, but then I don't really want to have the whole argument -- what I want people to do is to think, rather than just assuming and not examining the implications of their assumptions. I suppose this is terribly hypocritical of me; after all, I certainly need my thoughts prodding on occasion. But it does irk me that I keep getting into arguments about variations on these two themes, and I find myself wondering why they keep coming up.

At least in part, the underlying issues seem to be:

a) "It doesn't matter; you know what I mean."

Predictably, I'd dispute this, at least to an extent. On an everyday basis, yes, we have to take some things as read, otherwise we'd probably eventually lose all confidence in language as a medium of communication, and would have to resort to carrying things around with us and pointing at them. However, I don't think that necessary day-to-day detachment means that it doesn't matter -- it may not matter all the time, but I think it matters that we realise that it might matter. The way we use language affects the way others see us, the way they act towards us, and ultimately the way we think. And if the way we think doesn't matter, then I'd like to know what does matter.

I also believe that thinking about thinking matters. If we don't think about where our language, our meanings, our notions of "correctness" come from, then we're basing a lot of our beliefs on unexamined thought, probably to the extent that we don't even realise they are beliefs. Personally this makes me extremely uneasy. I don't want to have beliefs -- particularly beliefs which might result in a sense of my "rightness" and other people's "wrongness" -- which are based on anything I haven't thoroughly examined and worked through.

b) "English is my language too, so I'm right."

Well, yes, to an extent, this is true. The problem is, it's often expressed so as to be quite clear that it means "So I'm right and you're not." People often don't like relativism to cut both ways.

That aside, however, the issue with language is not so much what is "right", but why someone believes it to be right, and whether in fact they've thought about it at all, or whether they merely "know" something's right "because they've been told so". Again, yes, there's a line which has to be drawn where we agree to abide by a consensus, otherwise we disappear into chaos; but I think it matters that we should be aware that a line is being drawn.

Perhaps this is a personal thing, and I think it goes a long way beyond the context under discussion. Basically, though, I'd rather be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons. I'd rather be consistent; I'd rather think and act with integrity (and risk being "wrong") than blindly accept things without questioning and examining them. If I work things through for myself, I may make the wrong decision; but if I act without awareness of my motives and without remaining true to myself I don't believe that I can ever make the right decision except by chance.

Of course, I hope that sometimes I make the right decision for the right reasons. But who is the arbiter of rightness?
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