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Things that annoy me, part n - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
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?

Current Mood: itchy-brained

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simont From: simont Date: December 8th, 2003 09:15 am (UTC) (Link)
"(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.)"

By contrast, I think these conscious attempts to halt, direct or otherwise affect the tides of language change are a perfectly reasonable exercise of personal choice. After all, the reason a language shifts is because people start speaking it a certain way and then that's the way it is; it moves with the combined will of its speakers, not independently of them. So anyone with an actual opinion on how they'd like language to be had better express that opinion, and more importantly make that opinion part of the way they speak, or it won't be taken into account and the language will wander off in some other direction without them. (Which it may perfectly well do anyway, of course, if not enough people hold a particular view for it to take hold; but if you don't try, it'll never happen.)

In a more general sense, my instincts suggest that the very belief that there is a "correct" form of language and departures from it are sloppy or vulgar or just plain wrong must itself be a significant force affecting the pace and nature of language shift.

I've noticed before that linguists who've been taught about the naturalness of language change seem to take it so much to heart that they stop having any opinions about how they'd wish a language to develop, which bits they like and dislike; they tend to sidestep the whole area by shrugging "yes, the language is changing, so what?". But I don't think it's inconsistent to both understand that language shifts and have opinions on how you'd like it to do so (or, in some cases, not do so). This language isn't just a scholarly study to me: I have to use it all day every day, and it's perfectly natural for me to thereby form all sorts of opinions about bits of it, be they pragmatic, aesthetic or simply stubborn.

On a side note, most of the things that really annoy me in modern English are things that it seems clear to me were errors when they were originally done, and have become so widespread that they're practically mainstream usage these days. But they still sound like errors to me, and I think that's what annoys me about them. My standard bugbear is the non-tense "if he'd have done" / "if he had have done", because it seems to me that the latter is clearly re-expanded wrongly from the former, which in turn seems likely to have begun as a contraction of "if he would have done", which although the wrong tense for the construction is at least a tense typically used in that construction and hence an understandable error. But worst of the lot is "had he have done", beloved of snooker commentators for some bizarre reason, because the use of the subjunctive suggests that the commentator is deliberately trying to get the niceties of the grammar just right - and at that point it's actually painful to witness the waste of effort, like a violinist who's put a huge amount of practice and skill into putting just the right tone and vibrato on a note that's unfortunately half a semitone out of tune.
j4 From: j4 Date: December 8th, 2003 10:07 am (UTC) (Link)
By contrast, I think these conscious attempts to halt, direct or otherwise affect the tides of language change are a perfectly reasonable exercise of personal choice.

Of course they are -- if it is a choice. The problem is, a lot of the time it isn't a conscious and examined choice; it's a knee-jerk reaction. To take a specific example, it annoys me intensely when people tell me not to split infinitives "because it's wrong", and yet have no idea why it should be wrong. However, it doesn't annoy me at all when people tell me that they dislike the way split infinitives sound, or even that they want to try to stamp out the split infinitive because of this. I'd be interested to know whether it's just an aesthetic objection or whether they have other reasons; I might disagree with their aesthetics or their reasoning; but I like to know that they have some reasoning or else that they accept that it's a purely subjective judgement.

In a more general sense, my instincts suggest that the very belief that there is a "correct" form of language and departures from it are sloppy or vulgar or just plain wrong must itself be a significant force affecting the pace and nature of language shift.

Oh, definitely. But does that make that force any more "correct" than other forces affecting language change? Is it more "correct" for a rock to be eroded by wind or by water?

I've noticed before that linguists who've been taught about the naturalness of language change seem to take it so much to heart that they stop having any opinions about how they'd wish a language to develop, which bits they like and dislike

Did I say I didn't have opinions? :-) I have heaps of opinions about the English language -- from expressions and constructions which I abhor, to turns of phrase which make me feel positively excited at how neat and perfect they are. There are words, both new and old, which I think extremely ugly; there are words which I want to hoard away in a little velvet bag so that I can take them out and gloat over their shininess.

The thing is, I don't think my opinions are "right" in any objective sense. I may have strong opinions about the way a room should be painted; but at the end of the day maroon is no more "correct" than magnolia. And if the house is not solely owned by me -- as the language is not -- then I may find that my wishes are ignored, and that the house's owner persists in going ahead with mustard-yellow bathroom fittings, pink walls and lime-green venetian blinds despite my aesthetic outrage at the mere idea.
j4 From: j4 Date: December 8th, 2003 10:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Long response (part I)

By contrast, I think these conscious attempts to halt, direct or otherwise affect the tides of language change are a perfectly reasonable exercise of personal choice.

Of course they are -- if it is a choice. The problem is, a lot of the time it isn't a conscious and examined choice; it's a knee-jerk reaction. To take a specific example, it annoys me intensely when people tell me not to split infinitives "because it's wrong", and yet have no idea why it should be wrong. However, it doesn't annoy me at all when people tell me that they dislike the way split infinitives sound, or even that they want to try to stamp out the split infinitive because of this. I'd be interested to know whether it's just an aesthetic objection or whether they have other reasons; I might disagree with their aesthetics or their reasoning; but I like to know that they have some reasoning or else that they accept that it's a purely subjective judgement.

In a more general sense, my instincts suggest that the very belief that there is a "correct" form of language and departures from it are sloppy or vulgar or just plain wrong must itself be a significant force affecting the pace and nature of language shift.

Oh, definitely. But does that make that force any more "correct" than other forces affecting language change? Is it more "correct" for a rock to be eroded by wind or by water?

I've noticed before that linguists who've been taught about the naturalness of language change seem to take it so much to heart that they stop having any opinions about how they'd wish a language to develop, which bits they like and dislike

Did I say I didn't have opinions? :-) I have heaps of opinions about the English language -- from expressions and constructions which I abhor, to turns of phrase which make me feel positively excited at how neat and perfect they are. There are words, both new and old, which I think extremely ugly; there are words which I want to hoard away in a little velvet bag so that I can take them out and gloat over their shininess.

The thing is, I don't think my opinions are "right" in any objective sense. I may have strong opinions about the way a room should be painted; but at the end of the day maroon is no more "correct" than magnolia. And if the house is not solely owned by me -- as the language is not -- then I may find that my wishes are ignored, and that the house's owner persists in going ahead with mustard-yellow bathroom fittings, pink walls and lime-green venetian blinds despite my aesthetic outrage at the mere idea.
simont From: simont Date: December 9th, 2003 01:33 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Long response (part I)

"Oh, definitely. But does that make that force any more "correct" than other forces affecting language change? Is it more "correct" for a rock to be eroded by wind or by water?"

No, of course not; but it raises the fun possibility that if the effect of that belief is to push language change in a direction I happen to want it to be pushed, then my optimum strategy might be to work to maintain the belief. >;->

"The thing is, I don't think my opinions are "right" in any objective sense."

Fair enough then :-) As long as you don't object to me having all the unreasonable opinions I can eat, I won't argue any further...
j4 From: j4 Date: December 8th, 2003 10:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Long response (part II)

This language isn't just a scholarly study to me: I have to use it all day every day, and it's perfectly natural for me to thereby form all sorts of opinions about bits of it, be they pragmatic, aesthetic or simply stubborn.

Hear hear! But I do believe that it's better[1] for people to have some idea of why they've formed that opinion. If they examine the opinion and come to the conclusion that it's pure stubbornness, but they intend to persist in it nonetheless, that's fine by me. I may not agree with their opinion, but I'll defend to the death their right to hold it and express it.

Basically I just object to incompletely thought-out objections. People who say that something's wrong "because it's not in the dictionary" often haven't thought about how dictionaries are compiled, what their purpose is, what their purpose should be or could be, just how impartial (or otherwise) a dictionary is. People who refuse to use "modern" words, or "slang", often don't seem to have thought about the impracticality of drawing the line between "new" words and "old" words, or "proper" words and "improper" words. This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I mentioned taking things for granted; people take for granted the idea that some words are "bad" and others are "good", that some are "offensive" and others are not; people's attitude to "modern" words often sits at odds with their attitude to other aspects of progress. If they've thought it through and can reconcile the inconsistency, or if they realise that it's a grey area and that they've just chosen to draw a line somewhere, fine! But all too often they haven't.

I guess I'm every bit as guilty; I think my own brand of moral and linguistic relativism is in some way "right", when for all I know language was handed down in its purest form from God to Man, and our life's work should be to try to get language back to that perfection. Perhaps all those sentences ending with prepositions are a debasement of God's plan for our language. But I've thought about it, and that's a risk I'm willing to take.

On a side note, most of the things that really annoy me in modern English are things that it seems clear to me were errors when they were originally done

What do you mean by "errors"? Deviations from the norm? Deviations from some externally-imposed standard?

"had he have done"

To me that sounds clumsy, mostly because the "have" is superfluous -- "had he done" (or "if he'd done") would do. It's not a construction I'd use, and it's one that might well make me wince if I encountered it in the wild. On the other hand, it's reasonably clear what it's supposed to mean.

There are plenty of things that really do make me see red -- possessive-its-has-no-apostrophe, for a start. The apostrophe distinguishes between the two meanings, thus removing ambiguity -- and if you're trying to tell somebody something, removing ambiguity seems a desirable aim. (Context generally makes it possible to divine its meaning, but it's harder to read when you have to keep scouting around for contextual clarification.)

(I suspect, however, this is a losing battle; I fully expect that "its" and "it's" will be completely interchangeable in 20 years' time. I'll do my best to put my opinion forward, but I'm not going to burst a blood-vessel over it -- I think there are more important battles to fight.)
simont From: simont Date: December 9th, 2003 01:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Long response (part II)

By "errors", I mean deviations from what the person was probably trying to say. I doubt they made a new nonexistent tense up on the spot in the firm belief that it was as good if not better than any existing feature of the language; I think they were aiming for the pluperfect as taught in schools, and if confronted with the evidence that they were a little off-target they might well have said "oops, my mistake".

"Basically I just object to incompletely thought-out objections."

<pred>Are you absolutely sure you know what you're doing?</pred>
From: vyvyan Date: December 8th, 2003 10:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I certainly don't find it surprising that people object to some parts of linguistic change that they notice. Records from millennia ago, anthropological investigations of illiterate tribes etc. suggest that complaint about language change is just as natural and common as language change itself :-) However, I don't think this popular disapproval is actually a very significant force in effecting change. First, most change that linguists study is not actually noticed by speakers, and may be specifically denied by them. Second, the main correlates for linguistic change are weak social ties (this has been much studied in sociolinguistics over the last few decades) - close-knit groups exert a strong normative pressure, and have consistent in-group usage. A large-scale example of this is Iceland, where the language is little changed from 1000 years ago. Social groups where there is much upheaval and mobility do not reinforce speech norms so well, and the pace of language change is fast.
A large-scale example is the British Isles c. 200-400 AD. The Celtic languages spoken at that time underwent phenomenal amounts of linguistic change, correlating with massive social disruption as the Romans departed and assorted Germanic peoples arrived. Other important influences on change are contact between languages (typically, the more powerful language will have substantial impact on the vocabulary of the less powerful language) and population movement (isolated populations will diverge from each other). Clear instances of conscious, expressed linguistic disapproval leading to actual change in general linguistic behaviour are rare and generally trivial (e.g. the spelling-pronunciation of "forehead", previously pronounced "forrid").
So, my linguistic "sidestepping" of the issue of how language "should" change is not just caused by knowing that change is normal. Partly it's because I feel any conscious attempt to alter general linguistic behaviour is unlikely to have any effect, for reasons outlined above. Also, I just don't _have_ the sort of grounds for supporting one usage over another that a lot of non-linguists like to use. I can't say "it's an error" because all language change is describable as an error at some level; I can't say "that's the original meaning of the word/construction" because usually it isn't - if you examine the early evidence for such contested features, the "new" or "Americanized" form nearly always turns out to be a very old, often UK feature as well; I can't say "but the langauge would be more efficient/logical if we did it like this" because I can probably find hundreds of other languages that manage perfectly well doing it like that; and I can't say "but society/conscious thought/communication itself will
break down if we do that" because I know perfectly well that it won't, because comparable changes have been observed countless times in the past and these bad consequences have not come to pass: 100 000 or more years of continuous uncontrolled change in human language have not made it any less useful a tool than it doubtless was to our hominid ancestors.
From: vyvyan Date: December 8th, 2003 10:34 am (UTC) (Link)
To follow up to myself, another reason I don't give personal opinions on correct usage in general is that I genuinely don't care how the language changes: one construction is just as interesting/attractive to me as another. While I used to be irked by, say, "fewer" vs. "less" and similar pedantry (before I studied any linguistics), I now really do not feel aesthetically-troubled by deviations from the more-or-less codified standard.
From: vatine Date: December 10th, 2003 07:33 am (UTC) (Link)

On the naming of things, places and enitities.

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.[snip] 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.

Speaking as someone with a foreign name not really readily pronouncable by (most) English, I see the other side of this coin. I tend to not even pronounce my own name properly, because the english-mangled version I *tend* to use comes back more-or-less the same, whereas the native pronounciation comes back as a whole variety of names. So, I consider the polite thing to be (simply) changing the pronounciation of my name. Any identity loss is small cost for the politeness it offers.
j4 From: j4 Date: December 10th, 2003 08:19 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: On the naming of things, places and enitities.

Again, though, that's your choice -- if you said "My name is pronounced like this" I'd respect that; but equally if you said "Really I don't mind how you pronounce my name" then I'd take you at your word and just give it my best guess. But I certainly wouldn't want to assume that people ('foreign' or otherwise!) didn't mind me mangling the pronunciation of their name.

Now intrigued as to what your name is and why it's so difficult to pronounce! :-)
From: vatine Date: December 16th, 2003 02:53 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: On the naming of things, places and enitities.

rot13(vatine) :) I will happily let people try (and ciorrect them up to about 6 times, then it starts getting a bit tired) and then say either of "CLose, but not quite" or "That is quite godo" and happily fall back on an anglicised pronounciation.
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