Humpty Dumpty, Prescriptivism, and Linguistic Evolution

In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (writing as Lewis Carroll), a famous and rather popular position on language is taken:

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

If Mr Dumpty's words simply mean whatever he intends them to mean, then the rest of us are not in a position to understand them. If he provides us with verbal definitions, we must know what the defining words mean. He could not even declare in a manner intelligible to us that he meant most words in the same sense as do you or I. We might attempt to tease-out meanings by looking for correlations, but then we would be finding meanings as correlations, which assumes properties (such as stability) that represent more than pure choice on the part of Mr Dumpty. Having been made perfectly private, his vocabulary as such would have no practical value except for internal dialogue. There is a paradox here, which Dodgson surely saw, yet which so very many people don't: If Mr Dumpty's apparent declaration were true, then it could not be understood by us. He might actually just be making some claim about breakfast. We might take (or mistake) his claim for a true proposition (that his vocabulary were purely idiosyncratic), but any co-incidence between his intention and our interpretation would be a result of chance. We could not actually recognize it for whatever proposition it actually expressed.

In order to communicate thoughts with language to other persons, we must have shared presumptions not only about definitions of individual words, but also about grammar. The more that such presumptions are shared, the more that we may communicate; the more fine-grained the presumptions, the more precise the communication possible. In the context of such presumptions, there are right ways of using language in attempt to communicate — though any one of these ways may not be uniquely right or even uniquely best — and there are ways that are wrong.

Those who believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to use language are often called prescriptivist, and generally by those who wish to treat prescriptism as wrong-headed or as simply a position in no way superior to the alternatives. Yet, while one could find or imagine specific cases where the beliefs concerning what is right or wrong in language-use were indeed wrong-headed, forms of prescriptivism follows logically from a belief that it is desirable for people to communicate, and especially from a belief that communication is, typically speaking, something rather a lot of which is desirable. As a practical matter, altogether rejecting prescriptivism is thoughtless.

To the extent that the same presumptions of meaning are shared across persons, the meanings of words are independent of the intentions of any one person. Meanings may be treated as adhering to the words themselves. Should Mr Dumpty take a great fall, from which recovery were not possible, still his words would mean exactly what they meant when he uttered them. A very weak prescriptivism would settle there, with the meaning of expressions simply being whatever were common intention in the relevant population. This prescriptivism is so weak as not often to be recognized as prescriptivism at all; but even it says that there is a right and wrong within the use of language.

Those more widely recognized as prescriptivists want something rather different from rude democracy. In the eyes of their detractors, these prescriptivists are dogmatic traditionalists or seeking to creäte or to maintain artificial elites; such prescriptivists have existed and do exist. But, more typically, prescriptivism is founded on the belief that language should be a powerful tool for communication as such. When a typical prescriptivist encounters and considers a linguistic pattern, his or her response is conditioned by concern for how it may be expected to affect the ability to communicate, and not merely in the moment, but how its acceptance or rejection will affect our ability to understand what has been said in the past and what will be said in the future. (Such effects are not confined to the repetition of specific pattern; other specific patterns may arise from analogy; which is to say that general patterns may be repeated.) Being understood is not considered as licensing patterns that will cause future misunderstandings.

In opposing the replacement of can with the negative can't in can hardly, the typical prescriptivist isn't fighting dogmatically nor to oppress the downtrodden, nor merely concerned to protect our ability to refer to the odd-ball cases to which can't hardly with its original sense applies; rather, the prescriptivist is trying to ward-off a more general chaos in which we can hardly distinguish negation from affirmation. (Likewise for the positive could care less standing where the negative couldn't care less would be proper.) When the prescriptivist objects to using podium to refer to a lectern, it's so that we continue to understand prior use and so that we don't lose a word for the exact meaning that podium has had. We already have a word for lecterns, and we can coin new words if there is a felt need for more.

The usual attempt to rebut prescriptivism of all sorts notes that language evolves. Indeed it does, but prescriptivisms themselves — of all sorts — play rôles in that evolution. When a prescriptivist objects to can't hardly being used where can hardly would be proper, he or she isn't fighting evolution itself but participating in an evolutionary struggle. Sometimes traditional forms are successfully defended; sometimes old forms are resurrected; sometimes deliberate innovations (as opposed to spontaneous innovations) are widely adopted. Sometimes the results have benefitted our ability to communicate; sometimes they have not; but all these cases are part of the dynamic of real-world linguistic evolution.

The Evolution Card is not a good one to play in any event. Linguistic evolution may be inevitable, but it doesn't always represent progress. It will not even tend to progress without an appropriate context. Indeed, sometimes linguistic evolution reverses course. For example: English arose from Germanic languages, in which some words were formed by compounding. But English largely abandoned this characteristic for a time, only to have it reïntroduced by scholarly contact with Classical Greek and Latin. (That's largely why our compounds are so often built of Greek or Latin roots, whereäs those of Modern German are more likely to be constructed with Germanic roots.) It was evolution when compounding was abandoned, and evolution when it was reädopted. If compounding were good, then evolution were wrong to abandon it; if compounding were bad, then evolution were wrong to reëstablish it. And one cannot logically leap from the insight that evolution is both inevitable and neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad to the conclusion that any aspect of linguistic practice is a matter of indifference, that nothing of linguistic practice is good or bad. One should especially not attempt to apply such an inference peculiarly to views on practice that one dislikes.

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