Posts Tagged ‘language’

Humpty Dumpty, Prescriptivism, and Linguistic Evolution

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

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.

On the Meaning of Entrepreneur

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

There has been and is a lot of confusion over the English word entrepreneur. Now, I say English word advisedly, because, though entrepreneur was derived from a French word spelled exactly the same way, a word is not merely a sequence of symbols, but such a sequence in association with a concept or set of concepts, and the English word entrepreneur doesn't have quite the same meaning as the French word.

The French word means contractor or, more generally, one who undertakes.

We didn't need a new word for contractor; it would be contemptible affectation of one sort or of another to introduce a longer French word for such purpose. In fact, there was some attempt to engage in that sort of affectation in the 19th Century, first in the entertainment industry.

But the sequence entrepreneur was reïntroduced to English in the mid-20th Century with the intention of identifying a narrower concept that meritted a word of its own. That concept was of a person who attempts to create a market where one does not exist — offering a new sort of product, or offering a sort of product to those who have not been purchasers of such things.

The entrepreneur is not merely a small business person, nor an active business person, nor an independent contractor, nor some combination of the three. The entrepreneur is an economic explorer, seeking to cultivate new territory — typically with pecuniary profit in mind, but sometimes just for the satisfaction of having brought a market into existence.

Whatever the motivation, it is in the rôle of attempting to create markets that the entrepreneur is the great hero and the entrepreneuse the great heroine of the market economy. And some unconscious sense of that heroism has passed through our society, causing business people aren't such explorers to want to label themselves entrepreneur. The word has become diluted in general use, and many people are using it as if, well, it meant no more than the French word from which it were derived. Economists with a fair understanding of the market process shake their heads in dismay. We need a word for those heroes.

καταγέλως μῶρος

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

There's a recurring joke that proceeds along these lines:

What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks just one language? American.
Sometimes, the reference is instead to the British. But let's consider the reality that lies in back of this joke.

The vast majority of people who are bilingual speak English as their second language. Why English? At base, because of the economic significance of those who speak English, especially of those for whom English is their native tongue. This significance originates in the past scope of the British Empire, especially in North America. The American economy was once the world's largest — at the present, the matter is muddled — and the combined size of the American economy with that of other primarily Anglophonic regions still exceeds that of the Sinophonic[1] or Spanish-speaking regions.

If no language had something like the economic significance of English, then most people who are now bilingual would instead be monolingual. As it is, they had good cause to know English, but it wasn't their first language, so they learned it as their second.

Thus, mocking people for being strictly Anglophonic generally amounts to mocking them for having been raised amongst the peoples of the linguistic group that has the greatest economic significance. It would be actively stupid to mock them deliberately on this score, and doing so thoughtlessly is not a very great improvement.

(I'm certainly not saying that there are no good reasons for those who know English to learn other languages.)

[1] It may also be noted that the differences amongst what are called dialects of Chinese are often greater than the differences amongst what are regarded as separate languages. These variants of Chinese are labelled as dialects as part of a more general effort to create an illusion of national unity. Mandarin is a widely spoken language, but Chinese is really a family of languages.

American Language

Monday, 1 November 2010

After one votes in California, one is offered a sticker announcing that one has done so. In my area, the stickers are typically available in English, in Spanish, and in Vietnamese. I ask for one in Vietnamese.

There are people who want English to be constitutionally declared to be the language of America; they are stunningly wrong.

Of most immediate importance, they are wrong because, whenever anything is made a matter of law, it is made a matter of force; behind any law is ultimately a gun. There are times for laws because there are times for force; there are times for guns. But language choice is not such a time. I have only contempt for someone who claims that there is a symmetry between being forced to speak the language of a merchant because he will not transact in another language and that merchant being forced by the state to transact in some other language, or official proceedings being legally restricted to a language utterly alien to important parties. (And my contempt extends to those who would force the use of minority languages, as well or instead of majority languages.)

Perhaps of even greater long-run importance, if a language is made an official language, the state is thereby empowered to determine whether this-or-that communication conforms to that language, which is to say that control of a language is seized by the state when the language is made official. The state develops the power to decide its grammar and its vocabulary.

America was given a foundation, however imperfect, of classical liberalism. It represents a gross violation of that foundation to tell people in what language they must express themselves, and a gross violation of that foundation to offer-up control of one of our languages to the state.

One of our languages. English is one of our languages; there are others. Any language spoken by an American is an American language. (And any name held by an American is an American name.) And there are people who don't know English who are far better Americans than those who would give that language a legally privileged position.