Sunday, July 17, 2005

Res ipsa loquitur

Much as the Language Logsters suggested, almost any bit of public huffing about language, even if "deeply and bizarrely confused," will generate approving keep-up-the-fight replies. So it seems here in Collegetown as well, where the plaudits for an earlier column in one of the two dominant Sunday papers have now given rise to a second column.

There's not really much new in here, but one point is worth noting.

I have received dozens of e-mails from disgruntled language buffs each voicing disdain regarding one or more linguistic sins committed by the unknowing or uncaring people in this country.

My problem is with "sins," because the complaints that follow -- speech habits, regional and cultural variants in pronunciation, even regularizing irregular verbs -- hardly seem to reach that level. Not that I don't believe in linguistic sins; I do. But I tend to score them differently.

Not being able to tell pronunciation from grammar and usage, for one. "Git" is not a "misuse of the word 'get'"; it's a fairly common vowel variant. It has nothing to do with the personal dative "git me a new car." And those who would spend too much time on the high horse about others' vowel variants had best be careful, lest the One Great Scorer plunk them down in a region where their version of "aunt" is low-class rather than high-class. It's not just rude, it's risky.

I'm tempted to call the pseudo-science of "I agree with her, but I thought that pronunciation ["git"] was only prevalent in the Midwest" a linguistic sin too. No. Get/git is an example of what's often called a "pen/pin merger"; it's most likely before nasals (hence "pen/pin") and an introductory textbook will suggest it's Southern in origin*. You want a Midwesternism, here's one from today's Missourian: "It’s kind of a standard thing, anymore,” he said. The point is that there are ways to talk rationally about how language works, and to learn cool stuff therefrom, but bitching about vowel mergers with your friends ain't one of them.

Dangling modifiers? I wouldn't call those a "linguistic sin." Grammatical sin, fine. They're on the J4400-nee-110 list of deadly sins, and they're going to stay there. But not linguistic sin. Unless, that is, somebody catches you at it, and you note the catch approvingly, and you turn right around and do it again:
One reader’s skin crawls when hearing, “I could have went …”
That's a different category of sin, and you aren't going to find any indulgences here.

Bill Safire. I think he's a linguistic sin, but that's because he makes stuff up. See "Nomicsnomics" in his June 5 column:

Here's my advice to White House aides of all stripes: If your president's name ends with an n, brace yourself for an -omics branding. Thus did we have Nixonomics, Reaganomics and Clintonomics. We did not have Fordonomics or Carternomics or Bushonomics, nor would we have had Dukakisonomics or Gorenomics or Kerrynomics. It has nothing to do with politics; it's the elision quality of the last letter of the president's last name.

Criminentlies. We did too have Carternomics, though a few minutes in a database would make clear that we didn't have nearly as much of that as New Zealand did of "Rogernomics." And "Bushonomics" seems to have a good bit of currency. Safire's passing off a WAG as if it were a law with some basis in either observation or phonology. A cat with a search engine and an OED could do better.

If I were in the business of testing linguistic hypotheses (as opposed to spouting self-serving ex cathedra bilge), I'd start with the idea that what makes a good "-nomics" word is not the final consonant but the trochaic dimeter. That's why "Rogernomics" works, why "Bushonomics" needs an extra syllable, why "Kerrynomics" would have been fine and why -- to pick a really good potential president -- "Yossarianomics" would never happen, despite the final nasal.

Well, enough of that. Let's give the last word to the eloquent Mark Liberman:

It's a bit depressing that so few people ever pay careful attention to the language that they've heard all their lives. It's nothing short of outrageous that those who can't spare the time to listen to how people talk are nevertheless so happy to carry on at length in public about it.

This is not an appeal for deference to experts. On the contrary, I'm suggesting that the many people who are so passionately interested in speech and language should be offered a basic education in the methods of linguistic description and the habits of analytic observation, so that they can explore and express their passion in an informed way.

* Wolfram, W., and Schilling-Estes, N. (1998) American English, is terrific reading, by the way


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