March 17, 2007

Those who cannot afford to know, and what we (don't) know about them

There are a lot of people who like to discuss (what they see as) the abuse of language -- mispronunciations, word substitutions, grammatical errors, buzzwords, clichés, mixed metaphors, and so on. In several recent posts, I've suggested that this popularity of usage complaints indicates an interest in speech and language that doesn't have any other outlet.

Yesterday, I tried to respond to a skeptical note from Peter Gerdes, who argued that "Maybe these anxieties and the desire to correct others provide an opening for language education but I don't think it shows a particular interest in language apart from simplistic corrections. In fact if my experience in math is any guide these individuals are often resistant to really learning about the subject because it undercuts the importance of those simple rules which make them feel safe and intelligent."

My response to Peter isn't winning anyone over, at least according to some of the email I've gotten.

Anatol Stefanowitsch wrote:

I really would like to agree with you rather than with Peter Gedes, but I'm not sure how much longer I can keep up the illusion...

At German universities, linguistics is largely taught as a part of modern language programs (German Studies, French Studies, etc.). This means that each year in our introductory classes we are faced with large groups of students who want to study literature or "media" and who have no initial interest whatsoever in linguistics. We have to recruit our linguistics majors from these groups. One of my recruitment techniques has always been to take up usage gripes from the media and show students how a linguist would approach the same issues. This technique works very well -- but only with those students who are already uncomfortable with language policing and who are delighted to discover that there is an alternative way of thinking about language. In contrast, those students who agree with the griping and who have plenty of gripes of their own remain entirely unconvinced. What is worse, their reaction is very often a strong and very vocal disappointment in those nutty linguists who refuse to look at language the way any rational person would.

So if "the desire to correct others" provides "an opening for language education", I have not found that opening yet. But I will certainly keep looking.

And Suzette Haden Elgin wrote:

In my experience, a large percentage of Usage Gripers are people who have a huge emotional investment in the things they're griping about. They went through bloody hell and torment learning that you're not allowed to split infinitives in English (or whatever); it took them forever to learn it, and the experience was miserable; they finally passed a test over it; and they would rather become people everybody runs from on sight than give up one tiniest fraction of "Only the ignorant and unwashed split infinitives in English." The more they suffered to learn the "rule" in question, the more passionately they treasure it and are prepared to defend it.

I have not done a double-blind controlled research study about this, but could provide a foot-high stack of anecdotal support for my claim.

And then there was the student in "Just Plain Grammar" course for teachers who stood up halfway through my first lecture, said "I cannot afford to know these things!" and walked out... I've always admired her honesty.

I mean, if you've been taught that a preposition is "one of the very short words on this list," and that's what your principal expects you to teach your students, and suddenly someone explains to you what prepositions really are, how do you deal with the ethical quandaries that poses?

All I can say is that my own experience with usage gripers is somewhat different, and generally more positive.

But the main thing that strikes me here is that we don't really know what's going on. Suzette's remark underlines the apparent lack of any serious social science of prescriptivism. How are prescriptivist attitudes really distributed by age, sex, class, educational level, and so on? What's the relationship among disdain for vernacular or regional variants, dislike of jargon and clichés, concern for usage-maven shibboleths like stranded prepositions, and inverted-prestige dislike of fancy talk? To what extent do people really confuse communicative effectiveness, the norms of various formal registers, and language-maven superstitions? Why the contrast between the pleasant nostalgia of French clubs d'orthographe and the campy mock rage of English-language usage forums, or the cartoon fantasies about violent responses to spelling reform in English and Dutch? Are negative reactions to linguistic variation really so much more common than positive ones, or do people just express negative reactions more often?

As far as I know, there are no anthropological participant-observers in the usage forums, no sociologists examining stratified samples for attitudes towards buzzwords, etc. (I'm familiar with the standard texts in sociolinguistics, and with things like Woolard and Shieffelin's 1994 survey "Language Ideology" in the Annual Review of Anthropology. If you can recommend some other work of this kind, let me know.)

Whether or not it's being studied, there's something happening here on a large scale.

The Telegraph's February speakers' corner archive includes 48 questions posed for readers to answer, with a median of 141 responses per question. The question that got the fewest responses was February 12's "Is there any need for the high street travel agent?" with 18. The question that got the most responses was February 19th's "Pay-as-you-drive: sign our petition", with 7693:

Government plans to introduce pay-as-you-drive road pricing have provoked an online insurrection, with 1.7 million people signing a Downing Street e-petition opposed to the scheme.

The proposal, which could make drivers pay as much as £1.28 a mile, is an attempt to make motorists pay the "environmental cost" of their journey.

The Downing Street petition closed last night (February 20); but if you would like to sign our own petition against the charges please put your name and where you are from in the comment box below. You can leave a short comment on the proposals as well, if you wish.

In second place was February 23's "What is the most annoying phrase in the English language?", with 3003 responses. Compare 212 for February 22's "Should Prince Harry be sent to Iraq?", and 44 for February 26/s "Who were the real winners - and losers - at the Oscars?"

The 52 questions in the January archive got a median of 107 responses each. The question with the most responses was January 3's "Is pay-as-you-drive road pricing fair?", with 1167. Second place went to January 17's "Should Celebrity Big Brother be taken off the air?", with 1030.

So among the 94 questions asked during those two months, the question that invited readers to submit usage gripes got about 25 times the median number of responses, and almost three times as many as any other question except for the pay-as-you-drive petition, which the editors characterize as an "online insurrection". What kinds of people responded? What motivated them to respond? Are there really more people interested in this than in (almost) any other topic, or is their interest just more intense or more likely to be expressed in writing?

[More mail on the subject -- from Claire Bowern:

Nancy Niedzielski and Dennis Preston's Folk Linguistics (Mouton, 2000) has quite a bit about the sort of thing you talk about.

Jay Cummings:

Maybe the outpouring of opinions on correct usage is the opposite end of the phenomenon I notice often: People saying, "I was never any good at Physics." I mean, anyone who can catch a ball or jump a gap is an expert at empirical classical mechanics, but very few feel they know anything about about it. But anyone who can speak a language thinks they are an expert linguist. And they're sort of right, in the same sense. Everyone except autistic people are expert psychiatrists too, and usually have a middle opinion of their expertise on that subject.

People want to be an expert at something, apparently, but feel much more confident on some subjects. Maybe there just aren't enough linguists to form a high priesthood the way there has been in physics. I think maybe that while there is a priesthood in psychiatry, their methods haven't been so spectacularly successful as to impress people with the exclusivity of the discipline.

Physicists these days both lament and internally revel in the exclusivity. But though the results seem to differ, the consensus is much the same as you frequently mention about linguistics: We have not effectively communicated what our field is about.

Charlie Clingen:

As I follow your ongoing analysis of language complaints, it occurs to me that this is a special case of a general phenomenon that we all are familiar with:

- The things that most interest us are those things which occupy most of our time and energy: communicating with each other, work, play and entertainment, food, sex and, I suppose, sleep – listed in approximately in order of time spent per day (except, I suppose, sleep). (Some would add more abstract topics, like love, religion, politics, etc.) So these are the things at which all of us must excel, be proficient, be knowledgeable, in order to “succeed” in life, or even just survive.

- Communication is right up there at the top of the list. Most of us do it all the time. So naturally,  we all consider ourselves experts at communication. After all, how could we not be experts? We do it all day long, day in and day out, with hardly a second thought. In fact, we are experts. We know how to do it, but we really don’t know why we do it the way we do it. However, that is true of everything on the list, so that’s a “normal” state of ignorance that all but a few true experts live with.

- If we are asked to comment on any of the items in this list, most of us can give detailed, strongly held personal (as opposed to professional) opinions about each of them. And we talk and argue endlessly with each other about all of them.

- But it is easier to  criticize than to create or explain, so much of our time is spent expressing our strong opinions about these topics by criticizing and complaining. And if we are given some handy forum, such as a nice, convenient blog, in which to show how well we excel in these areas by flaming passionately about how sensible we are and how stupid those who disagree with us are, well, how can we resist?!

So while this fascinating behavior can be dismaying and disappointing at times, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

IMHO, there is a great deal of confusion (and damage) done in this world by confusing personal opinion with professional opinion. We seldom  distinguish between the two, often at great cost ( I can not begin to count the ways!). And in those areas where the two greatly overlap, chaos reigns. But that’s one of the things that makes life interesting – especially for those of us who live our lives on the ever-shifting border between the two, as you do. J

Please keep up the good work. Your professional opinion informs my personal opinion every day.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 17, 2007 09:04 AM