December 17, 2004

Prescriptivism and folk linguistics

Readers will have noted that a battle has broken out among the normally collegial Language Log staff. I found Liberman and Nunberg the other day just about ready to dash glasses of chardonnay in each other's faces. Cries of "Scoundrel!" and "Nay, sir!" echoed down the hall in the gleaming office block we all recently moved into, Language Log Plaza in downtown Philadelphia. I had to pull them apart; they were frightening the secretaries. Basically Liberman is saying that the Christians who claim faith is a verb are utterly and preposterously wrong, and Nunberg in reply comes pretty close to calling Liberman a prescriptivist (them's fightin' words) for not just accepting their cliché as an honest piece of vernacular usage. Here's my take on the dispute about whether we should criticize such people (and Nunberg is right that there are a lot of them out there).

Let me begin by speaking in terms of a parable. There would be two possible criticisms of someone who claims that (for example) seeing is believing. To claim that they were using the language incorrectly, since is implies identity and the denotations of see and believe are in fact distinct, would be ludicrous prescriptivism of the worst kind. People have the right to use a familiar idiom with the interpretation they place on it (in this case, the intention is to express something like the claim that in ordinary situations one's visual apparatus supplies information that translates directly, effortlessly, and reliably into belief formation).

But suppose a philosophical view was starting to gain ground to the effect that there was in fact no difference between sensory perception and belief: that seeing something and believing it were literally the same thing, as a matter of metaphysics. That (or so I would claim) would be an insane metaphysical view; speaking up against it would be one's moral duty as an intellectual.

Everything turns on whether people really do think they are making claims about language use — whether a kind of folk linguistics has arisen that makes the gross error of equating nouns with things and verbs with actions. You can look at the cases Nunberg specifically points to and make up your own mind. But I think there are signs of people really being confused about the difference between a noun and the thing it purportedly names, between a verb and the action it purportedly names, and so on. In a world where people cannot tell active from passive clauses even where it is important to their argument, I think one could be forgiven for worrying that people really are blundering on elementary linguistic concepts. You be the judge. Here is another quote from Bible Food for Hungry Christians:

The Bible word "baptism" can be a noun or verb:

An excellent Bible example, and one that has actually spawned religious denominations, is in 1 Pet 3:21, where the Greek word "baptisma" is translated "baptism". Some religious denominations believe this verse teaches "baptismal regeneration", that the "ACT" of water baptism itself regenerates or makes a person a born again child of God.

The Greek word "baptisma", in 1 Pet 3:21 is a NOUN, meaning the THINGS SIGNIFIED BY BAPTISM, it is NOT A VERB as the English reader would naturally assume! Peter is saying that "baptism doth save us (is presently saving) ", meaning that the "things", or "Bible teachings", or "doctrines" CONCERNING baptism are now saving us. What are those things, or teachings that baptism signifies? We are buried with Christ, sins washed away, raised in newness of life, the great doctrines of soteriology, or salvation, these are the "things" now saving us, not the verb, the ACT of baptism! The ACT of water baptism is a beautiful ritual that outwardly PORTRAYS what God HAS ALREADY DONE for us. The REALITY is what God does, the RITUAL is what we do to publicly acknowledge what God has done.

Here technical issues of translation from Greek are mentioned, and the suggestion is made that a word denoting the act of baptism must be a verb in English. I see real conceptual chaos here: I get a real sense that the writer doesn't understand that baptism in English is never a verb lexeme, regardless of whether it denotes something that God does or the doctrines concerning what God does. I think it is reasonable to worry that people are not just using a familiar cliché when they say this sort of thing, they are spreading a myth (that verbs in English can be identified by determining whether or not they denotes things that happen or are done — a hopeless view of how to diagnose verbhood), and amplifying the confusions that have evolved out of it.

Pointing out the extreme degree to which even the educated public in the USA tends to be ignorant of even elementary technical facts about phonology and grammar and semantics is precisely what Language Log is all about (in its rare serious moments in between discussions of dude and critiques of Dan Brown's writing style and collecting of eggcorns and the other things we do for the sheer unadulterated fun of messing around with linguistic material). It is our métier; it our raison d'être; it's what the enormous endowment of the Language Log Foundation is devoted to, the reason we pay nearly $17 a year to rent the domain names that bring this great enterprise to you the public, the reason for our annual pledge drives.

Language Log contributors are almost uniformly of the opinion that judgments about what is a linguistic error have to be based on inference from actual evidence about linguistic behavior. What distinguishes prescriptivists from typical professional linguists is the utter contempt prescriptivists show for that principle. But that doesn't mean that Language Log has no business critiquing gross abuse of elementary linguistic terms. Faith and baptism are essentially never verbs (except insofar as you can sort of use almost any word as a nonce verb if you push it in the way that Mark alludes to: to add to his examples, you can Photoshop a picture, you can Toyota around, you can Tabasco your sushi up a bit if you want it spicier). And terror is indeed a noun (Jon Stewart is wrong); and London is not an adjective in London fog; and so on. These points are important. For Language Log, they are of the essence. We can't just say "Oh, people just talk that way" and leave it at that. So I'm with Liberman on this one.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 17, 2004 10:29 PM