February 26, 2005

It is up to us how fast it changes

Talking (as I was) of waiting for the forces of linguistic change to take their course and surprise us all reminds me that at least one very famous philosopher thinks we have done entirely too much of this passive waiting around for linguistic change. Linguists have been content to interpret linguistic change; the point, however, is to retard it (so he might have said, though actually this perversion of Karl Marx's dictum is mine).

Sir Michael Dummett is a highly distinguished Oxford philosopher (retired since 1992). He is a very important Frege scholar, and his thinking about antirealism and intuitionism has provided some philosophers (Crispin Wright, for instance) with enough food for thought to be the basis of a substantial part of their careers. He became noted in Britain for his anti-racist activism in the 1960s. (It was been a wrenching experience for him to have spent a decade or more working on Frege's philosophical contributions only to discover at a late stage, through a suppressed fragment of Frege's diaries, that Frege had been toward the end of his life a bitter anti-Semite. Dummett wrote briefly about this in the preface to his book Frege: Philosophy of Language.) But AnalPhilosopher (February 25, 2005; thanks to Paul Postal for the reference) spotted (in a 1993 grammar and style guide that Dummett wrote for British examination candidates) a passage suggesting that on linguistic change Dummett is much more of a conservative:

There is [...] a general source of resistance to the very idea that there can be such a thing as a misspelled word, a grammatical mistake or a word used in the wrong sense. A common slogan is 'You can't stop the language from changing'. It is true enough that one should not even want the language not to change; but it is we who change it, and it is up to us how fast it changes and whether it changes for the worse or for the better. In a literate community, like our own, the language does not comprise only the words spoken in conversation or printed in newspapers: it consists also in the writings of past centuries. An effect of rapid change is that what was written only a short time ago becomes difficult to understand; such a change is of itself destructive. It cannot be helped that Chaucer presents some obstacles to present-day readers; but I have been told that philosophy students nowadays have trouble understanding the English of Hume and Berkeley, and even, sometimes, of nineteenth-century writers. That is pure loss, and a sure sign that some people's use of English is changing much too fast.

(Michael Dummett, Grammar and Style for Examination Candidates
and Others
[London: Duckworth, 1993], pp. 8-9 [italics in original].)

So remember, it's up to us. Don't go changing things too fast now; it'll be your bad if we all forget how to read Hume. Here's a piece to practice on:

It is experience only, which gives authority to human testimony; and it is the same experience, which assures us of the laws of nature. When, therefore, these two kinds of experience are contrary, we have nothing to do but subtract the one from the other, and embrace an opinion, either on one side or the other, with that assurance which arises from the remainder. But according to the principle here explained, this subtraction, with regard to all popular religions, amounts to an entire annihilation; and therefore we may establish it as a maxim, that no human testimony can have such force as to prove a miracle, and make it a just foundation for any such system of religion.

I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history.

Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January, 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain, and ought to search for the causes whence it might be derived. The decay, corruption, and dissolution of nature, is an event rendered probable by so many analogies, that any phenomenon, which seems to have a tendency towards that catastrophe, comes within the reach of human testimony, if that testimony be very extensive and uniform.

But suppose, that all the historians who treat of England, should agree, that, on the first of January, 1600, Queen Elizabeth died; that both before and after her death she was seen by her physicians and the whole court, as is usual with persons of her rank; that her successor was acknowledged and proclaimed by the parliament; and that, after being interred a month, she again appeared, resumed the throne, and governed England for three years: I must confess that I should be surprised at the concurrence of so many odd circumstances, but should not have the least inclination to believe so miraculous an event.

Got any problems with that, examination candidates? It's your own damn fault for changing your language too fast. Get a grip.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 26, 2005 06:14 PM