November 04, 2005

Word rage outside the Anglosphere?

When Lynne Truss wrote that "people who put an apostrophe in the wrong place ... deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave", many in the Anglo-Saxon world cheered and bought her book. But even without publications to peddle, English speakers often threaten violence in support of linguistic norms.

Poke the ground cover in places like The Guardian's Talk forums, and out slither things like

Perhaps we should cut out manager's tongues. Then we wouldn't have to put up with their hideous mutilation of the language?

Yes, perhaps we should cut their fingers off at the oxters. And paralyse them from the neck down as well, just to be on the safe side?


"Let's touch base on that."

No, let's touch your bloody face with my knuckles, repeatedly.

Of course this is all in good fun. No mayhem or mutilation is committed or even seriously intended. But still, there's an impulse of genuine anger behind the jokes, just as there seems to be genuine disgust in other negative reactions to linguistic variation.

I've always assumed that such reactions are a cultural universal. But a few days ago, I read something that made me wonder. AA Gill wrote in The Times that

A simmering, unfocused lurking anger is the collective cross England bears with ill grace. ...

The English aren’t people who strive for greatness, they’re driven to it by a flaming irritation. It was anger that built the Industrial Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the need for self-control that found an outlet in cataloguing, litigating and ordering the natural world. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and inventors. The anger at sin and unfairness that forged their particular earth-bound, pedantic spirituality and their puce-faced, finger-jabbing, spittle-flecked politics. ...

Anger has driven the English to achievement and greatness in a bewildering pantheon of disciplines. At the core of that anger is the knowledge that they could go absolutely berserk with an axe if they didn’t bind themselves with all sorts of restraints, of manners, embarrassment and awkwardness and garden sheds.

Gill is a humorist, not a social psychologist, and I'm no friend of broad-brush stereotypes. But as I ticked off in my mind a list of counterexamples to Gill's position, it occurred to me that I can't recall any examples of "word rage" among other cultures.

I don't mean scorning people for having unsophisticated hick accents, or for using the despised dialects of the urban masses. Nor do I mean raising an eyebrow at the ill-considered innovations of the young. I'm not even talking about feeling disgusted at the way someone speaks or writes. I'm talking about reacting to perceived violations of linguistic norms with talk of chopping and stabbing and smashing. Does anyone but the English and their spiritual heirs do this?

If you know examples of language rage in other languages and cultures, or you're confident that your language and culture lack this feature, please let me know.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 4, 2005 10:25 AM