March 16, 2007

Usage gripes as display of social capital

In response to my recent series of posts on mass usage griping in the media ("The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming"; "The WaPo opens an abusage forum"; "An opportunity missed"), Peter Gerdes wrote:

I've noticed you keep attributing a great interest in speech and language to the usage gripers. This has certainly not been my experience. One doesn't have to have any wider interest in language, e.g., enjoy reading the sort of interesting posts about it on language log, to feel the righteous indignation of knowing you are RIGHT and they are WRONG.

I TA math and I see the same phenomena there. Unfortunately many students don't have the slightest interest in the subject (squeezed out by rote teaching before college). However, it is often those students who are most uninterested in hearing why things work or learning more who seem to most enjoy kibitzing about dropping a negative sign or demanding the answer be put in the 'right' form.

I admire your optimism but I'm afraid that usage gripes reveal more about the griper' psychological need to prove they are educated and smart. (For some reason people assume things like doing addition, spelling correctly and following simple prescriptivist rules correctly are signs of intelligence.) 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.

Whether or not my psychological analysis is correct I think you ought to consider the possibility that usage gripes fulfill a purpose that has nothing to do with any wider interest in language.

There's certainly some truth in this. Usage griping rarely seems to result in real curiosity about usage, which is why it's so often wrong about the facts. And usage gripers often seem to be engaged in creating and displaying social capital, as Language Hat suggested in his post entitled "Pride and Prejudice".

All the same, those who make fun of how others dress are still giving evidence of an interest in clothes, even if it's a mean-spirited one, and even if the mockers don't bother to learn about the history, economics and technology of fashion. And on the positive side, we can also find the linguistic analogue of best-dressed lists, in the form of books and articles about weird and wonderful words, neologism competitions, usage columns about interesting new constructions, and so on.

Furthermore, I don't think it's true that usage griping (or the more positive interest in linguistic best-dressed lists) is limited to ignorant or insecure people. I've known plenty of successful intellectuals, apparently secure in their status and identity, well read and genuinely interested in English prose style if not in linguistics, whose refrigerator or office door was regularly festooned with red-penciled newspaper clippings exhibiting dangling predicative adjuncts, or the misuse of infer for imply, or amusingly mixed metaphors.

For that matter, you could classify our own harvests of eggcorns and snowclones as behavior of the same sort.

So I continue to believe that the popularity of linguistic group-gripes is evidence of widespread interest in speech and language, even if the specific complaints are often misguided and sometimes mean-spirited. And I suspect that this does "provide an opening for language education". At least, better education in linguistic analysis would result in higher-quality gripes -- which gripers should appreciate even on the worst interpretation of their motives -- and better education in sociolinguistics and historical linguistics might channel this energy into more productive and more personally satisfying forms of social capital formation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 16, 2007 07:06 AM