April 02, 2008

Comprehensibility and standardness

Step 1: A language maven M contrasts two (roughly) equivalent variants X and Y, labeling them standard and non-standard respectively (or, more starkly, "correct" and "incorrect") and proscribing Y.  This is the labeling phase.

Step 2: M attempts to justify the differential labeling (and the accompanying proscription) by claiming that X has intrinsic virtues -- it preserves a distinction that's important for communication, it avoids ambiguity, it's "logical", it's briefer, it's clearer, whatever -- that Y lacks; Y is intrinsically inferior.  This is the justification phase.

Step 3: A linguist L objects to the justification phase -- sometimes also to the labeling phase, but the central question here is the validity of the justifications.  L argues that the justifications offered in favor of X over Y are ill-founded.  In particular, L argues that in practice Y does not impede communication or introduce pernicious ambiguity.  This is a rejection of the justifications, not of the labeling.  (In some cases L wants to dispute the labeling as well, but L rejects the justifications for dispreferring Y in any case.)

Step 4: L will make a similar argument in case after case, concluding that the standard variety is as it as a consequence of social, cultural, and historical forces, not because of some intrinsic superiority as a vehicle of communication.  Having examined case after case, L will note that each non-standard variant has its own intrinsic values -- it makes a distinction that's important in communication, it avoids ambiguity, it's more regular or is simpler in some other way, it's briefer, it's clearer, whatever -- so that the justifications are really beside the point.  (But this last step is important because it leads to the humane conclusion that users of the language are all concerned, tacitly of course, with communicative values; people who use non-standard variants are not just sloppy, lazy, cognitively impaired simpletons who have, moreover, perversely rejected the excellences of the standard.)

Step 5: Others now claim that L is maintaining (absurdly) that if people can understand something, it's therefore standard; call this "comprehensibility implies standardness".  This conclusion does not follow from what L says; anyone who draws this conclusion deserves to fail Logic 101.

I believe that no linguist has ever said that comprehensibility implies standardness, and also that no linguist has ever said that if a speaker of a language says something on some occasion it's therefore standard (in lay terms, "correct" or "grammatical"), an even more absurd claim that Geoff Pullum rants about occasionally (most recently, in passing, here).  Certainly I have never said either of these things.

My comments on the special conditional form of English (sometimes called "the subjunctive" or "the past subjunctive") have elicited the usual pile of accusations that I am an anarchic, anything-goes, radical relative-moralist academic who rejects standards in language (well, this is usually framed in somewhat more polite language).  What I did was compare the special conditional form (call it form C) with the ordinary past form (call it form T) as an expression of conditions contrary to fact.  In this use, form C is labeled by many critics as standard and form T as non-standard.  In fact, I think that these labels are no longer accurate, but that wasn't the point of my critique.  Instead, I examined the justifications that appear in handbook after handbook for proscribing form T in this use: that it eliminates a distinction that is important in communication and induces ambiguity.  Against these claims, I noted that using form T in this way simply doesn't produce difficulties in communication or occasion troublesome ambiguities.  You can maintain that form T is non-standard, and we can discuss the evidence for that; you can choose to use form C (as I do in many circumstances); but this talk about the communicative virtues of form C and the communicative deficiencies of form T is just beside the point.  (I originally typed "is just bullshit", and maybe I should have stuck with that.)

I did not say that form T used in counterfactual conditionals is standard because people understand it so easily.  I said that specific claims about the communicative values of form C are not supported by the facts of actual usage (in particular, the ease with which people understand it), and that communicative values therefore provide no justification for labeling form T in this use as non-standard.  If form T is in fact non-standard, that's just a brute fact, having to do with which people use the variant in what contexts and for what purposes.

I have no problem in labeling variants as non-standard, if they in fact are, and I've done it many, many times here on Language Log (an awful lot of the variants I study are non-standard) -- with the result that I get a certain amount of e-mail from people who are shocked by some of this labeling: how, they write, can I say that some variant is non-standard, when it makes so much SENSE?  Why should theirselves be non-standard?  Why should themself used with singular antecedents (Anyone who shoots themself in the foot shouldn't be trusted with a gun) be non-standard?  Why, in fact, should theirself in this use be non-standard (in fact, doubly so)?  All I can say to these correspondents is: it just IS.  (Though in the case of themself it might not be so for much longer.)

I understand that there are powerful bits of ideology at play here (which lead to the expectation that standard variants have special virtues, and then to the sort of e-mail I just described), but I feel they need to be exposed and resisted.  So I find myself "defending" non-standard variants, and informal variants, and primarily spoken variants, and innovative variants, and regional/social variants, but not by claiming that they're standard, formal, written, etc.  Instead, I have the much more reasonable goal of noting system (patterning, structure) in, communicative values for, and discourse functions for these "low" variants as well as the "high" ones (and the ones that are neutral with respect to the high/low poles).  This is something that linguists have done for a long time.  (Not by any means the only thing, but an important thing.)

A final note on form C.  Jay Livingston writes to say, wryly:

You wrote:  "But somehow preserving the last vestige of a special counterfactual form has become a crusade for some people."

If I was you, I wouldn't worry too much about it disappearing entirely.

This is an especially interesting example, because there seem to be a fair number of people who have essentially no productive use of form C, though they do have what are essentially relics of form C in a few fixed expressions, like if I were you and would that it were so, which are learned as wholes.  In an important sense, the grammatical system of such speakers doesn't include form C, any more than the grammatical system of modern speakers with always and towards (and non-standard anyways) includes an adverbial genitive, though that is the historical source of the final /z/ in these items.  That is, for these speakers, form C HAS disappeared entirely.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 2, 2008 07:37 PM