May 03, 2007

A note of dignity or austerity

Renae O'Hanlon wrote:

I read and enjoyed your recent Language Log Post "Hot Dryden-on-Jonson action".

I thought these lines from an Australian political newsletter might be of interest to you ("A future Liberal leader writes: Multiculturalism is civilisation's single greatest threat", Crikey, 4/27/2007).

The author writes: "I am one of those Liberals with which this publication has a somewhat unhealthy obsession towards. This article would like to explore some issues to which this newspaper often propagates on ...."

I found this to be a very interesting example of prescriptivism. I suppose to this author, constructions such as "with which" and "to which" are proper and sophisticated, and give him an air of authority (and perhaps an air of legitimacy, since Australian Liberals [capital 'L'] are generally speaking represented by the economically advantaged and well educated). However, he clearly fails to notice that once the pied piping option is chosen, there is no longer any need for preposition stranding (also, interestingly, he has selected different prepositions). It seems that he is simply inserting the "with which" and the "to which" as status markers, and for no grammatical purpose at all!

Renae's sociolinguistic analysis is convincing, and reminds me of James Thurber's discussion of "whom" in his Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage. However, like Thurber's examples ("Whom are you, anyways?"), these redundant prepositions are so extreme that I wondered whether they might be a bit of inspired satire rather than a previously undocumented form of hypercorrection.

The cited article in Crikey is introduced by this note from the editors:

The editors of Monash University's student newspaper, Lot's Wife, are often maligned for being soft lefties. So in their last edition, they asked for people from all political persuasions to write in with their views. Con Helas, president of the Monash Liberal Club and electorate officer for Andrew Robb, took up the call.

But in Crikey's section of "Comments, corrections, clarifications, and c*ckups" for 4/30/2007, Patricia O'Donnell writes:

The words "will apparently run in the next edition of Lot's Wife" suggest that you do know that this is an undergraduate attempt at satire. I do hope you know that, even more than I hope that it is.

If you're having some difficulties with Crikey's "trial subscription" system, as I am, then you'll want to read the version of the whole Crikey article reprinted in this weblog entry, written by a Lot's Wife staffer. A post ("Culture Shock", 4/28/2007) on the weblog Awake and Alert suggests that Con Helas really exists. And a post at Andrew Landeryou's The Other Cheek ("Axed: Big Mouth Prominent Liberal Student Hack Shot At Dawn By Angry Andrew Robb", 4/29/2007) appears to confirm his existence, and also to confirm that he really wrote the article attributed to him.

So let's accept for the moment that at least one real person really writes things like "one of those Liberals with which this publication has a somewhat unhealthy obsession towards", and "some issues to which this newspaper often propagates on". And let's also accept Renae's idea that the Preposition+which sequences are inserted because, as James Thurber wrote about the use of whom, "a note of dignity or austerity is desired". Or, as Bishop Lowth put it in 1762," the placing of the preposition before the relative, is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style". Mr. Helas' innovation is to see the pre-which preposition as a stylistic extra, rather than an alternative placement.

Let me stipulate, at this point, that Mr. Helas is a very bad writer, and that he sometimes strays over the line from mere stylistic infelicity into overt violation of the grammatical norms of standard English, and that his redundant prepositions are definitely on the far side of that boundary. As a teacher, I recognize that he needs help.

But as a linguist, I'm excited. In the (I admit unlikely) event that this stylistically motivated, grammatically redundant marking of wh-words spreads, maybe English will develop case inflections all over again! English grammars of the 22nd century may cite the dative case of the relative pronoun, "twitch", and the benefactive, "fwitch". And the locative, "nwhich".

I'm just saying, is all.

What I'm wondering about now is how to search the web for other examples of this possible change-in-progress. Unfortunately, breakfast time is over, and I have to get to work. If you come up with a good search strategy, let me know.

[Rick Sprague writes:

If English pronoun case inflections are to be revived and elaborated, please God, let it stop there, and not extend to nounis and adjectivis. I have had Latin's declensionen enough to last me through minem lifetimem, thank youm.

Well, participation in linguistic change is generally optional, so I think Rick is safe, whatever happens.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 3, 2007 08:35 AM