March 28, 2008

James Kilpatrick, linguistic socialist

Wikipedia describes James J. Kilpatrick as "a conservative columnist". There's good evidence for this. His syndicated column was called "A conservative view"; he was, according to Wikipedia, "a fervent segregationist" during the civil rights movement; for many years he was the conservative side of the Point-Cointerpoint segment on 60 Minutes.

And yet, in his second career as "grammarian" -- by which he means "arbiter of English usage" -- Mr. Kilpatrick promotes the linguistic equivalent of a planned economy. Linguistic rules are to be invented by experts like him, on the basis of rational considerations of optimal communication, and imposed on the rest of us. For our own good, of course.

His most recent column ("Why do we study grammar?", 3/23/2008) offers a small but telling indication of this:

In speech or in writing, English is the greatest language ever devised for communicating thought.

Linguistic chauvinism aside, let's focus on the word "devised". Compare Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volumes 1: Rules and Order, p. 10-11:

[Constructivist rationalism] produced a renewed propensity to ascribe the origin of all institutions of culture to invention or design. Morals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market, were thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least as owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design. ...

Yet ... [m]any of the institutions of society which are indisensible conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view. ...

Man ... is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

In contrast, most academic linguists that I know are political liberals, who would not agree with Hayek about many issues in economic and social policy. There's an apparent paradox here, perhaps related to the curious connection between less government regulation of the economy and more government regulation of morals.

(For more detailed discussion, see "Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism", 12/11/2007; "The non-existence of Kilpatrick's Rule", 12/14/2007.)

[Andre Mayer writes:

"Grammarian" is of course James J. Kilpatrick's third career. He was a newspaper editor for many years before becoming a columnist, which may explain his prescriptive views. (I think he once endorsed Eugene McCarthy for President, which -- like his views on language -- is actually compatible with a certain kind of conservatism.)

Well, at least he co-authored a book with McCarthy, "A Political Bestiary" (sample entry here). And a piece that Kilpatrick wrote for the National Review in 1968, "An Impolitic Politician", was republished in 2005 on the occasion of McCarthy's death. From this article, I gather that Kilpatrick admired McCarthy's style, and liked him as a person. It's less clear, at least from this evidence, that he endorsed any of McCarthy's political views. An affectionate obituary ("Remembering Gene McCarthy") from The Conservative Voice supports the same conclusion.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 28, 2008 08:58 AM