Monday, October 18, 2010
Proscriptive vs. Descriptive Revisited
I live in Utah, and in Utah, as in every region of every country on Earth, we have a regional accent. That’s kind of the way languages work: there is a single, overarching language (such as English), and then each area that speaks it will develop, through usage, different ways of pronouncing certain words, different ways of using certain words, and sometimes entirely different words. A native English speaker from Texas will sound different from a native English speaker from New York, or Boston, or Alabama, or Minnesota, or wherever. These smaller groups of linguistic differences are called dialects, and these can be broken down into even smaller groups, all the way down to an ideolect, which is the specific version of a language spoken by a single individual. There are many people who share your dialect, but you are the only person in the world who speaks your ideolect. The technical term for this uniqueness is called “being a precious snowflake.”
Spanish is a great example. Assume that a single, “correct” version of Spanish exists (it doesn’t, but assume it for the sake of this explanation); each country speaks a slightly different subset of this uber-Spanish, and each region of those countries speaks a different version of their nation-Spanish, and each city speaks a different version of their regional-Spanish, and so on. In Spain they pronounce the z as a th, whereas the rest of the Spanish speaking world pronounces it as an s, which is why everyone makes fun of Spaniards for lisping. In Mexico they have a lot of regional dialects: in the south, in Chiapas, they have a lilting, kind of sing-song quality to their sentences, thus changing the tone of the language; in the north, in Chihuahua, they pronounce the ch as sh (as in “Shihuahua”), thus changing the phonemes of the language; in the middle of the country (I forfeit [sic] the exact region), they use the word “buscar” to mean both “to look for” and “to find,” thus changing the vocabulary of the language. And those are only a tiny handful of examples.
Each new generation learns to speak their language the same way their parents speak it, while also adding new variations of their own, which both perpetuates the dialectal differences and creates new ones, thus drawing the dialect even further from the hypothetical uber-language it descended from. This can eventually create an all-new language—Spanish descended from Latin via this exact process, as did French, Italian, Portuguese, and others. This is why it’s not only impossible but ridiculous to tell someone from Chihuahua that they’re saying the ch sound wrong because it differs from “real” Spanish—you might just as well say that the entire Spanish-speaking world is wrong because their language differs from “real” Latin. For that matter, you might just as well tell a sparrow his biology is wrong because it differs from the standard dinosaur template his biology is descended from. Things change, and we have to deal with it. That’s why most linguists just look at France’s attempts to legislate their language and laugh.
A great modern example is the word “hopefully,” which used to mean “in a hopeful manner” but now means “I hope.” This modern definition breaks ever grammatical rule we have in English, and yet it is still “correct” because that is how everyone uses it, and usage creates correctness, not the other way around. There’s actually two schools of thought on this, called prescriptive (linguistic rules should prescribe the way people speak) and descriptive (language rules should describe the way people speak). I obviously fall into the latter camp, but there are an astonishing amount of gray areas and exceptions and corner cases in the issue. If I decide that “shnoogenblat” means “blue,” am I wrong? Not within my own ideolect, but no one else will understand me. What if a whole city starts using it? What if a whole nation does it? At what point does it become correct, and is there a point in the middle where it’s still not correct but isn’t really incorrect, either? If everyone in the whole country uses the word “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” is it still wrong? Who decides? How does a proofreader know when to correct them? What does it mean, if anything, that my spellchecker not only accepted the word “ain’t” but actually suggested it when I wrote a-i-n? Even the modern definition of “hopefully,” so commonly used that most people don’t realize it used to mean anything else, is painful to allegedly-descriptive ears. I’ve forced myself to stop correcting people when they use it, but I haven’t yet been able to say it myself.
So anyway, I was talking about the Utah accent. I find this stuff fascinating so I get off on a lot of tangents. Anyway. One of the things we do in Utah is shorten our vowels, for example turning ee into i, and the ay into eh. “I got a rilly good dill on some still-belted tires. They were on sell.” We also drop the Ts from a lot of words, replacing them with glottal stops so that the word “button” turns into “bu’un”, and “mountain” turns into “mou’un.” Most regions of American English drop the Ts from these kinds of words, but it can get really exaggerated here: “I was si’in on the mou’un at Brigh’in, ge’in ready to ski.”
The thing I love about Utah, though, is that people think our accent sounds irredeemably hickish. People in Boston pahk their cahs, dropping their Rs all over the place, but that’s okay because they’re from Boston; people in the south are happy to git somethin done fer ya, but that’s okay because they’re from the south. I knew a guy from New York who named his son Don and his daughter Dawn, and he pronounced them completely differently. I knew another guy from Louisiana who explained that “yall” meant “several of you” and “all yall” meant “all of you.” These are accepted, even “cool” accents and dialects that most people hear without even thinking about, and have no problem understanding or accepting. Tell someone their tell light is out on their car, though, and suddenly you’re a backwoods yokel who doesn’t know how to talk.
Which is not to say that I’m any more accepting of dialectal differences than anyone else. My wife is from Wyoming, where “to be” is a fully optional verb (“The car needs moved”), and I make fun of her and her family all the time. And it still gives me a jarring, ear-gouging headache when people itch something instead of scratching it, or ask me to borrow them some money. I’m a descriptivist, but I also have a degree in editing, and so help me if you say something “wrong” I will love the opportunity to get all up in your face over it. I appreciate, support, and vehemently the defend the concept of linguistic change, but I still love telling people they’re wrong. I guess in the end it’s like freedom of speech: “I do not agree with what you say, sir, but I will defend to the death your right to say it incorrectly.”