Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Nora Raum can't take it anymore, but I can

Another language rant appears on Sunday's Weekend Edition (NPR).
Yes, Pop culture is hard on people who love words or grammar!
Hmm, I love words and grammar. Should I be upset? Not really.
I think pop culture is a great source of language data. I can hear all sorts of dialects and idosyncrasies . Stuff I can't hear just around my friends and family. It's a wonderful natural laboratory.
But, according to Nora this linguistics diversity is wrong for you and wrong for America.

It's important that people try to use language more carefully.

Why Nora, why?
Well it's important, that's why.

Oh.
Of course while complaining she also manages to mischaracterize the descriptive approach to language. (Is that a strawman Nora?)
Our language is an ever-changing thing. As long as we can communicate, so what?

No. No. No. You couldn't be more wrong.
Descriptivism isn't about feeling good about our language. It's not a self esteem exercise for non-standard speakers. It's about the scientific method.
Descriptivism asks questions about language--Why do we speak? How do kids learn language? Why do dialects differ? etc. And looks to answer those questions with naturalistic explanations.
Compare, for example, how the field of Astronomy handled the odd behaviour of Mars. Unlike all the other planets, Mars doesn't cut a nice West to East arc across the night sky when tracked from night to night. Instead it goes East for a little bit and then lurches back West and then heads back on it's arc eastward.
magine if astonomers decided that Mars is simply wrong. That it was the one recalcitrant, stupid planet that could never learn the proper way to move across the night sky. We'd really have advanced our knowledge of the solar system that way.
But astronomers didn't do that. Instead, they adjusted their theories about the planets (slowly, but they did adjust). And so we end up with the more correct heliocentric theory of the solar system. This theory not only describes the path of Mars, but explains why it makes this funny loop.
People like Nora Raum want to constrain our knowledge of language. They don't want us to ask questions about it. They don't want us to rethink anything. They don't want us to say, "why would someone confuse lie and lay?" Their theory of language already tells them why--these people are stupid. And questions about data can only lead to questions about their theory. So the only option left is to try to force everyone to conform to the behavior that their theory predicts. To eliminate the contradictory data.
Well, as my father-in-law used to say, "screw on you lady." I'd rather listen to people talk and hear data, then than listen to people talk and hear mistakes.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that in your rant, you showed your lack of grammar in more ways than one.

In your closing you stated "I'd rather listen to people talk and hear data, then listen to people talk and hear mistakes." This implies you listen to them talk twice. (I think you meant thAn, as in rather this than that...)

Here's a site for you to check out.
http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/than.html

liberal elite said...

OMG! You are sooo right. Thanks soooo much for pointing out that horrible mistake. Boy am I ever embarrassed!

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