Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You get one vote

Language is perhaps the ultimate expression of democracy.

In her Boston Globe column on language last Sunday, Jan Freeman wrote about the shift in meaning of chauvinism in American English from mindless nationalism to male sexism:

People who object to such language changes sometimes say, “Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it right.” But what's true about speeding or tax fiddling does not apply to language change; if everyone does it, that does, eventually, make it right.

To shift to the obverse, from the many to the one, keep in mind what Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman point out in Origin of the Specious:

As the language changes, no one has more than one vote.

It is true that, as in a democracy, someone occasionally has disproportionate influence. But even that is limited. Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 changed colour and honour to color and honor in American spelling. But tung for tongue and soop for soup didn’t take. Generations of English teachers have flailed away at ain’t, achieving no better than a draw; the word remains lodged in the language, though discouraged in formal usage.

Language becomes what its users collectively make of it. That is how Anglo-Saxon was transformed into English, mainly by a rabble of illiterate peasants, and no one should be sorry about that.

But this is a hard truth for the class of people whom the linguists at Language Log call peevologists — the teachers and editors and columnists and bloggers who trumpet their disdain for this word or that usage. (People who insist on flaunting their “pet peeves” might keep in mind that peevish — querulously fretful, like old Mr. Woodhouse in Emma worrying whether the carriage will get him home through a light fall of snow — is not an adjective to inspire admiration.)

The linguist Arnold Zwicky has remarked in his personal blog on his reaction to people who think that their individual tastes and preferences should have the force of law:

People send me e-mail saying that they dislike some usage in my writing, and people insert comments in other people’s blogs objecting to the bloggers’ usages. That is, they say, I don’t like this.

At which point, I ask: why are these people telling me what they don’t like, and doing that in my e-mail and blogs? Perhaps they just want to demonstrate their superiority, but the message I get is: Don’t offend me; stop doing this. And I resent this imposition, bridle at it. Where do you get off, telling me to write and talk the way you’d like?

I, like you, have one vote in English, and the reason I write this blog is not to attempt the bootless task of legislating for the language. Instead, if you merely wish to write a little more clearly, more precisely, and even, God save the mark, more elegantly, I will give you my best advice, along with the reasoning behind that advice. Take it or leave it. It’s your language as much as mine.


  1. Oprah gets a million votes, maybe more. Recall how "refugee" -- used widely in coverage of the 1997 Grand Forks flood and other disasters -- was suddenly an epithet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

  2. On that show you have no interest in (Jon & Kate plus 8), the wife constantly corrects the husband's speech, yet she's the one who pronounces the "t" in often every single time she uses it (which is often). I am peevish about that "t."

  3. A further marker of the unattractiveness of both parties.

  4. Bruce Holtgren commented on Facebook about "You get one vote":

    Outstanding piece; one of your best yet. This is truly a point about English that most people, educated and not, Just Don't Get.

    Trouble is, of course, that in the snapshot freeze-frame that we copy editors work in, we are forced to be proscriptivist when we know we're swimming in a living language. How can I insist that "health care" be two words, yet an article be replete with references to institutions that have "Healthcare" in their names? Etc.

    But yes, the do-it-my-way-or-you're-as-good-as-subliterate crowd can be exasperating, if for no other reason than because they don't even realize how *pointless* it is to be that way.

    But don't get me started. You said it just right, as usual.

  5. And I replied to Mr. Holtgren:

    I have no problem with enforcing the provisons of a particular house style -- that is, to stick with one option for the sake of consistency -- so long as no one mistakes these arbitrary choices for the One True Way. It's when people tart babbling about the AP Stylebook as their "Bible" that I get nervous.

  6. Lovely article. Thank you.

    Isn't it interesting that calling something your "Bible" connotes one absolute, non-debatable, static interpretation, while the sacred scripture called "The Bible" is a diverse collection of living, dynamic writings which all are struggle to interpret how to understand God...