‘The erosion of language or natural language change?’ ANTHONY REA preaches greater tolerance towards language prescriptivists.

Mirroring the sense of properness he portrayed in his role as a high-class, standards-enforcing concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel (IMBD, 2014) actor Ralph Fiennes recently  complained that “[language] is being eroded”, blaming “a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter” (Jones, 2011). Fiennes continued that “our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us” (Jones, 2011). Fiennes’ views form part of a tradition of blaming technological innovations for the supposed decline of language, with  journalist John Humphrys previously condemning texters for  “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences [and…] raping our vocabulary”  (Humphrys, 2007). Both Humphrys and Fiennes’ comments represent a prescriptivist attitude towards language, whereby linguistic forms are judged as either good/bad or correct/incorrect. Although a prescriptivist view is commonly adopted by the general public, most linguists prefer to take a descriptivist stance – observing how people use language without judgement.

Suggestions that language is being eroded or vandalised exemplify Aitchison’s (1997: 12) ‘crumbling castle view’, whereby prescriptivists treat the “English Language as a beautiful old building[…] which needs to be preserved intact”. Aitchison (1997: 13) refutes prescriptivists’ beliefs that language is regressing from its once perfect state, arguing language changes to maintain relevance to changing social circumstances. Therefore, whilst sentences in Twitter and SMS messages may contain fewer clauses, rather than rejecting these sentences as ‘truncated’, ‘savaged’ or incorrect, descriptivists choose to refrain from judgment, observe the reduction of clauses as a feature of language relative to the Twitter and SMS Mediums whilst possibly suggesting a reduction in the number of clauses is motivated by these mediums’ character limit restrictions.

Returning to Fiennes’ comments, many readers appeared to share his prescriptivist view, with one commenter describing Twitter as a “teeming cesspool of pseudo-linguistics [which…] breeds cringe-worthy habits of illiteracy” (Jones, 2011). The commenter’s sense of disgust invoked by the use of ‘cesspit’ is a good example of what Aitchison (1997:10) calls the ‘damp spoon syndrome’, whereby prescriptivists are disgusted by supposed language misuse as if witnessing a damp spoon being dipped in a sugar bowl. The metaphor’s underlying assumption is that laziness and sloppiness are the causes of language change (Aitchison 1997: 10). It could also be argued that use of the word ‘breedsrelates to Aitchison’s (1997) ‘infectious disease metaphor’, whereby language misuse, or habits of illiteracy’, breed much like the growth of infectious bacteria.

Aitchison attributes these prescriptivist strands of worry to a lack of understanding of how language changes (1997:18). However, whilst I agree with Aitchison’s point, I don’t believe possessing a detailed knowledge of  language change fully curtails  speaker’s urges to judge it. In his recent article, Jeremy Butterfield, states “as a professional linguist I try to embrace changes to modern language, but there are a few illiterate horrors I just can’t abide” (Butterfield, 2015). Whether complaining over  people’s  use of ‘criteria’ in place of ‘criterion’, or expressing his distaste for the “absurdly gushing and pseudo-empathetic American metaphor” ‘to reach out’, as a professional lexicographer and editor of Fowler’s dictionary (2015),  Butterfield’s judgements on the uses of others are unlikely to stem from ignorance of language change. Cameron (1995:2) suggests that our tendency to comment on and judge language is the realisation of natural language’s ‘reflexivity’ design feature – the ability to use language to comment on language.

Cameron (1995:2 ) highlights the importance of reflexivity through Wittgenstein’s language game (1965). In the game we imagine two workers, A and B, have to construct a house from blocks and slabs. They communicate through a language which consists only of the utterances, ‘Block!’ or ‘Slab!’.  Building starts through Worker A shouting ‘Slab!’ when a slab is required, to which Worker B responds by passing one over. However, if worker A mistakenly shouts ‘Block!’, when he actually requires a Slab, there would be no way for worker B to correct A. The game exemplifies how correcting the language of others can make communication more effective. I feel it also highlights the importance of prescribing a mutually-intelligible, standard variety for speakers to use where and when appropriate. With this is mind, I feel that in having cultivated a descriptivist attitude through formally studying language, I may have become too quick to disregard prescriptivists’ views on language change as misinformed, or even pompous. I now feel that reconsidering attempts to ‘correct’ language as displays of metalinguistic skill, will make me more tolerant towards, if still in disagreement with, prescriptivist views of language change.

ANTHONY REA, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Aitchison, J. (1997) The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butterfield, J. (2015) Achingly Unacceptable: the bad language that bugs me. The Guardian [online], April 3 [Accessed 9 April].

Cameron, D. (1995) Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fowler, H. W (ed.) (2015). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Humphrys, J. (2007) I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language. Daily Mail [online], September 24 [Accessed 9 April 2015].

IMDB, (2014). The Grand Budapest Hotel. [Online] [Accessed 9 April 2015] 

Jones, L. (2011) Ralph Fiennes blames Twitter for ‘eroding’ language. The Telegraph [online], October 27 [Accessed 9 April 2015].

Wittgenstein, L.(1965) Philosophical Investigations. New York: The Macmillan Company.

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One thought on “‘The erosion of language or natural language change?’ ANTHONY REA preaches greater tolerance towards language prescriptivists.

  1. Olivia Windmill says:

    Your blog has proved for an interesting read, particularly Aitchison’s (1997) prescriptivist theories. However, I have to argue with the point made about “laziness and sloppiness [being] the causes of language change”. Surely language change includes many different aspects, including the coining of new words. I cannot see how this can be described as lazy as the development of new words is a proactive way to enhance our English vocabulary which can help us keep up with today’s technological advances.

    I find that the view on language as an ‘infectious disease’ spreading, can not only be seen in a negative way. The speed at which language can grow is something which I would describe as very impressive. Considering technology today and how fast the word ‘selfie’ spread like wildfire across the globe in 2013, to then end up in the Oxford English Dictionary, being it’s ‘word of the year’ can surely only be a good thing.

    As you describe yourself as being more tolerable to prescriptivist views on language, I would like to know which elements it is which you think are agreeable with the descriptivist attitude one can gain through a formal study of language? For example, do you find that new words are causing our language to become chaotic? Or is the prescriptivist attitude on language more against grammatical changes?

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