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Language use. Parallel to my poem on Language.

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April 15, 2012, ... /?src=recg

Arguing About Language

The Stone

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

Today I’m going to hopefully beg a question which will incentivize the reader to share their views. Yes, I’m writing about English grammar and usage.

Debates about linguistic norms typically set traditionalists against revisionists. The two sides are particularly entrenched because each is rooted in a fundamental truth: the traditionalists are right that the rules are the rules (for instance, pronouns do need to agree in number with their referents), and the revisionists are right that language does change over time (nouns can come to be used as verbs).

There will always be a tension between sticking to and violating linguistic rules.

The two fundamental truths are reconcilable because language is both our creation and our master. We humans invented and continue to reinvent our language to meet various needs, but language can serve these needs only if, at any given time, we conform to most of what has been already devised. Therefore, although we as an evolving species make language, it is also imposed on each of us individually. There’s a sense in which we speak language and a sense in which, in Mallarmé’s famous phrase, “language itself speaks.”

As a result, there will always be a tension between sticking to and violating linguistic rules. We can, however, often fruitfully discuss emerging linguistic innovations if we keep in mind three main goals of language use: effective communication, pleasing expression and moral solidarity.
Leif Parsons

Language is, first of all, a tool for saying as well as possible what we intend to say. For this purpose, it makes sense to avail ourselves of all the resources offered by our language at a given time. Traditionalists are on their strongest ground when they are defending against changes that deprive us of useful linguistic tools. So, for example, the slippage that allows “infer” to mean “imply” weakens the valuable distinction between a person’s drawing a conclusion and an argument’s requiring one. Similarly, allowing “refute” to mean “deny” obscures the distinction between proving and asserting that a claim is false. And making “beg the question” a mere variant of “raise the question” deprives us of a simple way of distinguishing between asking a question and assuming a particular answer to it.

Granted, even after linguistic evolution has assimilated opposing terms to one another, it is still possible to use our language to make the distinctions they formerly expressed. But resisting the assimilation allows us to learn important logical distinctions merely by learning our language.

75 ThumbnailA series about the art of writing and why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.

Of course, language does eventually change in all sorts of ways, whether from reformist design (for instance, the 18th-century campaign for spelling uniformity), ignorance or sheer inattention. The point, however, is that at any given stage, proper language use promotes a clarity and subtlety of thought that will diminish if certain standards aren’t upheld.

Linguistic change is also often resisted on aesthetic grounds. Some people find split infinitives (“to plainly see”), “verbed” nouns (“let me caveat that”) or misspelled words (“supercede”) simply ugly. Similarly for verbal tics such as “like” and “uh,” or “echoes” that repeat the same word or phrase in close proximity. Conversely, many enjoy the elegance, pithiness or clarity of certain modes of expressions. Aesthetic judgments are personal but not necessarily idiosyncratic, and we may well be able to sensitize others to what we find repellent or attractive. There is room for lively and enlightening discussion, even though the final conclusion may be “de gustibus.”

Our attitudes toward language are also important expressions of cultural and ethical loyalties. Knowledge of and respect for established linguistic rules may, for example, express allegiance to our literary tradition. To be careless in how we speak and write can signal that we are ignorant or disdainful of the writers and speakers who helped craft our language. Even worse, we may lose access to parts of that tradition: I know from my own experience that even bright undergraduates often cannot really read the lucid prose of David Hume or John Stuart Mill.

We may also approve or disapprove of neologisms out of sympathy or animus toward groups from which they originate. Recent debates over “how young people talk” — their frequent use of “like,” the interrogative “uplift” young women often add to declarative sentences and so forth — have become proxies for disagreements about our hopes and fears for our children. Here too disputes about language have strong moral resonance.

The pure traditionalist and pure revisionist positions are both oblivious to what is at stake in arguments over language. The traditionalists claim they are just asking us to play by the rules of the game; revisionists say they are just asking us to accept the fact that language is always changing. But both sides ignore the profound consequences of how we speak.

Language usage is and should be a battleground. Our task is to make the conflict fruitful. To do this, we need to understand what precisely is at issue in any particular dispute. Does a new locution advance or retard our power to express our ideas effectively? Is the issue primarily one of different aesthetic sensibilities? Or is our argument over language rooted in deeper disagreements over who we are and how we should live? Once we understand what is really at stake, we may be able to learn much through arguing about language.
Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone.
Oh S. L, this is indeed food for thought, thank you for bringing it up, I live in Norway giving me another perspective, another language to 'play' with; and am appalled at some of the expressions the poor innocent Norwegians pick up as good language. But then, as in Britain- and all over the world- there are the local dialects, and this world would be the poorer without their creative artistry, awakening lateral thoughts and meanings that entertain us totally. The languages that encroach on the original always colour the existing norm of a language, as a red apple does a green one next to it, the apples both taste good, perhaps one is different from the other, but they are both good apples. In my adult painting class I arranged two very different apples, most of them painted two green round apples-from their memory!- only those who really saw the nuances of shape and colour, painted what they saw, so too with language, we only see/hear what we wish to.

The there are the jargon-type languages that exist in all countries, sometimes just to annoy the intellectual snobs, piling it on with 'unmentionable,' swearing and distortions that also colour language when used well, but become over-painted expressions that only negate themselves. Unnecessary noise!

But just read this and the dialect with sing to you, I mean, just listen to this :-
SUNSET SONG Gibbons. (Aberdeenshire dialect, Scotland. GB.)

p 20. “It had fine glass windows, awful old, the wee hall with three bit queens, not very decent - like a kirk, as window pictures. One of the queens was Faith she looked a daft, like keek for she was lifting up her hands and her eyes like a heifer choked on a turnip and the bit blanket round her shoulders was falling off her but she didn’t seem to heed, and there was a swither of scrolls and fiddley-faddles all about her…”

p.32. “It went dandering up the sleeping Gramprans (wind) …with dust so that the motor cars went shooming through them like kettles under steam…”

"The two fundamental truths are reconcilable because language is both our creation and our master."

I love that quote, how true, we are, we aren't, we were once, we are what we are.

"There’s a sense in which we speak language and a sense in which, in Mallarmé’s famous phrase, “language itself speaks.”

"Language is, first of all, a tool for saying as well as possible what we intend to say." And modern youth tends to want to be misunderstood, to create their own language that nobody understands, just as my parents naughtily did at table, speaking French when they didn't want us to hear what they had to say! Also to appear more clever than they are, nest pas!!!

Sometimes we seem to be so caught up in theories and meanings that we forget the onomatopoeic sounds of words for themselves, as simple as the note on the page of the musician that becomes transformed by the player into a magic that otherwise lies silent on that page. Ann.

What about Lewis Carroll with his poem:-

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”…………………etc:-

..."be able to sensitize others..." sensitise underlined in red here in GB English! :)

Just a note from me Silent Lotus, from Annakaya.

This in answer to what you have put here, I haven't yet perused the blue rows implying the expansion of the ideas; but I shall read them anon.

A little more:- Swedish and Norwegian are similar languages, they use some of the same words, the only difference being, in some cases, the meanings of those words. 
The same applies within a country, such as Norway, where the word RAR (like rare) means strange in the south but further north means charming. 

Language is a living music, and music is forever changing in character, the expression of its time; the dominating norm influencing all types of sound expression. Old traditions die hard, some that have withstood the test of time are still favourites today, they appear from behind a curtain as a creation of their era, and being human, we have tried the same joys and sorrows, peace and battles that have always existed, enabling us to appreciate all genres of human expression. 

The modern man will be so different today, due to the computers influence, more mechanical in some ways, and yet the creative souls who always exist in a society, will glean from all modern equipment much of inspiration to new ideas, new arts.

This is not clever writing but writing it makes things clearer to myself. 


This is parallel to my poem just posted. "Language Living Music" feel free to enter the discussion. Ann.

"The image of yourself which you see in a mirror Is dead,
but the reflection of the moon on water, lives." Kenzan.

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