Sunday, January 6, 2013

No One Owns Grammar, No One Owns Usage

A Facebook friend just reposted the following:

...and I figured I'd share my response here.

The problem is that no one owns language. Usage rules are written after a language develops, to explain conventions that have arisen via natural processes. And then, backwardsly, the people who've mocked up those rules feel proprietary about them, and bray indignantly at those who dare break them.

The problem is that language is always changing. Only dead languages stand still. And, as they change, the people who devised the ex post facto rules find their contrivances crumbling and tend to lash out, telling people they're speaking incorrectly. Of course, it's like shouting at the tide. Because language is not "owned" by the rule-makers, who daftly figure this natural process ought to freeze upon their command. Language is, again, a natural process owned by no one.

But the real underbelly of this dynamic is classism. There are always way more plebes than elites, so the plebes exert the most influence on language usage, while the elites are the ones who mock up the rules. So after the masses, doing what they do in human social communities, have dynamically developed a language, elites try to codify it, and get nasty/snobby/indignant when language declines to freeze for them. As they see it, it's all about the vulgarity of the lower classes, bastardizing this beautiful frozen thing (which they themselves built!), ruining everything. Nasty unwashed swine!

This photo speaks to that. It's snobbery, pure and simple.

I'm friends with the guy who edits the Oxford American dictionary. I used to email him to ask whether a given construction is a "real" word (ala "backwardsly", above). He'd gasp in exasperation and inform me that as an adult native English speaker, anything I say, which has the ability to effectively communicate, is a word. What he, or anyone else, deems "proper" is laughably irrelevant. So even among academics - the supposed gatekeepers of linguistic propriety - the Victorian-era "prescriptive" approach is discredited. They understand their role is descriptive, not prescriptive, because, as I said at the start, no one owns language, and all the rules come after, explaining conventions naturally established. Those very conventions will likely find themselves overturned, and the cycle will begin anew.

We must teach children to effectively communicate within the conventions of the moment, as a utilitarian skill. And we produce reference books to catalog those ever-changing conventions. But the people who ply those trades don't own grammar. They don't own spelling. They don't own usage. And once kids leave school, more or less aware of contemporary conventions, whichever way they wish to speak or write is fair game. You may tsk at them, but that's your problem, not theirs, because, even if they're poorer or less educated or more slovenly-appearing, you have no higher claim to language use. Language is a last bastion of freedom.

One can command the tide not to come in, but it's not going to pay attention. One can then curse the tide for its vulgarity, but it's going to continue to flow. And one can rue how the world's been shot all to hell by these unruly tides, but one would just look like a crackpot.

Here's that same lexicographer friend's classic article on the subject, from The Atlantic. Forward it to all your grammar snob/usage snob/spelling snob friends!

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