Sunday, July 08, 2007

Language sensitivity

Today Jaimie Epstein fills in for William Safire who has allowed us a vacation from his On Language column. Her offering, entitled "Sentence Sensibility," laments the loneliness she has to endure because she's so picky about language.

I've been there (I promised Casey I would tell the story soon). But now I'm in a good place. A calm place. And it feels like an enlightened place when I come across the following from Ms Epstein:

But just imagine what it’s like to be afflicted with an excess language-sensitivity gene.

There is a big difference between being very picky about usage and being very sensitive to language. All speakers/hearers are sensitive to language. It's called competence. Knowing that in the phrase "the black shoes" both the and black help determine shoes and that the order of the and black is fixed is natural "language-sensitivity." It is standard English because that's the way the language works and we don't need to be explicitly told that the article goes first. We learn the language from learning...the language.

Epstein's column focuses on factual and typographical errors that are not natural language features. It is not genetic language-sensitivity that allows her to notice when someone claims the author of Atonement is "Ian McGregor". That's just an information error. It's not a "language-sensitivity gene" that sets her against the description "slurshing sound of the waves" because it made her think "drink sloppily and quickly" and drove her to seasickness. That's just a preference. Someone who really likes the word "slurshing" isn't less sensitive than Epstein.

Epstein laments that there is no "12-step program for usage addicts." So she's addicted to usage? Well who isn't. I find I can't get through a single conversation without using a usage. My speech is full of usages.

Yes yes I know what she means. She's addicted to complaining about usage. She herself admits that her language isn't "perfect." I agree with her that a lot of writing such as the copy on a résumé deserves extra attention. But she lumps in spelling errors with the difference between who and whom and the importance of using media as a plural noun. These are all very different issues whose uses depend on varying norms and registers.

Spelling and prescriptivism are bodies of information that must be taught. Nobody asks about what are you talking? because of a language-sensitivity gene or because of an ear that is fine tuned to correct usage (Epstein refers to herself as "someone whose ear is as tuned to the pitch of language as a cellist’s is to music"). That construction comes from attention to the schoolmarm. It comes from attention to some claims about language. Investigating the music metaphor I'd say it's more like a cellist who insists on playing everything in one key.

Here's one sour note that Epstein's trusted editors missed. Take a look at the byline.

I would have willingly chuckled at it thinking it's a clever little joke but on the ADS-L Laurence Horn confirmed that in the print version the spelling is correct.

The editors caught the error and changed it. It's not a horrible mistake. Just look at any of my posts and you'll find typos of that sort all over.

Bad genes I suppose.


  1. I know what you’re thinking: No wonder she’s single, no wonder she got dumped, who would want to feel those eyes/ears of judgment upon his every utterance?

    Close Jaimie, but not quite.

    I was actually thinking how someone who writes so erratically can get a job as a wordsmith. She subconsciously jumps from topic to topic in the same sentence with an uninspired labyrinthe of parentheses, long-dashes and quotations.

    I had to re-read each paragraph to make sure there was nothing I missed, and I still couldn't quite see where she was going with any of it.

    I feel like a shower.

  2. So true. Most of the article read like a collection of unrelated sentence fragments.

    Here is one of the worst opening sentences in the piece.

    Speaking of mis-namers, I am sure the Spielbergs and the Kings of the world are used to the "Steven or Stephen?" flip of the spelling coin, and some of my closest friends have been known to lose one of my "i"s, but you’d think that a man trying to impress a woman would get her name right.

    I got the feeling while reading the column that she couldn't bring herself to leave any just barely related comment behind.

  3. Hmm... I still don't understand.

    How about another question: what does linguistics have to say about style? Could we go so far as to suggest style can be loaded with politics?--conservatives preferring prescriptivism, of course.

    Oh wait--that whole prescriptive gender-neutralizing impulse with pronouns (him/her, s/he, etc.) that some of my college professors used to get worked up over...

    Ever see anyone end a sentence with two prepositions?

    What I really want to ask is: is your non-prescriptivism also embedded politically, somehow? Laissez-faire linguistics = anarcho-syndicalism... or something?

    See Chomsky's wikipedia entry for information on "anarcho-syndicalism."

    Most of all, I enjoy knowing you well enough to know that you'll be able to interpret this comment as a general question.


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