Monday, October 22, 2007

Problem 1 with prescriptions: they assume disease

I've started collecting the writings of powerful prescriptivists. Many are familiar. Some are new to me. But among the opinions of both familiar and new writers I keep finding surprising claims that leave me shaking my head.

Many of their arguments are effective. I would have hailed and lauded them several years ago. Then I started to study language and I found many of my ideas foolish. But I don't think I would have ever agreed with something like this statement that Mark Halpern (one of the recurring voices) makes in a footnote to one of his pieces.

Those of us who regard the patois of the Black ghetto as inferior do so not because we think it lacks "internal logic"-if it did, it could not serve as a medium of communication at all-but because it demonstrably lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses.

I literally gasped when I read this. Really. I inhaled audibly--mouth agape. Is he choosing to ignore the fact (or is he merely unaware) that mainstream English also lacks the "means" of expressing what other varieties can?

But it gets worse. When I read the following in the same footnote I physically backed away from the computer--my heartbeat noticeable faster. Briefly addressing the accusations that prescriptivism is often based on racist principles he scoffs--claiming that the desire to erase all variation is the opposite of racism.

If prescriptivists were racists, we would want to perpetuate the disadvantages of Blacks, not remove them; cultural elitists we may be, but elitists who want others to share our lofty status.

The mind boggles (and is boggled despite Jacque Barzun's objections).

Halpern focuses most of his criticism against leading linguists like Geoffrey Nunberg and Steven Pinker who respond to some of his claims but have other more important things to do. I'm early enough in my career to work on shaping it against such egregiously arrogant and bigoted claims.


  1. And what a terrific career goal that is! I applaud you.

  2. But ... the link to the Halpern piece is malformed.

  3. It's late, I'm not sleepy, so:

    In person, I want to talk about my frustrations with the methodology that seems to be the foundation of linguistics -- for now, I'll drop a hint:

    Something in my brain goes "pop" every time I hear anything that sounds remotely like this: "Many of their arguments are effective. I would have hailed and lauded them several years ago. Then I started to study [subject X] and I found many of my ideas foolish."

    It's very similar to the conversion narrative form... and it's not dissimilar to the kind of testimony I heard from eager postmodernists six years ago when I arrived in graduate school:

    "Yes, the New Critics can be deceptively convincing, and at times I even found that I was persuaded by them as an undergraduate--but then I discovered Foucault and all was set right; enlightenment came upon me."

    But I don't mean this to be a critique of your writing or even your thinking -- rather, I want to comment on the divergence of our respective fields in terms of theoretical approach. Consensus seems possible in linguistics, whereas it is neither possible nor sought-after in literary studies.

    This different "mindset" is what prompts me to always seek what is best in every perspective. So with New Criticism and Foucault, I can eventually say, "Yes, there is something good about both schools of thought." But in linguistics it seems one side represents ignorance (Halpern) and the other ("Linguistics") enlightenment. Consequently, any impulse to sympathize with (in this case) Halpern earns me, immediately, the label "racist" or "fool." So who's really writing the prescriptions?

    I'll give you a hypothetical objection some time soon, but not in a public forum.

  4. No no you're right. And my claim that simply studying language let to my enlightenment is unconvincing. And this post doesn't make the case.

    In fact I was wondering if I should start arguing against any of his specific claims but I decided to hold back for now.

    And my arguments must be held to the same standard that we hold his. False analogies false distinctions and false conclusions are cheap no matter who uses them.

    Let's say that you agree with a claim of Halpern's that I cannot believe any rational thinker would believe--the only way I can convince you of my view is if I go back to another belief from which you have decided to jump to his view. I convince you (using evidence and logic that I know you will value) that either that belief or that jump is faulty.

    That's where my conversion experience took place. It was from believing the data that was given to me by those who promised to merely describe language. It came from realizing that much of my anecdotal evidence was easily dismissed by more systematic and complete investigation.

    (And this isn't yet an argument--I know.)

  5. Oh--and of course any sympathizing with a point Halpern makes is not immediately racism. And 'fool' is too judgmental a word.

    Depending on which of his views one agrees with it could be naivety or stubbornness or merely different aesthetic sensibilities. And there could be a completely legitimate and rational analysis of data that leads to a differing conclusion.


  6. Thanks. More later, I suppose--

    My "mind" just reach a new level of self-awareness in March, and I'm still coming to grips with my tendency to disagree. I like to call it a "disposition" or even a part of my temperament, but I'm in the process of trying to figure out when my tendency to disagree is useful and when it's just annoying. In this case, it felt useful the other day, but now it seems just annoying... a borderline case, probably.

  7. I would hate to look back and see how many of my posts are based on a premise of disagreement.

    And there's an important difference between disagreements that add to a body of knowledge (say a new analysis) and disagreements that have already been established and the point is simply to say 'I'm on this side of the issue'.

    Your disagreements Casey always strike me as an exploration into the borders of those sides. Which is often a very important addition to the discourse.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.