Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The best laid grammars...

Stop that vowel shift! Kill that r-r-r-regionalism!

Around 1:30 into the following clip (~5:50 in the countdown) Martin dreams about being "wondrous wizard of Latin" "a dervish of declension" and a "conjurer of conjugation."

I've heard Buffy mumbling this in her sleep a few times.

Around 1:52 (~5:30 countdown) Groundskeeper Willie says "You've mastered a dead tongue. But can you handle a live one?" I say this question is key to understanding the fears of peevologists/language mavens/grammar police. "We have to kill that language before it spins out of control and strangles us!"

How's this? Peevologists are like George Milton and language is their Lenny. Or is language the little mouse and dialects are Lenny? Or are peevologists Steinbeck and linguists are Lenny and high school English teachers are George? or...



  1. I'm going to have to be a peevologist myself. The Latin in that clip was bad, since "to die" is a deponent verb: "mori[ri]s... you die!" I suppose we are to understand that Lenny and Willie are not good Latinists.

    But peevologists have as much right as anyone to try to influence their language. Like you said in a previous post, there's no reason to worry about language--it can't really be strangled, by Willie's tongue or anybody else's.

    And I think the peevologists have their place. Often they bring to mind subtleties in language that as native speakers we are aware of, but which we have been too lazy to really consider. As a writing tutor I have often caught students using words incorrectly, and they know they are doing it--they just don't want to trouble with finding the exact word to fit the situation, and so they settle for an alternative that doesn't say exactly what they want. By forcing us to think about what words really mean, peevologists (like Socrates arguing about what the word 'justice' meant) can make language more expressive.

  2. I won't let you incriminate yourself Dave. Your catch on the Latin issue is fair because the "moriris/moris" mistake is not part of a language trend. It's an idiosyncratic haplology. Latin grammar is set and the study Latin is precisely the place where that grammar should be enforced for the sake of accuracy and integrity in instruction.

    And I don't call careful speakers peevologists. I always tell my students to choose words knowingly.

    Careful speakers focus on--and suggest awareness of--what words mean from a pragmatic and historical stance--knowing that language is dynamic and semantics mobile.

    Peevologists try to change what words mean because they don't like the change that they see taking place. They're afraid of entrusting language to its users.

  3. No doubt I agree with you completely, Mike. Just as often as I'm admonishing students about word choice I tell them not to sweat all the prescriptions they learned in high school--and bite my tongue when I hear their instructors lamenting how many prepositions are ending sentences these days. In fact, I want to throw up. (And one woman there thinks that a noun should always follow such constructions.)

    Of course, I also tell the students that in the end the most important thing is to do what the instructor wants, because that's where the grade comes from. And that they need to ask their instructor what he wants, because there are many brands of prescriptions out there, and you never know which one you're going to get.

    I remain a firm advocate of Standard English, however, and so always feel a little defense whenever I hear prescriptivism criticized.

  4. By the way, in my first comment I seem to have placed Lenny in the Simpsons with Groundskeeper Willie. I forget what that kid's name is in the dream. I clearly need to watch more of the Simpsons.

    I suggest that George is language and Lenny is the prescriptivist. Ultimately, George is the one in control, but Lenny keeps him from doing anything too wild or erratic, just as prescriptivism keeps language in one place for a little while. Of course, if the prescriptivist kills a woman, then he has to be euthanized.


Thanks for reaching out.

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