A dialect with an army
December 23, 2018 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Who decides what words mean, Lane Green - "Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge" posted by the man of twists and turns (60 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Very much to my interests. Thanks.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:37 AM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


Good timing. I was thinking about "iconoclast" last night, wondering how and when and why it went from "people who incited mobs to destroy art" to "creative thinker".
posted by clawsoon at 10:42 AM on December 23, 2018 [8 favorites]


So I do believe that when change happens in a language it can do harm.

That’s nice. I believe that avalanches can do harm and yet is still utterly pointless to pretend I’m going to stand in their way.

Looking at the history of languages it is abundantly clear that descriptivism always wins in the long term. So I guess prescriptivists get to experience the great romance of a tragically doomed cause, but I don’t see what else they get out of it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:51 AM on December 23, 2018 [16 favorites]


Well, prescriptivists got a lot of kids lectured about split infinitives over the years, solely due to early grammarians having a hard on for using Latin grammar as a class marker, so they've got that going for them.
posted by tavella at 11:00 AM on December 23, 2018 [8 favorites]


Tell Me No Lies: So I guess prescriptivists get to experience the great romance of a tragically doomed cause, but I don’t see what else they get out of it.

Indicators of social status and/or group membership. The author talks about how "some people" start using words in a new way, and then others follow. In that "some people" is a world of shifting social power; sometimes reflected in language, sometimes driven by it. Are you following the Queen's English or are you following BET? Whose ideas do you dismiss because of how they talk? What gates are you able to close based on usage? What gates are you able to force open with the brilliance of your linguistic inventions?
posted by clawsoon at 11:03 AM on December 23, 2018 [5 favorites]


"May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"
- Hinge Thunder
posted by zaixfeep at 11:48 AM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Looking at the history of languages it is abundantly clear that descriptivism always wins in the long term.

The arc of language may bend toward descriptivism, but that doesn't mean it always wins. Think back to all the dumb slang you used as a kid and ask yourself how much of it is still used by anyone. For every "on fleek" that bubbles into the consciousness despite old people saying it doesn't mean anything, there's a "fetch" that Gretchen just can't make happen.
posted by Etrigan at 11:53 AM on December 23, 2018 [9 favorites]


But descriptivism doesn't say that any particular linguistic usage will last? It just says language changes and this is how it is being used right now. The fact that every new word or new usage doesn't spread universally is part of the self-regulating system it describes.
posted by tavella at 12:00 PM on December 23, 2018 [11 favorites]


Nice to see the "ZhuangZi" and "spontaneousorder" tags: my gratitude to you, tmotat. :)

Since we're talking about Taoism, I'll quote Alan Watts, who put the descriptivist/prescriptivist duality my favorite way:
There are basically two kinds of philosophy: one’s called "prickles," the other’s called "goo." And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague.

For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists.

And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person, because you wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was, because life is not either prickles or goo: it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.
posted by ragtag at 12:08 PM on December 23, 2018 [10 favorites]


"May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"

I think you mean mumble
posted by thelonius at 12:09 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists.
Watts really should have known better than to consider these opposites!
posted by thelonius at 12:19 PM on December 23, 2018


I would say he doesn't? He's saying they're complementary: both need each other to have meaning. (That is, positivists insist on objective reality, while idealists insist on subjective reality; but "objectivity" and "subjectivity" at some level require circular definitions of each other.)
posted by ragtag at 12:29 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"

I think you mean mumble


Language change in action.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:37 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


idealists insist on subjective reality

that's not necessarily the case: Berkeley, for example, believes that Ideas are in the mind of God,. which makes them objective
posted by thelonius at 1:05 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


There is at least one cool potential counter example to "prescriptivists always lose", which is the change from "which" to "that" as a relative clause marker in English; see Hinrichs, L. & Szmrecsanyi, B. & Bohmann, A. (2015). Which-hunting and the Standard English relative clause. Language 91(4), 806-836. Abstract:

Alternation among restrictive relativizers in written Standard English is undergoing a massive shift from which to that. In corpora of written-edited-published British and American English covering the period from 1961–1992, American English spearheads this change. We study 16,868 restrictive relative clauses with inanimate antecedents from the Brown quartet of corpora. Predictors include additional areas of variation regulated by prescriptivism. We show that: (i) relativizer deletion follows different constraints from the selection of either that or which; (ii) this change is a case of institutionally backed colloquialization-cum-Americanization; and (iii) uptake of the precept correlates with avoidance of the passive voice at the text level but not with other prescriptive rules.

A key quote:

The change in written [Standard English] that we are examining leads us to answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’: social forces such as the channels of education and publishing through which prescriptive advice is disseminated have the power to change, at the very least, discourse norms, a possible preliminary to language change.

There's a lot of hedging in there, but for this one change, prescriptivism appears to be one of several factors driving the change. Which makes sense if we consider that language change is driven partially by social factors, and prescriptivism is, in the end, a social factor.
posted by damayanti at 1:09 PM on December 23, 2018 [9 favorites]


There's a lot of hedging in there, but for this one change, prescriptivism appears to be one of several factors driving the change. Which makes sense if we consider that language change is driven partially by social factors, and prescriptivism is, in the end, a social factor.

Exactly. I would hope that most descriptivists recognise prescriptivism as a force for change, in a descriptivist sense. Most of the bollocks about split infinitives only exists to the extent that it does because of the efforts of prescriptivists to “rationalise” English into a funny-sounding form of Latin.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:13 PM on December 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


that's not necessarily the case

Look, thelonius, you're not allowed to be that pedantic unless you're in, like, a linguistic prescriptivism thread on Metafilter or something.

What?

Oh. Okay, fine, you win this time.
posted by ragtag at 1:17 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


Here’s (MeFi’s own) Languagehat‘s brutal 2002 takedown of (wife-beating, violent, abusive, obsessive) DFW’s attempt to defend prescriptivism, [pdf] in case anyone (*cough* me *cough*) really enjoys revisiting it every year or so.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:26 PM on December 23, 2018 [11 favorites]


I work in higher education, in a position where the stylebook is one of our gods, and in the service of that god I wield the virtual equivalent of a red pen libeIrally.

But, I recognize that our choice of stylebook and the deviations away from it isn't some objective higher truth where the emphatic negative is a sign of bad thinking and the use of a serial comma is sufficient to fix ambiguous syntax. It's a fashionable marker of aspiring socio-economic status, just like our dress code or the interior design of our public spaces. Our students are not less intelligent or eloquent for their ability to speak other modes fluently. Their social media conversations are not barbarians at the gate of the truthy formalisms of a Chicago Manual of Style derivative. The stylebook is 75% talking to students in the fashion of academic and professional communication, and 25% about looking good while doing it.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:36 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


In other words, the distinction between descriptivism and prespcriptivism isn't about stylebooks or willingness to wield the red pen. My linguistics professor was also the harshest editor of my thesis. The central question that separates the two is why should we follow those rules.

For descriptivitsts, the rules are evolving standards for professional communication that minimize dissonance between writers and audiences who share a common background with those standards. Since 90% of the text published in the New York Times uses their stylebook, both writers and audiences are generally familiar with the conventions of that stylebook.

Prescriptivists tend to come in two flavors. The cultural argument holds that the particular practices of language are central to cultural or class identity, and need to be preserved in order to maintain that identity. The logical argument is that underlying language is a logical formal system, and changes like "decimate" undermine that system. (I disagree on that particular point. If you're documenting murders with that degree of precision, "killed one out of ten people" is explicit and unambiguous to a degree that justifies a handful of extra characters.)
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:10 PM on December 23, 2018 [5 favorites]


Most importantly: the "mambo dogface" line is from a 1978 Steve Martin album.

For a linguist most of the article is old (language)hat, but I loved learning about the history of 'buxom'. My favorite etymological stories are extremely meandering: e.g. foggy: 'grassy' > 'fleshy' > 'murky' > 'misty', or nice: 'not knowing' > 'foolish' > 'fine' > 'kind' > 'good' > 'great, you killed that Doomfist'.
posted by zompist at 2:37 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


I sincerely heard it as “mumble” back in the day!
posted by thelonius at 3:26 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


GenderNullPointerException: The cultural argument holds that the particular practices of language are central to cultural or class identity, and need to be preserved in order to maintain that identity.

[desperately tries to remember whether a dinner jacket is required for these discussions]
posted by clawsoon at 3:34 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


"May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"
I think you mean mumble
posted by thelonius at 12:09 PM on December 23 [1 favorite +] [!]


Parcheesi, I couldn't tackle the bear. They took my stain.
posted by zaixfeep at 5:25 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


All words started out as slang.
posted by sexyrobot at 5:26 PM on December 23, 2018 [4 favorites]


>> Looking at the history of languages it is abundantly clear that descriptivism
>> always wins in the long term.
>
> The arc of language may bend toward descriptivism, but that doesn't mean it
> always wins. Think back to all the dumb slang you used as a kid and ask
> yourself how much of it is still used by anyone.

Yeah, when I say long term I mean centuries. Chaucerian English is barely recognizable to a modern English speaker; Old English isn’t recognizable at all. That didn’t happen because some anal retentive language geek changed the rules for proper English; it happened because all of the dumb slang that did get adopted came to overshadow the original language over a long period.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:32 PM on December 23, 2018


>> So I guess prescriptivists get to experience the great romance
>> of a tragically doomed cause, but I don’t see what else they get out of it.
>
>Indicators of social status and/or group membership.
>

Good point.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:34 PM on December 23, 2018


Arsenal. Elmo Oxygen Soderbergh.
posted by zaixfeep at 5:50 PM on December 23, 2018


The reason the jive scenes in Airplane! are so funny is precisely because they call out the incongruity of the perceived class of the speaker vs. the class inferred from their speech vs. the subtitles.

I frequently forget that everyone I hear speaks their own patois with elegance and precision, it's just that the toolbox they are working from is sometimes underpopulated or dull-edged. And offering to share my tools just makes me seem a Niles Crane-like pretentious ass rather than the Dick Solomon-like well-meaning but tone-deaf ass I really am.
posted by zaixfeep at 6:15 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Their toolboxes aren't at all underpopulated -- the tools are just different. All speakers of human languages speak in a dialect. Everyone has an accent. But every dialect of every human language is equally expressive. Let me repeat: every human language is equally expressive, that is, there is nothing that can be expressed in one human language that can't be expressed in all others. Those buzzfeed-style lists of "untranslatable words!!!!" are very misleading. Yes, sometimes it might take a different number of words to convey the same concept, but all of us who speak/sign human languages can convey the same concepts. Sure, there's a language which has a single-word verb that means "scrape the fat from a reindeer hide" but there you go, I just translated it.
posted by tractorfeed at 8:15 PM on December 23, 2018 [6 favorites]


it happened because all of the dumb slang that did get adopted came to overshadow the original language over a long period

This is the fundamental madness of prescriptivism. There is no original language. Any language is simply a moment in time, created entirely from the linguistic innovations you refer to as slang. Some of them may have happened
70 thousand years ago - who knows when the first verb entered the call system that became human language? - some may have happened 70 or 7 years ago.

Prescriptivists are creationists, descriptivists are Darwinists. And like other sciences, they don't actually need prescriptivists to define themselves against.
posted by tavella at 8:45 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


zaixfeep: ""May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?"
I think you mean mumble
posted by thelonius at 12:09 PM on December 23 [1 favorite +] [!]


Parcheesi, I couldn't tackle the bear. They took my stain.
"

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:00 PM on December 23, 2018 [2 favorites]


Yes, sometimes it might take a different number of words to convey the same concept, but all of us who speak/sign human languages can convey the same concepts.

Humor is an obvious counter-example. Explaining a joke is almost uniformly fatal to the joke. You can give a technical explanation to someone why a pun or linguistic quirk might be funny, but they’ll never really get it unless they speak the language themselves.

A lot of the words that are untranslatable are similarly based around emotion. The deeply satisfying experience of saying "Fuck!" when something big goes wrong may or may not translate to other languages. Sure you can give a dictionary definition, but can you share the emotion that goes with it?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:33 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


>> it happened because all of the dumb slang that did get adopted
>> came to overshadow the original language over a long period
>
> This is the fundamental madness of prescriptivism. There is no original
> language. Any language is simply a moment in time
>

I agree with what you’re saying, but from a scholarly standpoint it’s convenient to place markers at various eras. It’s the same with history — there was no Dark Ages or Renaissance or Elizabethan Era — they’re just labels we apply to make it easier to talk about long stretches of time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:41 PM on December 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think descriptivism (which I mostly ally with) can sometimes be ironically dogmatic, when it operates purely as backlash to prescriptivism. There needs to be room for conversation about what language possibly "should" look like without getting in the weeds of historical use, authority, popular use, etc. It's a bit like if there was one main rift in clothing fashion, between traditionalists with matching suits and radicals with wild adornments, and any time someone tries to bring up practicality and pockets, they get shoehorned into one camp or the other (usually the first).

For instance, the original piece mentions how useful the traditional/prescriptivist use of "literally" is, and it's frustrating that this gets countered with appeals to history and authority that ignore any possible defense beyond "just because". (Also, that sub-debate is typically framed as "Is it okay to use literally to mean 'figuratively'?" and that in itself bugs me because that's not how anyone uses it. They use it as a generic intensifier with the strict facticity ignored, not as a word which "means" metaphorical.)

But one example of an opinion of mine coming from the opposite direction is that English pronoun usage could do with serious de-gendering. I don't mean getting rid of he/she, I just support increased use of gender-neutral substitutes. I know that descriptivists argue singular-they covers this, but it doesn't. "They" is still not truly singular because it modifies verbs into plural form, and that can be confusing. Also, it can't be used when the gender is known, which an ideal gender-neutral pronoun would be.

Regardless, neither prescriptive nor descriptive analysis really rises to that task, in my opinion. I'm not about to simply "trust" the system any more than I simply trust the free market; I'm saying some genuine defects (like mandatory gender) have managed to persist in English for thousands of years.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 4:09 AM on December 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


Tell Me No Lies: That didn’t happen because some anal retentive language geek changed the rules for proper English

Didn't some of the changes happen because of anal retentive language geeks changing rules? Sometimes they get themselves some social power, or an army, and the rules that they come up with get spread by the influence of their status or get imposed on millions of schoolchildren at the end of a whip. Sometimes they write manuals of style, and if you don't follow their rules you don't get published and don't get the job.
posted by clawsoon at 4:28 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there's a relationship between being descriptivist in theory and prescriptivist in practise. In all the comments on this page touting descriptivism, I haven't noticed a single spelling or grammar mistake...
posted by clawsoon at 4:45 AM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


I used to have a severe case of iodiolecticy and I got referred to a prescriptivist for a prescription.

Now I am cured but my words are in vain when describing my pain.
posted by Dr. Curare at 10:32 AM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


So I guess prescriptivists get to experience the great romance of a tragically doomed cause, but I don’t see what else they get out of it.

Miss Grundy and Sister Anunciata got the satisfaction of knowing that their charges had a foundation from which to rise in the world. It's not a moral question for them, it's a practical one. Liza Doolittle knew this, and damned if her lessons under prof. Higgins didn't get her the greengrocer/flower shop of her ambitions. Like it or don't, but people do indeed judge you by the words you use. (Henry Higgins - prescriptivist, descriptivist, or both? Discuss with examples.)

Which is not to say that unsolicited diction correction is suitable for polite conversation. However well intentioned, it can only come off as nit-picky and supercilious, and gives prescriptivists a bad name, makes them easy to mock and, for some folk, even despise.

IME, even the most die hard prescriptivist would not argue or even advocate for a language set in stone. They tend to have a broader time scale is all, being not the first to grab the latest fad nor the last to let go of the outdated. If they have anything in common, it is concern that there is a common standard that everyone can reach and take advantage of, regardless of background. That, and a tendency to rejoice in the astonishing richness and subtlety of the English language.

In closing, and speaking personally - God bless editors and copy editors trained under Miss G and Sister A., they have saved me from any number of wowsers.
posted by BWA at 11:10 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


"I would hope that most descriptivists recognise prescriptivism as a force for change, in a descriptivist sense."

and

"Didn't some of the changes happen because of anal retentive language geeks changing rules?"

Sure, but this accounts for an insignicant portion of linguistic drift. It's very misleading to bother talking about it at all, given that most people's intuition is that it is central.

It's closest to being true where there is institutional power involved -- political and economic stratification, cultural capital. But even in those cases it's almost never an explicit, deliberate imposition of a particular usage. It's much, much more the implicit modeling of approved language usage in toto by classes of relatively privileged speakers. All the language scolds combined matter for naught compared to broadcast newscasters.

Literal language prescription looms large in our memories of language aquisition as children with our parents and teachers but, in truth, that accounted for only a very small portion of it. We mistakenly extrapolate from this experience to reasoning about language usage and change in general.

As usual, I would like to encourage everyone interested in why prescriptivists prescribe and why, in particular, people tend to be both touchy and impassioned on this, to consider that language is one of the primary arenas in which we acquire and defend our cultural capital.

And, also, on preview per BWA's comment, why it's the case that the entirely correct assertion that there are more and less effective situational usages -- and it behooves one to be aware of this -- so often is utilized as a defense of broadly normative scolding. The latter doesn't follow from the former, but it's the case that there is a very strong human impulse to generalize social appropriateness to morality and so "wrong" meaning "not the most effective choice" becomes "wrong" meaning "there is something wrong with you".
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:32 AM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


While on the whole I very much like this article, with regard to the "language is self-regulating" framing I worry there might be a misperception.

It's easiest to quote my own comment on Language Log about this:
"Self-regulating" carries, in this case, an unfortunate connotation of 'agent' and 'agency'. The distinction [a previous LL commenter] makes above between language and markets is an artifact of this: in the latter he believes he can identify agency but in the former he can not. However, this notion of agency in both cases, and perhaps all similar, is illusary.

Order often arises spontaneously in natural systems; as systems become increasingly complex, qualitatively distinct dynamic features often emerge. It's difficult for us to interpret such behavior as anything but the product of agency — we are social animals and theory of mind is central and essential to our existence. We're carpenters with a hammer and we see everything as a nail. Agents and agency are everywhere, and their behavior is understood teleologically.

Thus we tend to impute both agency and intent to complex phenomena, which centers our thinking on matters of who is doing this, why they are doing it, and whether we approve of their goal. This perspective haunts much of our discourse about the natural world, it's notably and problematically the case in discussion about biology (as with evolution) but I think it's equally problematic with regard to language qua language. There is no agent and there is no purpose, no goal. To be blunt, normative framing is a category error with regard to language and linguistic change.

That's not to say that normative framing is never appropriate — it can be with regard to an individual speaker in a particular context. Just as, say, a genetic mutation may be adaptive in one environment but maladaptive in another. There is no "agent" driving such changes, there are no "goals" — so-called "self-regulation" is agentless. It just is.

Note that this pervasive teleological error manages to find its way into otherwise sophisticated analysis. People who understand evolutionary biology a little, but not a lot, think in terms of "more" or "less" evolved, as if evolutionary change arrows toward perfection. It does not. Likewise, free market theorists make similar errors.

Language is vast, complex, and organized and this invites the human mind to imagine architects and purpose and to make comparisons about how well that purpose is served. Even when someone like Greene, who in his analysis is clearly descriptivist, one can find these notions of agency in word choices like self-regulating, and notions of teleology in thinking about change. Even if, strictly speaking, one knows these things don't exist, they still hover there, like phantoms, over the discourse.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:52 AM on December 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


I know that descriptivists argue singular-they covers this, but it doesn't.

I don't know that descriptivism has a "should" beyond, "don't judge people's intelligence or literacy by the language they use in a particular context." And maybe that people on metafilter shouldn't make strawmen about what descriptivists do and do not recommend. This descriptivist would love for Spivak pronouns to become more broadly recognized, but I'm forced to admit that nonbinary people overwhelmingly prefer "they," and neopronouns are largely unused outside of certain queer circles and science fiction (thank you Leckie and Chambers!) It's much easier for me professionally to weedle my writing team into pulling elements from existing style guides that use the indefinite "they" than to wedge in Spivak. But that's all a socio-cultural and political change and not some underlying formalism.

One issue here is that if you actually bother to study vernaculars you find constructs that say succinctly what you can't say with the same quantity of words in Chicago, MLA, or Strunk and White. Monae, who got the #1 slot in a countdown elsewhere on the front page, managed to reference 3,000 years of politics from Lysistrata to Spike Lee to the 2017 Women's March in a single couplet of vernacular (and rhetorically positioned herself within a movement for queer women opposing heteropatriarchy). Trivialities such as "literally" (and I'll point out, that drift has been led by white male literary elites) are a small price to pay compared to the complete marginalization of minority language arts that use language in different ways.

Also one of the elephants in the bedroom is that elites already use different grammars and modes, and they are rarely subjected to the same sort of criticism. Telegraphic style (recreated on social media) has long considered dropping explicit parts of a sentence an acceptable sacrifice for brevity. Public speaking, especially liturgical public speaking uses its own grammar. None of these draw more than a small fraction of the public language bashing that is heaped upon minority poetics.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:04 PM on December 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


If you ask me professionally about a triviality like "decimate" or "literally" my answer is going to be "read the fucking style guide."

(And if we're in informal conversation, you might get something like "Pardon?" or "Could you explain that again?")

But those are trivialities that have come to overshadow what's really at stake here, which are questions like "What should a language arts curriculum look like?" and "How do we teach professional language standards to culturally diverse populations?"
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:28 PM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


What's a new word I can use instead of "literally" when I want to mean 'literally' as in "He literally died when she told him. Had a heart attack and boom dead. Funeral is Sunday."
posted by The otter lady at 4:06 PM on December 24, 2018


The otter lady: What's a new word I can use instead of "literally" when I want to mean 'literally' as in "He literally died when she told him. Had a heart attack and boom dead. Funeral is Sunday."

An exchange I read a couple of years back:

"I was literally there."

"But were you physically there?"

So that might be an option.

Although, given the root problem of "I died when..." phrasing, you might always have to elaborate with the cause and funeral date for that one.
posted by clawsoon at 4:15 PM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


Otter Lady, try 'metaphorically' for 'literally'. It's literally what you mean when you say 'literally'.
posted by zaixfeep at 1:21 AM on December 25, 2018


Otter Lady, try 'metaphorically' for 'literally'. It's literally what you mean when you say 'literally'.

It doesn't quite work the same way though in use. As mentioned above "literally" is more used as a particular kind of intensifier that is, seemingly, meant to keep the listener in the moment in ways that "metaphorically" doesn't since that adds a secondary layer of narrative distance to the story being told. Literally's use is closer to that of "totally" or "sooo" when used in slang as intensifiers as in so-called valley speak. As those terms were also looked down on, literally's "misuse" seems to draw special attention for reasons seemingly tied as much to associations of identity as to the usage itself given how many other "misused" terms aren't corrected so frequently.

I don't think the "real" meaning of literally is being completely disregarded in the more common usage, the association is what makes it work as an effect intensifier. The claimed action or event isn't literal obviously, but the cliched metaphor that follows literally applies literally instead of more loosely. It seems to be a manner of differentiating cliche use from more to less metaphorical in a sense.

As a substitute maybe "practically" might work, "virtually" too, though "virtual" now carries other connotations so it would be the weaker choice. Practically keeps the story in the moment, doesn't draw added notice to the speaker's narrative choices, and maintains a nearness to metaphor without fully adopting it. As a bonus practically can mean almost or realistically which keeps some flux in play over the choice.

Other simpler choices like almost or nearly tend to be kept for more, well, literal use so trying to use them as intensifiers or more differently than previous usage might not quite be as satisfying.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:23 AM on December 25, 2018


As a guess, I suspect literally drifted to its current slang usage from a more formally correct, but also technically lax use as hyperbole. People saying something is literally the best, worst, funniest, ugliest whatever fits the form of use as the definition would have it, but has the result of being taken as something like an exaggeration in the moment for the sake of added effect.

No one would question whether that steak is truly literally the best you've ever had or misunderstand someone saying you are literally the best person ever to the point of expecting the speaker to replace pictures of their family with your own. It's understood that it is just used to add emphasis to a claim that needn't be entirely true, just felt in the moment the claim is spoken. It isn't all that far to go from that use to that of a broader intensifier.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:31 AM on December 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


If you find yourself doubting the extent to which language serves to identify group or class membership, imagine meeting someone for the first time and hearing them say "Hello, my name is X." For them to tell you their name requires the entire sentence. Less than the entire sentence is required for you to identify their accent and make problematic but frequently correct guesses about whether they are a native of another country (and which), or another region (and which) of your own country, or whether they are local to the same region as you. In many cases a tiny snippet of accent --- maybe not less than a sentence, but less than a minute's talk, especially when combined with word choices --- is enough to form a problematic but frequently correct guess about their social class, economic standing, and education level. This is a very sophisticated computation which you carry out instinctively with very little input, and it develops very early: think of meeting a toddler outside of your dialect who doesn't yet read or count, but who knows that you talk like daddy's other friend.

Prescriptivists are an interesting phenomenon: people who are willing to tell you explicit rules to follow in order to be identified by this subconscious process as a member of a particular group.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:55 AM on December 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Prescriptivists are an interesting phenomenon: people who are willing to tell you explicit rules to follow in order to be identified by this subconscious process as a member of a particular group."

Perhaps ostensibly. In practice, it's most often the case that they're doing quite the opposite: making their disapproval clear and encouraging others to follow suit. This is exclusion, not inclusion.

It's more like Homeowner's Association rules enforcement. They don't want to encourage outsiders to conform so they will be welcomed into the neighborhood, they are worried that the bad habits of some who have made it inside the neighborhood will reflect poorly on them and erase the distinction between their "good" neighborhood and all those "bad" neighborhoods. It's enforcing the distinction, not trying to make it extinct.

You can see that this is so because if outsiders do embrace the correct usage, the prescriptivists will always find more usages to disapprove and reinforce the distinction. If necessary, they'll invent something, like the split-infinitve rule. They present themselves as being on the defensive, but they're not. They're the revanchists of language, justifying their activism on the basis of a myth of loss.

As I wrote earlier, it's within the larger category of policing cultural capital. One distinction is this sense of revanchism, which it shares with the policing of some other kinds of cultural capital, such as "good manners". As compared with, say, taste in art or music, the policing of language and manners is particularly strident, high-stakes, and much more often an explicit condemnation of individual and collective character.

All of this is why many of us rail against prescriptivism. While it could be a benign and friendly attempt to help others, and will often defend itself as such, it almost always is malign.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:43 AM on December 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's kind of odd, though, to think that it's entirely illegitimate to have opinions about usage, isn;t it?
posted by thelonius at 8:03 AM on December 25, 2018


thelonius: That's a bit of a reach. I have opinions about usage, based on experience communicating to the various audiences I serve. I just don't pretend that my efforts to make my department's instructional communication clear constitutes some holding action in an imaginary war for the future of the English language.

Similarly, I hold the opinions that a drabble must be exactly 100 words, and a haiku is better approximated by a 3/5/3 format with a mandatory pause and non-human nature theme (there's another term for poems using the same structural form to comment on human manners.) Different forms of writing have different rules. We just disagree on the why behind those rules, and how broadly those rules should be applied.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:12 AM on December 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's more like Homeowner's Association rules enforcement. They don't want to encourage outsiders to conform so they will be welcomed into the neighborhood, they are worried that the bad habits of some who have made it inside the neighborhood will reflect poorly on them and erase the distinction between their "good" neighborhood and all those "bad" neighborhoods. It's enforcing the distinction, not trying to make it extinct.

This is a neat metaphor because prescriptivism scolding about language use and homeowners' worried about "bad habits" or the "wrong element" moving in can often derive from a place of classism and racism.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 11:31 AM on December 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Perhaps ostensibly. In practice, it's most often the case that they're doing quite the opposite: making their disapproval clear and encouraging others to follow suit. This is exclusion, not inclusion.
I know those sorts of people, but that's not who I had in mind. I was contrasting the many patient and helpful English teachers who taught me the prescriptivist "standard" for American English --- including some who understood the rules intellectually even though they used regional exceptions in their own speech --- with the folks at the bait shop who "talk wrong" and have some pride in this.

I can satisfy the "standard" prescriptivists that I'm one of them. But the way I speak will always mark me as an outsider at the bait shop. If I tried to ask my bait-shop friends for lessons in their dialect, they'd hee-haw at me. If one of my bait-shop friends were to speak to a standard-AmE prescriptivist and attempt to suppress their regional dialect, the reaction would be "ah, she's working on her accent, good on her for trying" --- even if, as you say, there might be some disdain about how much farther she has to go. But if I went down to the bait shop and affected a regional accent that I don't have, I would expect my absurd-sounding attempt to be met with suspicion or offense. That's the distinction that I had in mind.

I hate that my throwaway remark about the existence of prescriptivists being an interesting part of the language phenomenon distracted from my more interesting point, which was: the group-identification apparatus we apply to language is so efficient that it's probably one of the basic biological functions of the language instinct.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:53 PM on December 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


That's a good point. But this function is pretty common -- we have a multitude of remarkably sensitive mechanisms that support tribalism. I'm of the opinion that this tribalism instinct is notably maladaptive within the environments that humans now exist.

That's another, larger, and difficult topic I'd be very interested in exploring elsewhere, including extended contemplation on my own. I feel I haven't sufficiently explored the possible many ways in which this cluster of behaviors driving in-group/out-group status determinations might still be very functional in the modern environment. There may be many. Though I certainly have a very strong sense of how they've become maladaptive as our social interdependencies range vastly and critically beyond the small cohorts we seem primed to identify.

Language is deeply tied to ethnicity, and ethnicity is a complicated social construct within which we define important aspects of social identity and which drives many of our feelings of mutual responsibility. Because language is closely related to ethnicity, it's no surprise to me that it would play a central role in how these group distinctions are identified and enforced.

Obviously, I accept the idea that there's an evolutionary basis for much human behavior. But I am absolutely not a biological determinist -- the nature/nurture cultural war frustrates me because they're clearly complementary. We know this is true about language: language acquisition in individuals is clearly an evolutionary adaptation with the core mechanisms genetically encoded, yet it profoundly demonstrates that this faculty requires a cultural context to develop. It's a useful model for how to think about this sort of debate. Culture is necessary for language and it mediates language. In that context it is appropriate to discuss whether we can, should, and how to alter the cultural context that determines where we draw these lines between groups of people on the basis of language usage.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:23 AM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


Culture is necessary for language and it mediates language. In that context it is appropriate to discuss whether we can, should, and how to alter the cultural context that determines where we draw these lines between groups of people on the basis of language usage.

Yes, and it's also worth keeping in mind that language, much like art, is driven in part by a purposeful desire to develop new idioms and manners of expression that differ from those who came before or are part of the dominant culture. Language, I suspect, changes so readily because there is a demand for it to change, to assert notions of identity and value.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:49 AM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


"They" is still not truly singular because it modifies verbs into plural form, and that can be confusing.

Counterpoint - "you" does the same thing, and is fully accepted as both plural and and singular.

I go / thou goest / she goes / we go / you go / they go

became

I go / you go / she goes / we go / you go / they go

and nobody is confused by the fact that you doesn't use "goest" when it's singular.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:36 AM on December 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


Very fair point about "you". I still wish that "they" could truly substitute she/he; it connotes nonspecificity. But just as with "you" taking over for "thou", maybe that's in store for some future of unknown distance from us.
posted by InTheYear2017 at 5:08 PM on December 27, 2018


To paraphrase my partner, I like "they" because I'm a superorganism of thousands of species.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:09 AM on December 28, 2018 [4 favorites]


All of this prescriptivist discussions are just a mute point.
posted by clawsoon at 9:55 AM on December 28, 2018


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