It's Pronounced NU-Q-LAR
June 5, 2006 2:37 AM   Subscribe

Mispronounced words seem to be making their way into general speech. Newscasters say Febyooary and Artic and of course there are the politicians. Even some grammarians are loosening their standards to include words like gonna and hafta. TV commercials seem to be the worst offenders, with sloppy diction urging us to use claridin and visit our dennis every six months. Maybe we all need lessons. Previously touched on here.
posted by alltomorrowsparties (221 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
descriptivists, start your engines!
posted by carsonb at 2:44 AM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


No problemolo ! Some will keep using the words collected by those who work around the clock on the language. Others will accept whatever marketing deems to be delicicious and edumacative ! Cause we know, people in marketing know best ! New cola !
posted by elpapacito at 2:53 AM on June 5, 2006


It's pronounced n'kl-r or ny'kl-r.

Also, lower case p on pronounced, you pedant.
posted by public at 2:54 AM on June 5, 2006


Ugh... they STILL insist on pronouncing "Porsche" as "Porsh". Deary me.
posted by slater at 2:55 AM on June 5, 2006


Ugh... they STILL insist on pronouncing "Porsche" as "Porsh". Deary me.

...how is it pronounced? I've never heard anyone say it any differently than "Porsh".
posted by VirtualWolf at 3:03 AM on June 5, 2006


The use of words like "gonna" and "hafta" seems like the evolution of language to me. Just faster ways to pronounce two words by making them into one. People understand what "gonna" and "hafta" mean. These are common ways to say the words and are used in a more informal setting.

The case of Bush's word fumblings are a bit different, what he's doing is saying words in a way that people aren't familiar with. They aren't standardized like "gonna" or "hafta" and don't have the logic of word shortening behind them. That's why they're so obviously wrong.

I can accept being lazy with the language... it's just evolution English' evolution. How do you think we got from Old English to Middle English, to Modern English? It's okay as long as it's accepted and understood by the speakers of the language. Dictionaries and language mavens tend to be behind the rest of the populace in terms of innovation.

Well, that's what I think anyways.
posted by Mister Cheese at 3:19 AM on June 5, 2006


...how is it pronounced?

Por-shah

With the emphasis on the 'ah'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:21 AM on June 5, 2006


And -- if pronounced absolutely correctly -- the sound of the 'sh' should evoke the rustle of silk bed sheets.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:24 AM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


See also: Dialect Survey Results - lets you know where all the beastly pronunciation is taking place.
posted by missbossy at 3:46 AM on June 5, 2006


Dictionaries and language mavens tend to be behind the rest of the populace in terms of innovation.

Fo shizzle, ma nizzle.
posted by three blind mice at 3:47 AM on June 5, 2006


carsonb, right on. Instead of being descriptive, I think I'll just try to fit in with the prescriptivist tone.

I'm from Minnesota, and in Minnesota we have no "dialect" or "accent". Everyone else mispronounces English, especially those Brits who seem to think they invented it. Speaking that way is just wrong! I've never heard anyone say anything other than 'febyooary' where I'm from, so I'm lead to believe the "february" pronunciation is absolutely wrong and everyone who pronounces it that way should be taxed heavily.
posted by taursir at 3:56 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Or if you're Carmela Soprano - Paww-sha

I think the Porsche thing is a bit silly though. I mean, nobody who doesn't want to come off as a pretentious ninny would say 'Paree', or 'Monn-rayal', or 'Balenthia'.
A while back Salon had a series of 'dates from hell' stories. In one a woman was out on a first date at a mexican restaurant with a (anglo) guy who ordered "dordeeyas" - this was the deal breaker.
posted by Flashman at 3:57 AM on June 5, 2006


To summarize, then: language change bad, hell in a handbasket, kids these days, barbarians at the gate, boo-hoo. Does that about cover it?
posted by The Tensor at 4:02 AM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


Countdown till someone mentions Orwell and Newspeak in 3, 2, 1...

... oh.
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:07 AM on June 5, 2006


That commentary on "alumni / alumnae" is crap. The Latin pronunciation of "alumni" is 'ah-LOOM-nee" and the pronunciation of "alumnae" is 'ah-LOOM-nye'. Or if you want to go with ecclesiastical Latin, "alumnae" is 'ah-LOOM-nay.' In no case should Latin "ae" be pronounced 'ee'. So it's even bad prescriptivism.
posted by graymouser at 4:09 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


its all ways thuss and sew.
posted by quonsar at 4:15 AM on June 5, 2006


...how is it pronounced?

Like the girl's name Portia. Pour-shea.

But please, please don't pronounce Jaguar like the Brits do... Jag-yu-war. It sounds positively inept when we've already got a perfectly good pronounciation of the leaping kitty cat of our own-- Jag-war.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:20 AM on June 5, 2006


Has anyone made a "Summon languagehat" card yet?
posted by redteam at 4:25 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Both attitudes are necessary -- that we need to preserve the language and that we need to accept change in the language. It's like talking about changes in a river: we need people who try to prevent riverbanks from crumbling away and entire towns from falling into the water, but we need everyone to understand that the river eventually will go where the river will go.

I like this is an unrelated article I just saw: "Daggy music is one way to make the hoons leave an area because they can't stand the music," he said. You could try to keep words like daggy and hoon out of the language, but to what purpose? Eventually, any language is gonna hafta change.
posted by pracowity at 4:31 AM on June 5, 2006


I think the Porsche thing is a bit silly though. I mean, nobody who doesn't want to come off as a pretentious ninny would say 'Paree', or 'Monn-rayal', or 'Balenthia'.

But "Porsche" is a family name. It's like saying "It's ok to pronounce the word 'Miller' as 'Mill', cos, y'know, I think it sounds kinda pretentious saying it 'Miller'". And as it's a german name, and the "e" at the end isn't silent....
posted by slater at 4:35 AM on June 5, 2006


Perhaps claridin is a clever pun on Claritin and the decogestant D?
posted by Leather McWhip at 4:38 AM on June 5, 2006


How do you think we got from Old English to Middle English, to Modern English?

Well, first we:

1) Stop the world.
2) Melt with you.
posted by thanotopsis at 4:41 AM on June 5, 2006 [10 favorites]


Language is not some sort of object to be placed on pedestal, preserved and admired. It is a tool for communicating ideas. If you get your idea across in a way that the majority of people understand, then it doesn't matter how badly you abuse language, because it has served its purpose.
posted by Orange Goblin at 4:46 AM on June 5, 2006


Gives one paws for thought.
posted by econous at 4:49 AM on June 5, 2006


You may notice my british accent....In fact, this is not an accent - it's how things sound when pronounced correctly.

Jimmy Carr
posted by TwoWordReview at 4:52 AM on June 5, 2006


Thanotopsis - nice work!
posted by vagabond at 4:55 AM on June 5, 2006


"And white people pronounce the whole... word... like... this..."
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 4:56 AM on June 5, 2006


But please, please don't pronounce Jaguar like the Brits do... Jag-yu-war. It sounds positively inept when we've already got a perfectly good pronounciation of the leaping kitty cat of our own-- Jag-war.

Heh. To my Australian ears, "jag-war" just sounds stupid. :P
posted by VirtualWolf at 5:07 AM on June 5, 2006


Had a fourth-grade teacher - definitely one of the old guard, small-town Southern lady - who couldn't manage to pronounce the second r in library. A Citadel graduate I worked with consistently pronounced jalapeño as "jap-a-leeno" -- I'm not sure if he was just being silly or was serious.
posted by pax digita at 5:09 AM on June 5, 2006


Thanotopsis - I've seen the difference. Though it does appear to be getting brighter, all the time.

And I think people have evolution confused with mutation in the pro/de-scriptivist debate. Yes, language evolves. That doesn't mean that every single change is beneficial.
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 AM on June 5, 2006


That "claridin" and "dennis" thing - it sounds a lot like what I call West Coast "lazy syllable" syndrome - everyone in California talks like that now, don't they?
posted by muddgirl at 5:17 AM on June 5, 2006


consistently pronounced jalapeño as "jap-a-leeno"
Thanks, I'm stealing this!

Slater - good point. Although I have a German surname too but that somebody back up my family tree would be best pronounced 'englishly' - I disagree but after 34 years it's hard to break that habit.
posted by Flashman at 5:27 AM on June 5, 2006


The lazy-syllable syndrome reminds me of this wonderful boss I had. He was of the "kill your TV" persuasion, and although he drove other people nuts, I envied him for his delightful precision and articulation in his speech: Every sentence that came out of his mouth had the sort of structure and style a high-school student would strive for in an application essay for Harvard and pronounciation that made me think of tapes we used to play for ESL students who were working on theirs.

People like that are wearing over long stretches, but in shorter doses they can be refreshing.
posted by pax digita at 5:27 AM on June 5, 2006


Seems there is a spectrum of opinion. You have the low end of habitual language abusers, heedless of convention and using language only for its most mundane of communication. Above them are the condescending, certain that their current era of linguistic standards is anything but transient. A step further brings us to the languagehats, etc who study language in a historic and evolutionary context, revel in its ability to discuss the more transcendental aspects, and realize there are simply too many dumbasses to waste their breath on temporary standards outside of some sort of big-picture analysis.

I would put myself in the middle camp. Why the hell do we say Yen? We can say En. I've grown up with silent letters, but the 'r' in Favre running around seems ridiculous. Not to mention probably every country's name in the world.
posted by GooseOnTheLoose at 5:33 AM on June 5, 2006


graymouser: The problem with people knowing the correct latin plurals of all of these words is that we speak English, not Latin. Also, when people try to guess latin plurals of various words that they percieve to be Latin, they're often wrong anyway ("no, its viri/peni!"), as you mentioned.

My policy is generally that I should just use an English plural, or else I might as well busy myself learning to pluralize all the various other loan words English has from a crap load of other languages. I fail to see how my ability to pluralize words in other languages properly should reflect on my ability to speak my own native language.
posted by taursir at 5:39 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I had an English teacher from CA who pronounced "folder" as "fodor" if that's what you mean, muddgirl.

And OP, you mean "lessins," right?
posted by Eideteker at 5:40 AM on June 5, 2006


Oh for god's sake, not again.

Ugh... they STILL insist on pronouncing "Porsche" as "Porsh". Deary me.

Yes, because that's how it's pronounced by the vast majority of English speakers, who don't give a fuck how some German family pronounces its name. Do you pronounce Mercedes Benz "correctly" (mehr-TSAY-dehs BENTS)? I certainly hope not. But if you want to sound like a pretentious twit, be my guest.

we need to preserve the language


No, people who speak Australian aboriginal languages need to "preserve" them; English is doing just fine, thank you. What pisses me off about this claim is that nobody actually believes English is going to disappear because people pronounce a few words differently than some idiot thinks they should; it's pure rhetoric, blatantly substituting for actual facts, which the people making such arguments are sadly lacking.

As for the first link, I think this says it all:

Doppelgänger DAHP-ul-GANG-ur (rhymes with topple hanger).
Some authorities still prefer the German pronunciation, but I say this word is pompous enough without subjecting it to a throat-and-noseful of that. English has employed doppelgänger for almost 150 years, and there’s no excuse not to anglicize it.


In other words, he'll decide when you should pronounce words "correctly" and when you should anglicize them. Why? Because he's Charles Harrington Elster and you're just some putz who happens to speak English.

Thanks to Mister Cheese, taursir, the tensor for sensible (and in the latter cases hilarious) commentary.

Has anyone made a "Summon languagehat" card yet?

Actually, someone did, a few years ago, and it was quite beautiful (a la the Miguel beacon with the martini glass, except mine had a schwa glowing in the night sky), but alas the link broke long ago.
posted by languagehat at 5:49 AM on June 5, 2006


I always find it amusing when I think of the frantic efforts the French take to "preserve" their language. Speak English, have more fun.
posted by Atreides at 5:56 AM on June 5, 2006


Yes, language evolves. That doesn't mean that every single change is beneficial.

No, it means every single change simply is. What does "beneficial" have to do with anything? What benefit is a language change supposed to confer? Is it supposed to make us more moral, more brave, free and true?

What does a non-beneficial language change do -- make us sickly? This isn't a moral issue. If a bit of language doesn't work, if it doesn't have its intended effect, it won't get used. If it does get widely used, that's probably a sign that it does work.

So if it works, what then makes it not "beneficial?" Some extra moral quality?

The specific form of language is accidental -- systematically accidental, as with evolution, but accidental. The "correct" phrases you may hold dear are already mutations of mutations of mutations, heading all the way back to the first utterances. Whatever seems like solid ground in all this change is probably just whatever you learned as a kid.
posted by argybarg at 6:29 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Well as long as people are posting their peeves, I hate hearing sikth for sixth (i.e. siksth). As for the rest, having both taught ESL and a degree in linguistics, I know better than to get into this argument.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 6:31 AM on June 5, 2006


Thank God languagehat weighed in with his standard insulting commentary. I knew something was missing.
posted by smackfu at 6:32 AM on June 5, 2006


(I mean, really "Oh for god's sake, not again."?)
posted by smackfu at 6:40 AM on June 5, 2006


I don't understand the claridin one... what word is it supposed to be?
posted by arcticwoman at 6:45 AM on June 5, 2006


I had a salesperson who would say "functuality" in place of "functionality" and "pacific" in place of "specific". I still use the "pacific"/"specific" substitution when I'm feeling silly -- much like "pasketti" for "spaghetti". But this 40-something year old guy really thought he was pronouncing the words correctly.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is "an historic" or "an horrific". I mean, is the "h" silent?? I only hear it from newscasters, but they seem hellbent on making "an" before "h" a reality. Is there something I'm missing here? Maybe it's a big joke among newscasters to which I'm not privy...

For myself, I've never known the correct way to pronounce non-English words. Do I anglicize them or pronounce them as they are in the native language? Similarly, what about spelling? "Copenhagen" or "København"? My ex-wife's last name was "Jensen", prounounced "Yensen" in her native tongue, as Danish "J"s sound like English "Y"s. We finally gave up on that one and started pronouncing her name with the English "J". I'm guessing that, like most language things, it simply depends on the audience.

As an aside, my father has master's degrees in both nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering from M.I.T., and he still says "nu-q-lar" -- I haven't the heart to correct him. (Bush says "nuke-ler", FWIW.)
posted by LordSludge at 6:45 AM on June 5, 2006


Flashman,
I'm a quarter Spanish, and my grandmataught me the proper way to pronounce words that come from that language. Glad I wasn't on the date you read about - I don't speak the language very well, but I can't help pronouncing words correctly.
posted by notsnot at 6:50 AM on June 5, 2006


One of my friends usta get on my case for saying Antardica. It is difficult to get r, k, and t, together in my mouth without it sounding extremely artificial to my ears when I try. In Spanish it is Antártida. at least that has no k.

(ShibolethFilter: Houston is Yoostun)
posted by bleary at 6:55 AM on June 5, 2006


An before a vowel sound is quite common in spoken english. Not so much when written though. So in the case of H words 'an' just sounds right.

Also I think it was about 25 years ago when Porsch(e) became Porsche. So how come Volkswagen never becale FolksVagen?
posted by Gungho at 6:59 AM on June 5, 2006


Well said, argybarg!

Thank God languagehat weighed in with his standard insulting commentary. I knew something was missing.


Excuse me, I think you want Miss Thistlebottom's Ladies' Academy. It's down the hall, to the left. This is MetaFilter, where we make our points however we please. And if you'd heard as much nonsense babbled about a subject you knew something about, you wouldn't suffer it gladly either. I think "Oh for god's sake, not again" is a perfectly sensible response to a subject that's been brought up many times before, for no purpose other than allowing people to vent their ignorant prejudices.

Speaking of which:

he still says "nu-q-lar" -- I haven't the heart to correct him.

Good, because there's nothing wrong with his pronunciation; it's in all the dictionaries. If you don't like it, that's your problem, not his. See this previous thread (one of the many times we've been down this garden path before).
posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on June 5, 2006


I never thought anyone would be so angry about being told that they are pronouncing "Porsche" incorrectly.

You learn something every day.
posted by agregoli at 7:01 AM on June 5, 2006


An before a vowel sound is quite common in spoken english. Not so much when written though. So in the case of H words 'an' just sounds right.

Right, but "h" is a consonant, so as long as you are saying "HYOO-man"not "YOO-man" it would make more sense to say "a" than it would to say "an."
posted by arcticwoman at 7:02 AM on June 5, 2006


Oh, I forgot:

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is "an historic" or "an horrific".

It's particularly amusing to see rival gangs of elitists snarking at each other. See, lots of people (though not as many as before) would say "Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is 'a historic' or 'a horrific'"; that used to be one of the prescriptivists' main shibboleths. (Historically, it's because Brits didn't pronounce the h-, so the words began with a vowel, but facts rapidly become irrelevant in the world of prescriptivism.) As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says, "We find that more writers use a than an but that both are common."

Why, oh why, is there this desire to have One Correct Form and castigate those who use anything different? Why can't people accept change and variation? Maybe I'll post an AskMeFi question about it...
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on June 5, 2006


Articwoman: It suppozed 2b Claritin, wich is a perscripsion medisin.
posted by Eideteker at 7:09 AM on June 5, 2006


Why, oh why, is there this desire to have One Correct Form and castigate those who use anything different? Why can't people accept change and variation?

I'm guessing it has something to do with a programmatic attempt at a standardization of communication. *shrug*
posted by thanotopsis at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2006


Metafilter: rival gangs of elitists snarking at each other.
posted by three blind mice at 7:14 AM on June 5, 2006


languagehat, are you an absolutely pure descriptivist? There's nothing that gets on your nerves? How do you decide which pronunciation or spelling to use? (Just asking. I'm not sure how I decide.)

Anyway, I wonder if Charles Harrington Elster pronounces all four syllables in "comfortable" and "vegetable."
posted by hydrophonic at 7:24 AM on June 5, 2006


"Good, because there's nothing wrong with his pronunciation; it's in all the dictionaries."

Ok, so it's in all the dictionaries, but how did it get there? Where did it come from? Where else is "cle" pronounced "kyule"? I understand if one is too lazy to speak properly... (no, I keed). Seriously, though, there's something to be said for preserving regularity and clarity in language. Transparency in etymology (in my experience) expedites comprehension and extension (and therefore productivity) of language. Isn't it cool when you learn some new stem and immediately know how to put it into various forms? Isn't it nice to read a word and know how to pronounce it? And sometimes, these forces are in opposition. A lot of words in English are spelled funny because they retain some of their heritage, so I realize there's a tension there. But still, I feel there's something to be said for linguistic precision, and there's no reason it can't work with expressiveness to improve communication.

As my friend says, "Just because language evolves doesn't mean we have to let it evolve into a one-legged, thread-headed beast with no eyes and four tongues." Well, I paraphrase a little. Language should evolve toward functionality, whether through pre- or descriptive channels. But hey, we're a big species now. We can no longer just throw our hands in the air and go "it's out of our control" because it's not anymore. That also doesn't mean we have to alienate people with linguistic micromanagement. It means we should embrace change that makes sense. Of course, 'sense' is subjective, but it's something to drive for.
posted by Eideteker at 7:25 AM on June 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


As my friend says, "Just because language evolves doesn't mean we have to let it evolve into a one-legged, thread-headed beast with no eyes and four tongues." Well, I paraphrase a little.

I should hope so, as "thread-headed" sounds just disgusting.
posted by thanotopsis at 7:32 AM on June 5, 2006


Why can't people accept change and variation?

I don't know. Fear? What I do know is that language is an organic, mutable thing, and one look at any entry in the OED will show how words have changed over time, through amelioration or perjoration, etc. Spelling, pronounciation, grammar and meanings all change. In some cases, the meaning of the word will change so drastically that it ends up having an opposite meaning to what it originally did.

Also: Semantic shift.

Awesome/Awful. Enthusiastic. Nice.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:40 AM on June 5, 2006


Zodiacal?
posted by Flashman at 7:41 AM on June 5, 2006


Wren's Cathedral was awful, artificial, and amusing.
posted by matthewr at 7:46 AM on June 5, 2006


I think the Porsche thing is a bit silly though. I mean, nobody who doesn't want to come off as a pretentious ninny would say 'Paree', or 'Monn-rayal', or 'Balenthia'.
So,Janis Joplin was a pretentious ninny. Who knew?

(ShibolethFilter: Houston is Yoostun)
Except when it's hoosten (or is it howsten? I forget.) Also, bleary, meet ardicwoman.


Are there still any people out there who say "heigth"?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:51 AM on June 5, 2006


I love finding words whose (primary) pronunciation changed in very recent times. Like flaccid (once FLAK-sid) and giga- (JIG-uh).

Language change generally makes me sad though. When the last "n(y)oo-klee-er" speaker dies it'll be like a little language death.
posted by gubo at 7:52 AM on June 5, 2006


It's about elitism. "Ha ha ha, look at how the stupid rubes mispronunciate their words. Boy, they sure are stupid, and we sure are smart."
posted by slatternus at 7:59 AM on June 5, 2006


Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is "an historic" or "an horrific". I mean, is the "h" silent?? I only hear it from newscasters, but they seem hellbent on making "an" before "h" a reality. Is there something I'm missing here? Maybe it's a big joke among newscasters to which I'm not privy...

I'm a bit of stickler for than one, mostly because I imagine myself with unruly whiskers, clutching my lapels and proclaiming in the style of a minor and not terribly amusing character in a lesser Dickens novel every time I type 'an' before an 'h'. 'It were in an 'otel, Mrs. Wigglefisk! An 'orrible, 'orrific 'otel!', that sort of thing. Which is fun.

One thing I worry about sometimes: acronyms. Is it an RSS feed, or a RSS feed? I lean towards the former, on the grounds that the letter 'r' starts with a vowel, so to speak.

But please, please don't pronounce Jaguar like the Brits do... Jag-yu-war. It sounds positively inept when we've already got a perfectly good pronounciation of the leaping kitty cat of our own-- Jag-war.

God, that Jag-wah business really does my head in for some reason. I have never heard it in real life, but if I did, I would find it hard not to treat the speaker to a Kirkby kiss (which, in case any Americans are wondering, is not a nice kind of kiss).
posted by jack_mo at 8:03 AM on June 5, 2006


pronounciation pronunciation. argh.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:03 AM on June 5, 2006


The only complaint I have about change in the English language is the loss of the second person singular pronoun. But that happened before my time and there's no way in hell "thou" is coming back.

Although, it seems that many regional dialects have adapted to the lack by creating a new second person plural pronoun. "Y'all" really does have its purpose and I'm quite fond of it, despite the fact the minute it comes out of my mouth people automatically know I'm from the South. With the exception of using "Coke" for every carbonated beverage, "y'all" is my only regional dialectal tell.

I agree with languagehat somewhat, many of the changes are good, while some annoy the piss out of me(Where you at?). But despite it all one of the lovely things about English and the reason it's so very strong is that it is a flexible language. It can be bent and molded to say and do so very many things and can adapt so much, so fast that it tends to leave other languages in the dust.

Or as Buffy would say, "English, it's all bendy. And that's of the good."
posted by teleri025 at 8:05 AM on June 5, 2006


posted by VirtualWolf ...how is [Porsche] pronounced? I've never heard anyone say it any differently than "Porsh".

It's pronounced, "Overpriced Volkswagen."
posted by fandango_matt at 8:08 AM on June 5, 2006


All very ashun iz good e-regardles. Its da grate levler. Its the lcdinater. u kant b rong wen nuffinz rong. only them e-vils bit-sticklers e-leets beez rongs rongs rongs. wich iz y all weezes good reglar peapoles rit dis wa. fukdarooolz.
posted by pracowity at 8:11 AM on June 5, 2006


Seriously, though, there's something to be said for preserving regularity and clarity in language.

If you speak in an irregular, unclear way, you won't be understood. This is a self-correcting problem.

If, on the other stand, you are understood when you speak, you are undoubtedly speaking in a regular, clear way. In other words, you are participating in a language community that observes a set of conventions that you are also observing. It may be, however, that grammar manuals and William Safire don't recognize that set of conventions. But that doesn't mean you aren't being regular and clear.

"Just because language evolves doesn't mean we have to let it evolve into a one-legged, three-headed beast with no eyes and four tongues."

Why is this more ridiculous than a one-headed, two-legged beast with no tail and ten toes?

Language is a functional appliance that either works or doesn't. It has nothing to do with Platonic beauty of forms. The Queen's English is no more objectively beautiful than any other language, nor are any specific features of any language more "correct," in a context-free sense, than the features of any other language.
posted by argybarg at 8:16 AM on June 5, 2006


Gungho: An before a vowel sound is quite common in spoken english. Not so much when written though.

But of course.

So in the case of H words 'an' just sounds right.

Huh?? I'd agree if, and only if, the "h" is silent, such that there is, indeed, a vowel sound to follow the "an". I'd even be okay with "an 'istoric", although it sounds a bit Cockney to my ears and would be odd to hear in the 'States. Similarly, "a 'istoric" would sound horrible, because "a" should precede a consonant sound. But "an historic", where the "h" is a consonant, is just inconsistent.

The odd thing is that you never hear "an hippopotamus" or "an home run", or at least I haven't. The newscasters' rule appears to be: "a" before "h", unless "h" is an adjective as in "historic" or "horrific".

Or maybe the guy programming the teleprompter pronounces all his "h"s silent. After all, I have never heard this in face-to-face conversation. It's an hard issue for an hairy guy like me to dissect.
posted by LordSludge at 8:22 AM on June 5, 2006


I should add: You dread the possibility that we might "let" language evolve into a bizarre, unwieldy hybrid form. My question is: How do you know this hasn't already happened?
posted by argybarg at 8:23 AM on June 5, 2006


Two things:

1. I always took language as a living, breathing entity unto itself, which grows and contracts as people need it to be used. It always baffled me why people wanted that growth to stop for some reason. Hell, even Latin isn't that dead anymore.

2. Just because the root language of a word (even a proper name like Porsche or Paris or Jalapeño) is obvious and/or recent doesn't mean the pronunciation has to be identical in English to the other language. If it's pronounced Por-'shah in German, it can still be pronounced Porch in English without any serious damage done to the fabric of civilization.

The point of language is to get a thought-shape from one brain to another by any means possible, then y'all are getting your dander up over nothing. Dig, holmes?
posted by chicobangs at 8:27 AM on June 5, 2006


I like the: an orange, a norange type switcheroo. (Please forgive me if I am completely mistaken) I don't remeber what it was called but there is a subset or words that lost an 'n' into 'an'.
posted by ozomatli at 8:27 AM on June 5, 2006


Doppelgänger DAHP-ul-GANG-ur (rhymes with topple hanger).

Some authorities still prefer the German pronunciation, but I say this word is pompous enough without subjecting it to a throat-and-noseful of that. English has employed doppelgänger for almost 150 years, and there’s no excuse not to anglicize it . Current orthography favors lowercase d but retains the umlaut of dieresis (dy-ER-i-sis ) over ä.


It's awfully hard for me to accept the authority of a site that thinks that umlaut is an "umlaut of dieresis". That doesn't even make sense. It's just an umlaut.
posted by uosuaq at 8:31 AM on June 5, 2006


languagehat, are you an absolutely pure descriptivist? There's nothing that gets on your nerves?

An excellent question. Yes, I'm an absolutely pure descriptivist, in that I don't think there's any absolute "better" or "worse" in language use: whatever speakers naturally say is the language, and language change is just language change—it's not "degeneracy" or "decline" or any dumb thing like that. (How come nobody ever thinks language is getting better?)

But of course things get on my nerves. I don't like the loss of disinterested as a word with a separate, and useful, meaning, and I hate with a passion the use of may have for counterfactuals (If he'd run a little faster, he may have caught the ball). The difference between me and a prescriptivist is not that I happily accept any and all language change, but that I recognize that my own prejudices are just that, and no more significant than my dislike of that damn stuff kids today call "music." My grandson will grow up thinking there's nothing wrong with counterfactual may have, and he'll be right. It'll be the English language. Just not the one I grew up with.
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I tried picking up my sosal security check the other day, but some dumb washed-up home run hitter had already claimed it.

(I want to PUNCH everyone who mispronounces "social security". The hardest punches being reserved for those who simply say "sosecurity".)
posted by StrasbourgSecaucus at 8:36 AM on June 5, 2006


Has anyone made a "Summon languagehat" card yet?

We have a "hat" signal we shine in the night sky. He usually sees it if he isn't busy in the hatcave tuning up the hatmobile, or, in those odd moments, dancing the hatusi.
posted by RavinDave at 8:39 AM on June 5, 2006


I think the Porsche thing is a bit silly though. I mean, nobody who doesn't want to come off as a pretentious ninny would say 'Paree', or 'Monn-rayal', or 'Balenthia'.

So,Janis Joplin was a pretentious ninny. Who knew?

Hmmm, I'd always heard it as "my friends all drive Porsch*es*" but that Texas twang can play tricks on one.

But maybe she was a pretentious ninny, n'est pas?
posted by Flashman at 8:40 AM on June 5, 2006


Smithers, release the Snoots!
posted by Flashman at 8:41 AM on June 5, 2006


Well, the other side to the whole "ra ra change and variation" camp is the acknowledgement that linguistic communities or practice use language as markers for membership. So as an example, if you want to become a member of the community of practice that is metafilter, you have to understand and write in the linguistic norms that are dominant here. If you write an article for Wired, Cosmo, or the New England Journal of Medicine, you have use the language enforced by those editors. If you hang out in a chat space for Elementary school kids, they will call you out if you don't use their language.

What linguists don't tend to find kosher is the claim that one of these communities of practice defines an idealized "proper" English language, or that an individual's linguistic practice does much more than signal how closely identified a person is to a specific community.

and on preview, what argybag said. No one in these discussions take into account the fact that language is not just a bunch of words in a dictionary and grammar in a stylebook. Language in practice is multi-modal and includes feedback. If you say something that I just don't understand, it will show on my face, body language and vocal responses. If you write something I don't understand, I might flame you in an online discussion or just don't respond.

Language is self-correcting, making it regular and clear. The problem is that what is regular and clear for one community using one mode, is going to be opaque to a different community using a different mode. You can't create an idealized English that will serve the needs of both NEJM and pre-adolecent chat users.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:43 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


an orange, a norange type switcheroo

It goes both ways, I believe:
a naperon > an apron
an eft > a newt
posted by kittyprecious at 8:45 AM on June 5, 2006


I'm just tired of people not learning to enunciate. Coworkers using double negatives and "aint" are fairly high on the list as well. Their day will come, believe me.
posted by mikeh at 8:48 AM on June 5, 2006


Language is self-correcting, making it regular and clear.

And no language is self-correctinger, regularer and clearerer than English.

None of the complaints about usage listed in this thread sound very much like shortcomings at all to me. If I can say nucular and people understand it, well, it may not be a credit to the speaker, but it's a huge nod to the language for being able to continue being recognizable.

You-all are seriously misunderestimating the abilities of English. It's remrkably alive and legible in more arenas than most.
posted by chicobangs at 8:53 AM on June 5, 2006


Eideteker: But still, I feel there's something to be said for linguistic precision, and there's no reason it can't work with expressiveness to improve communication.

The published literature on internet chat communication suggests that chat language does an excellent job of achieving precision and expressiveness while minimizing keystrokes and bandwidth.

Medical journals do the same thing though a high frequency of idioms, references, and jargon that is opaque to people outside that community. (And lets not get into medical charts which are even more precise and expressive while almost totally opaque.)

And that's the big problem with this kind of plea for precision and clarity. You have millions of users, hundreds of communitites, hundreds of different contexts, dozens of different variations on medium and mode. Human languages are more than flexible enough to accomodate all these dimensions of variation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:01 AM on June 5, 2006


kitty precious ...

I'm picturing Eadwacer and Hildeburh sitting around the Meadehall bitching about the poor state of education and the slow decay of English: "Dumb-ass kids and their sloppy diction ... can't even pronounce the 'n' in 'nadder'! I think they do that on purpose!"
posted by RavinDave at 9:01 AM on June 5, 2006


If, on the other stand, you are understood when you speak, you are undoubtedly speaking in a regular, clear way.

Not true! There is a very real cognitive effort that goes into language comprehension. Simply put, it's rude to put too much of the onus on the listener to understand you. And I'm not talking about pracowity's example. I'm talking about choosing the more precise, clear, and commonly accepted option in everyday speech. And, like I said, those things are often at odds so it's a judgement call, but that doesn't mean one should throw up one's hands and just expect people to decypher whatever falls from your brain.

Language, whether your view is pre- or de-, has rules; rules are an emergent property of language, so it may be safe to assume they're there for a reason. And I'm not talking about finnicky prescriptions. Because no matter how descriptivist one considers oneself, there are rules even they will not break. So I'm hard-pressed to see what point many of you are making, other than to say, "See, you are all uptight jerks and I'm cool for not being so uptight, or being uptight in different ways!" I mean, no one here is arguing for a rules-free language, right? So what is the harm in keeping an eye to etymology and tradition while consciously evolving our language towards greater precision and descriptivism/expressivity? And I'm not arguing that there's a goal of language perfection that lies forever just over the horizon, if only we could get people to use commas right. I just mean making a conscious effort to make understanding as simple as possible for your listener/reader. But similarly, I don't think it's a question of dumber/smarter and haughtiness, just courtesy. Not degeneracy or decline so much as, for lack of a better term, laziness.

I'm very much of a schoolboy in the sense that if I hear something I've only read before and figure out that I've been mispronouncing it in my head, I'll make an effort to find out the most generally accepted pronounciation and adopt it. But if I have a reason for consciously (not accidentally then stubbornly refusing to) change the word; say, I want to distinguish nucular as referring to science, as like molecular, vs. nuclear family (a nucular family would have been irradiated, I guess?), then that's not so bad, as long as I accept the cognitive strain this puts on the receiver's mind and attempt to explicate the differences with contextual clues, inflection, or the like. I have no problem with breaking the rules, I suppose, as long as they're replaced with new rules. But I have and I will change my register depending on who I'm talking to so that it's easier for them to understand me. I've got a good reputation for explaining scientific concepts to laypeople because I can do this rather facilely. But I am assuming the bulk of the cognitive load myself, rather than forcing my listeners to translate what I think is proper English.
posted by Eideteker at 9:01 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Is it pretentious for an American to pronounce 'Renault' 'ren-NO' -- instead of 're-NAWLT'?

So let me call it a POUR-sheh, please- and save the eye-rolling.

And if you have ever driven a Jetta and a 911, you'll know Porsches are not "over-priced Volkswagens".
posted by wfc123 at 9:03 AM on June 5, 2006


posted by mikeh I'm just tired of people not learning to enunciate. Coworkers using double negatives and "aint" are fairly high on the list as well. Their day will come, believe me.

For me, it's sentences ending with prepositions, the phrases, "I could care less", "partially destroyed", and the it's/its, you're/your, and lose/loose mistakes.
posted by fandango_matt at 9:04 AM on June 5, 2006


Are there still any people out there who say "heigth"?
I hear that a lot! And it irks me to no end!
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:05 AM on June 5, 2006


If it's pronounced Por-'shah in German, it can still be pronounced Porch in English without any serious damage done to the fabric of civilization.

Wait - there are people who pronounce it porch, as in veranda? Now that is not promoting clarity.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:05 AM on June 5, 2006


I've always viewed language as a HO-scale model of Darwin's theory of evolution. Words/phrases mutate over time, and certain mutations eventually become standard while others die out. Is it really so hard to apply something physical like biology to something as abstract as language?
posted by afx114 at 9:06 AM on June 5, 2006


Eideteker, it's exactly true! The object is to communicate your point to someone else. If you do that, whether using the Queen's English, some patois, jive, 1337-5p33k or by grunting and pointing, then you've succeeded.

None of those are inherently better than any other. English is alive. Rules are constantly changing. If you decide to change the spelling of "decypher," and we-all grok your point anyway, well, you win at English.

Why is it any harder than that?
posted by chicobangs at 9:06 AM on June 5, 2006


ObBlonde Joke:

"A blonde, wanting to earn some money, decided to hire herself out as a handyman-type and started canvassing a wealthy neighborhood. She went to the front door of the first house and asked the owner if he had any jobs for her to do.

"Well, you can paint my porch. How much will you charge?"
The blonde said, "How about 50 dollars?" The man agreed and told her that the paint and ladders that she might need were in the garage. The man's wife, inside the house, heard the conversation and said to her husband, "Does she realize that the porch goes all the way around the house?"
The man replied, "She should. She was standing on the porch."

A short time later, the blonde came to the door to collect her money.
"You're finished already?" he asked.
"Yes," the blonde answered, "and I had paint left over, so I gave it two coats."
Impressed, the man reached in his pocket for the $50.

"And by the way," the blonde added, "that's not a Porch, it's a Ferrari."

posted by RavinDave at 9:07 AM on June 5, 2006


On the loss of a second-person plural pronoun: I hear you. My partner and I regularly ask for clarification "Do you mean 'you' as in tu or 'you' as in vous?"

A foreign friend of mine whose first name is Kitty is constantly frustrated by Canadian's refusal to pronounce it properly. She gets called "Kiddy" all the time.

~ Ardicwoman
posted by arcticwoman at 9:14 AM on June 5, 2006


taursir:

English does not have Latin grammar. What bothers me about the alumnae case is that they are trying to have it both ways -- they want Latin grammar used in English, pointlessly, and at the same time want English pronunciation to prevail. "Alumni" is a perfectly good English word. Like "criteria" or "agenda," its absorption into English usage is overwhelmingly in the plural sense; "criterion" only has marginal use, as does "alumnus" ("agendum" is right out). "Alumnae" is outside of English usage (except for pedants) and should be pronounced like a Latin word. Or, better, not used.
posted by graymouser at 9:14 AM on June 5, 2006


With the exception of using "Coke" for every carbonated beverage, "y'all" is my only regional dialectal tell.

I think this is more of a 20th century marketing thing than it is a regional language thing, as I do the same thing and am in Southern California. When ordering at a drivethrough I always order "Coke" even though I prefer Pepsi and even if the place clearly carries Pepsi products. Sometimes they ask, "is Pepsi OK?" and other times they just assume I meant Pepsi and give me the Pepsi. Same with Dr. Pepper. I always seem to order Dr. Pepper even if the place carries Mr. Pibb.

It's the same thing as saying, "I need a Kleenex" even though the particular brand available might not be a Kleenex-brand tissue.
posted by afx114 at 9:16 AM on June 5, 2006


I know this topic has been tossed back and forth many times before, but I'm still grateful for the FPP--I always find it fascinating. I think it's partially because, like languagehat I am in principle an absolute descriptivist, but then in actual practice I can't help but be something of a prescriptivist. Part of it, of course, is that if you're teaching people to use English for formal purposes, you need to teach them to master a particular (albeit arbitrary) set of rules. One can recognize their arbitrariness, but one does no favors to one's students if one tells them "heck, it's all arbitrary--just use language any way you please."

But even in ordinary language exchanges, the "prescriptivism/descriptivism" divide isn't as easy to navigate as one might think. Speaking with a fluent non-native speaker, for example, one will often recognize many "errors" without at any time being at all unsure of the meaning of what they are saying. "So, I go shop, and lady say to me, Boris, what you need? And I say, me need many vegetable..." etc. Now, clearly it would be wise for "Boris" to continue to improve his English--but not necessarily because he will ever find it difficult to be understood, or have any difficulty understanding what is said to him. That is, the argument that language self-corrects simply on the basis of "successful or unsuccessful performance" seems to me to be flawed. Once we get past the question of "successful" communication we immediately get into a whole host of other, subtler questions, which have to do with elegance, precision, the demonstration of a certain kind of verbal acuity and flexibility etc. etc. I suspect that when it comes to these questions most people are, in practice, prescriptivists however much they may be, in theory, descriptivists.
posted by yoink at 9:18 AM on June 5, 2006


... that's a whole nother story...
posted by arcticwoman at 9:19 AM on June 5, 2006


One other thing: I'm always amused by the description of certain kinds of pronunciation as "lazy." In every country I've lived in (four English speaking countries, and assorted others) people have complained about the "lazy" pronunciation of the dialects associated with lower socio-economic status. But doesn't it ever seem odd to people that when a Cockney gets all "lazy" with English he sounds nothing like a "lazy" Glaswegian, or a "lazy" Australian, or a "lazy" New Yorker? If they were all looking for the "easy" way to pronounce words, wouldn't they gravitate towards similar choices?

Similarly, why doesn't Prince Charles ever sound like a Cockney, even when he's really, really, exhausted? "Oh God, Camilla, I'm too fagged to keep up this RP thing, 'ow 'bout we nip dahn the rub-a-dub for a coupla pigs?"
posted by yoink at 9:29 AM on June 5, 2006


The only thing which has every truly annoyed me in someone else's language usage was the 10th grade history teacher who gave me detention for correcting her when for the tenth time she said the Hysoks invaded Egypt during the 15th Dynasty. (She was also a strenth, lenth, ain't no, axe type woman, but those didn't bother me quite so much.)
posted by Captaintripps at 9:33 AM on June 5, 2006


I always thought the reason English was so successful was because it was so dynamic.

When speaking my native English, I pronounce words as an American would. Paris is Paris with an s, Porsche is Porsche with a silent e, and Beijing does not sound like the way I pronounce it when I switch to speaking formal Mandarin.

As long as I understand you, I'm fine. But I still have my pet peeves, which tend to be any that make things less clear. Like when someone says "I could care less", for example. You know what they mean, but you can't help but wonder if they know they said the complete opposite.
posted by linux at 9:50 AM on June 5, 2006


"I could care less"

That is a strange one, isn't it - when did Americans change 'I couldn't care less' to the completely nonsensical 'I could care less', which means the opposite of what it means, if you see what I mean? (Seems a recent thing, but that may just be because I'm exposed to more American English nowadays...)
posted by jack_mo at 9:53 AM on June 5, 2006


I always aim to use the most "correct" pronunciation I can in a Gatsbyish endeavor to signal that I belong to a higher social class. I don't think that their is anything wrong with most dialects (although certain dialects deviate so much from anything that I'm used to hearing that I find them completely inscrutable.)

Still, I think that those who try and tame English and prevent it from changing serve a role. English does not change symmetrically across all populations. Different populations have different deviations from "standard" English. The sort of scolding attitude of prescriptivists may slow not just the evolution of the English language but also the splintering of it into an assortment of less universally comprehensible dialects.
posted by I Foody at 9:54 AM on June 5, 2006


Eideteker:

I suppose I should have been clearer. I mean that the more clearly you are understood, the more likely we are to find a specific regularity and clarity in your speech. But the converse is not true. Using a specified regularity and clarity does not guarantee comprehension.

You think this is a trivial point, or a posture. I disagree. I believe that the rich rules and methods of any language emerge from millions of interactions within a language community, and that those interactions are as simple as: Am I being understood? Out of the trillions of iterations of that simple questions, the immense complexities of language emerge. In this regard I think it's similar to the fact of millions of species of staggering diversity and complexity emerging from the simple question of whether a species (or genome, or what you will) suceeds in reproducing.

There are those who want to believe that evolution is directed, that is somehow reveals essentail forms. With all due respect, I think you betray a bit of this when you write: rules are an emergent property of language, so it may be safe to assume they're there for a reason. This is either a mystifying statement, or circular. The rules emerged because they emerged, not because language somehow aligns itself with Platonic forms of truth and grammar.

The implication of this statement ("they're there for a reason") is that the Rules have a certain holiness: They've been proven true by virtues of being emergent properties. Thus the OED and BBC style guide and William Safire do not represent instances of language communities, but instead examples of Truth. Then we can also safely talk about deviant language forms. Thus Southern dialects, or perhaps all American speech, are deviations from the True English. (Which must have been waiting in the aether while all that Untrue warm-up Middle English and the like were getting ready.)

The problem is that every linguistic form emerges from language use, and nowhere else. This includes chatroom slang, teenspeak, Jamaican patois, everything else. Every one of these is a community in which one can be better understood the more one observes the conventions of that community. And that really is all we can say.

You say you want to "consciously evolve" the language towards "greater precision." But there is no "greater precision" except within language. In other words, there is no reference point from which we may stand outside language and say: "This language is more precise than the one we used to use."

I'm all for detailed discussions of what works in language, and what inflections certain form place on what people say in what settings, just as a biologist is interested in studying the minute forms of specific creatures within their ecosystems. But it's a big (I think mistaken) leap to conclude that we're talking about objectively better, more evolved, more precise, or the like. Language is just an enormous chess game, with many best moves, and the game keeps changing, even down to its rules.
posted by argybarg at 9:56 AM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Oh, and:

I've come to conclude that the American "I could care less" is a clipped version of "Like I could care less" or "As if I could care less." Or it's just careless.

The Queen's English is full of such detritus, too.
posted by argybarg at 9:59 AM on June 5, 2006


With the exception of using "Coke" for every carbonated beverage, "y'all" is my only regional dialectal tell.

I think this is more of a 20th century marketing thing than it is a regional language thing


Actually, afx114, you'd be wrong about that.
posted by jtron at 10:01 AM on June 5, 2006


We speak a different English than our parents, as they spoke a different English from theirs. Language is rewritten by each generation, resulting in the continuing evolution of words, grammars and even the cognitive foundations for idioms, metaphors, and poetries. The most stark examples of this is witnessed in sign languages and the creation of creoles.

There's no way to keep a language from evolving and changing, whether you like the changes or not. It's what language does.
posted by dopamine at 10:06 AM on June 5, 2006


I've come to conclude that the American "I could care less" is a clipped version of "Like I could care less" or "As if I could care less." Or it's just careless.

I'll buy that argument. But clipping it still makes it mean the complete opposite, so it's still a personal nitpick. I'll just keep using my rebuttal "Then do so!" for now. It alwasy throws 'em for a loop.
posted by linux at 10:07 AM on June 5, 2006


You do that, linux.
posted by chicobangs at 10:09 AM on June 5, 2006


My best friend growing up was named Aaron. I was convinved that one of the Smithsonian museums belonged to him.
posted by bardic at 10:11 AM on June 5, 2006


I've seen the argument that when people say "I could care less" they think the expression is analogous to the yiddish-derived "I should be so lucky" and "I should live so long." Personally, I find that unconvincing--I think it's a post-hoc rationalization the springs up when you point out to people that the expression "literally" means something they didn't intend. A similar claim you'll see is the "well, it's really sarcastic" like "well, sure, I COULD care less, I suppose...but I sure as heck don't care very much." That, too, seems to me like a rationalization. That is, people's first response tends to be puzzlement when you say "so, what you're saying is that you actually do care somewhat" and then they cast around for a way to make the phrase meaningful.

The best account I've seen of how the expression loses it's "n't" is here. I'm fairly persuaded by it--but "could care less" is still going to bug me until the day I die.
posted by yoink at 10:15 AM on June 5, 2006


Is it pretentious for an American to pronounce 'Renault' 'ren-NO' -- instead of 're-NAWLT'?

No, but it would be pretentious to pronounce the name of the commander of the Flying Tigers in WW2 as Claire Shen-No instead of Claire Shen-awlt. And it would be pretentious to say WEB Doo Bwah instead of WEB Doo Boyz.

Words taken from filthy foreign languages, ya gotta just know whether they're anglicized or not. Or even when they're anglicized (viz, Versailles, France, vs. Versailles, KY).

Cue James Nicoll: "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:15 AM on June 5, 2006


chicobangs: The object is to communicate your point to someone else. If you do that, whether using the Queen's English, some patois, jive, 1337-5p33k or by grunting and pointing, then you've succeeded.

True, but...

While each of these language examples is well-understood within its own context (often even better understood), it may not be understood among other, or even most, circles. Certainly there is a need for a "common tongue" of English -- a.k.a. "Proper English" -- that is understood by most, if not all, English-speakers.

I don't think there's anything "elitist" about pointing out grammar, spelling, or pronunciation errors, in and of themselves, any more than it's not "elitist" to say that "2 + 2 = 5" is incorrect.

BTW, regarding "nukular" vs. "nuclear", isn't it fairly obvious that the former arose from a mistaken transposition of letters? Maybe that's what bugs me: get enough people to insist that "2 + 2 = 5", and, well, it does -- tyranny of the masses and such. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that "heigth" is completely acceptable now.

I'm all for expanding the language via borrowed foreign words & phrases and through common words-turned-colloquialisms ("cool", "bad", etc.), but expanding the language via outright mistakes (whether pronunciation, spelling, or grammatical) rubs me the wrong way.
posted by LordSludge at 10:21 AM on June 5, 2006


re: WEB DuBois, it's not just pretentious to pronounce his name a la francais, but incorrect. He himself preferred the "incorrect" pronunciation Du-boyce.

But like authorial intent, I'm sure there are some who would disagree or think that normative pronunciation trumps individual wishes.
posted by bardic at 10:31 AM on June 5, 2006


"Pronunciation of Name

Du Bois is a French name meaning "of the wood" and pronounced /doobwa/ (using the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet). However, this name is usually anglicized in the United States to /d(j)u:'bɔɪz/.

In a letter to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club dated Jan. 20, 1939 (cited in David Levering Lewis W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race, p. 11), Du Bois wrote that "The pronunciation of my name is Due Boyss, with the accent on the last syllable.", which would imply /dju:'bɔɪs/, though he might have intended /du:'bɔɪs/.

DuBois was apparently the grandson of a Loyalist New York doctor who fled to the West Indies, and consequently has been deemed to be a descendant of the accomplished DuBois family that founded New Paltz, New York, one of the first French Huguenot colonies in the Americas.

Though he acknowledged his name as French (and distinctly not English, as he was a well known Anglophobe), he clearly identified with his African roots, and indeed, is considered the father of African-American culture." (via)

Pronunciation can be quite political. Just ask Rita Dove.
posted by bardic at 10:36 AM on June 5, 2006


I don't think there's anything "elitist" about pointing out grammar, spelling, or pronunciation errors, in and of themselves, any more than it's not "elitist" to say that "2 + 2 = 5" is incorrect.

The rules of math are constant. The rules of grammar and language use are not.
posted by argybarg at 10:39 AM on June 5, 2006


each of these language examples is well-understood within its own context

See, LordSludge, there's the kicker right there. If I'm speaking to, say, the Queen (letting her speak first, of course), I will go light on the patois and the surfer-speak, because she wouldn't understand a lot of it. English is a big ole circus tent, and not everyone can see all three rings.

It's the same as if I was speaking with someone who only spoke German; I wouldn't talk with him in Hindi. Language's only purpose is to communicate, and if communicator and communicatee don't both understand the message, then language isn't working.
posted by chicobangs at 10:53 AM on June 5, 2006


posted by argybarg The rules of math are constant. The rules of grammar and language use are not.

Just ask Dan Quayle.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:55 AM on June 5, 2006


I hate it when people misspell "desktop background" as "screensaver". I really hate that.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 10:56 AM on June 5, 2006


I don't like the loss of disinterested as a word with a separate, and useful, meaning...

I suspect that this has a basis in our attitudes towards 'care.' Basically, the common sense has rejected obvjectivity, so we've stopped imagining that one can be involved-but-nonpartisan.

Keerk-a-guard? or Keerk-a-gore? Hmmm. Uh oh.

Also, can we say that, no matter how descriptive our resident linguists are, there are definitely advantages (in terms of cultural capital) associated with certain forms and habits of speech? I'm thinking of the studies that show that racial stereotyping applies even if one cannot see the person. That is, racial prejudices are also tied to the inflection and syntax of black speakers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:56 AM on June 5, 2006


I think this is more of a 20th century marketing thing than it is a regional language thing, as I do the same thing and am in Southern California. When ordering at a drivethrough I always order "Coke" even though I prefer Pepsi and even if the place clearly carries Pepsi products.

The difference is: You use 'coke' to mean 'whichever cola product you happen to carry', while some people use 'coke' to mean any kind of soda.

For example:
"What's your favorite kind of coke?"
"Grape Crush."
posted by agropyron at 10:59 AM on June 5, 2006


I was happy to find that I had no major disagreements with the article beyond the word niche.

Call me French, but I have not once considered "NICH" as a possibility. But now Merriam Webster is calling my pronunciation objectionable? Maybe they should take a look at their etymology books...
posted by sunshinesky at 10:59 AM on June 5, 2006


Also, can we say that, no matter how descriptive our resident linguists are, there are definitely advantages (in terms of cultural capital) associated with certain forms and habits of speech?

Of course. There's no contradiction here. Language is a human artifact and hews to social conventions.
posted by argybarg at 11:03 AM on June 5, 2006


I've come to conclude that the American "I could care less" is a clipped version of "Like I could care less" or "As if I could care less." Or it's just careless.

Ah, I see. That makes more a lot more sense than my 'couldn't care less' with a missing 'n't' theory.
posted by jack_mo at 11:08 AM on June 5, 2006


While we are on dialects, is the male first name 'Bo" short for something? Bob? Beauregard? Alternatively spelled "Beau"? Or is it a standalone name?
posted by Rumple at 11:12 AM on June 5, 2006


There's no contradiction here.

Prescriptivists all acknowledge that languages change. They'd just say that there's a 'value' to 'hewing to social conventions.' Sometimes the prescriptivist goal is to preserve privilege (we speak differently and that justifies our wealth), and sometimes the goal is to subvert it (if the poor can learn to speak like us, it will be more difficult to maintain the illusion of a meritocracy). But they're not nearly as stupid as everyone seems to think.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:13 AM on June 5, 2006


No, argybarg, I'm not saying the rules are some expression of a Platonic ideal. I'm saying they're there because they're commonly accepted. I feel like you didn't read my comment at all (nevermind the previous ones) because I said for a fact that I don't think of dialects as degenerate. I may read you wrong, but it sounds from your tone like you're using deviations as a pejorative, which it isn't. Everyone's speech is a deviation. But see what I mean about preserving clarity? Deviation has acquired the baggage of sexual deviancy (see 'perversion'). If you had said "diverge from the True English" there wouldn't be the question of you accusing me of any value I don't hold. But if you meant to accuse me of dialect-hatin', then deviation is probably second only to perversion in terms of precise word choice. And if you meant to straddle the line and be only semi-accusative, then deviation's the way to go.

As regards "greater precision" I mean the least cognitive effort for both speaker and listener (writer and reader) that paints the clearest picture. Like biological evolution, there is no fixed endpoint. There is only best for the current situation. But I refuse to come down on either side of the de/pre debate, so don't pigeonhole me. I've only said hundreds of times in this thread alone that it's a balance. But one should, in good faith, attempt to make oneself understood, more than anything else. This is impossible without some adherence to the 'rules,' however mutable they may be. Is that clearer?

As regards expressiveness and precision, there are concepts not already expressible in English, or more easily expressible outside the language. Case in point. Should one incorporate this word into English? On one hand, it conveys a concept not readily found in English. On the other, it brings a non-English irregularity into the language. If the benefit overrides the cost, then the word can be added to the language. But as you and others say, this is somewhat self-regulating. If people don't understand you or find the word useful, it won't make it into common useage. Or it may not make it into common useage until such a concept becomes fashionable for one reason or another. Linguistic evolution will decide if and when it is adopted. It will also decide if it retains (or to what extent) its original pronounciation and spelling. If it mutates into 'itchykoo' let's say, that may be easier to pronounce for English speakers, but obscures the origin of the word. Was it originally "itchy cool" like a sweater you love for sentimental reasons even though it's uncomfortable? Why not, if you choose to use the word, make the extra modicum of effort to pronounce it at least close to the original Japanese? The ease of learning a second Romance language comes from the commonalities between them; so in the interests of improving communication, some preservation of origins, etymology, pronounciation, and orthography can be helpful. I don't understand why people are so eager to throw their hands up at the desire to preserve some of the structure of the language and consciously affect and observe the changes where they happen.

Asi it stands, nucular is an irregularity. Irregularities introduce complexity (in this case where there is no need) and therefore complicate the language and render it harder to learn. You don't have to run around shouting NUCLEAR! NU-CLE-AR!!! But that doesn't mean you can't say it yourself in your own usage and let others decide. Again, you want to keep a mind on your audience. But I think most people understand "nuclear" as well as (or better) than "nucular." So I say nuclear. Does that make me a bad person? Or do you have me confused with the people running around and screaming the proper pronounciation? I think the key for me is to think about the language you use, and to be willing to reevaluate it. So, however you want to pigeonhole me (and apologies if you're not, but it feels like it), I don't think that sets me on either "side" of the debate.

Rumple: Bo is generally short for Beau, and therefore Beauregard (or other Frenchy names). I think Beau is actually ok as itself and so is not like the MwC character Bud Bundy, whose name is not technically short for anything. (Pet peeve of mine: People who name their kids a nickname (an ickname) as their legal name.)
posted by Eideteker at 11:20 AM on June 5, 2006


I use to have some glee when I'm at a conference and an anglo-saxon calls himself Coeburn to accentuate the too strong euro-consonants in my english pronunciation and ask just a little too politely
Mr Cockburn I would be very interested to hear from you how [...].
And for sure he will explain the correct pronunciation.

My secret euro revenge for the anglo-saxon cultural world hegemony.
posted by jouke at 11:29 AM on June 5, 2006


Eideteker:

You're right, I think. I was probably arguing with a straw-man version of you. My apologies.

I doubt we disagree about much. My only disagreement is with the idea of directed evolution of the language. I imagine we'd both agree it's mostly futile; but is it even a good fight worth failing at? I don't think so. Language sorts itself out.

Perhaps what we see as undue irregularities are mutations that prove useful. Who knows? I do know that language adapts to our ever-changing mouths, and if we find "nukyaler" or some other pronounciation more comfortable to say, it will prevail no matter how much spelling screams in pain. (I, for one, have never said "Wed-nes-day.")
posted by argybarg at 11:56 AM on June 5, 2006


Does anyone else find it a bit like nails on a chalkboard to hear shtreet in place of street? Or (if you're guilty of watching low-brow TV and will admit it) to listen to Tyra Banks lecture on the importance of learning to speak like a newscaster while she pronounces "st" as "shtr"? My local newscaster reporting on "shtreet gangs" drives me mad!
posted by onegreeneye at 12:00 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


I look at it this way, argy (may I call you argy?), you go your way and I'll go mine, and language will sort itself out in the end. You can't do nothing (unless you live an entirely self-contained existence where you communicate with no one; not vocally, not textually, not physically), so why not have a goal in mind? Just don't cram your deviation down other people's throats.
posted by Eideteker at 12:10 PM on June 5, 2006


How did clique become click, and Real Simple become a magazine title? Wait, I've either suddenly become old or I'm channeling my grandmother.
posted by onegreeneye at 12:27 PM on June 5, 2006


Thanks E.

O.K., now for the biggie" who knows what rules, if any, govern pronunciation of the word "the" -- that is, whether it is pronounced "thuh" or "thee"?

Googling "the" obviously doesn't help much.
posted by Rumple at 12:29 PM on June 5, 2006


"click" for clique is horrendous. The first time I heard it I was watching a University psychology class broadcast. A part of me died that day. If a PhD can't get it right, what does that say about the potential of the rest of us?
posted by sunshinesky at 12:31 PM on June 5, 2006


Wow, I always thought of "porsh" as being sort of a nickname for "porsche" rather than an alternate pronunciation of the full word, like calling a jaguar a "jag."
posted by clarahamster at 12:37 PM on June 5, 2006


I don't think most 7th grade girls (save me from my carpool) have any idea that "clique" isn't pronounced "click." Don't even think about asking for the spelling.
posted by onegreeneye at 12:39 PM on June 5, 2006


The difference is: You use 'coke' to mean 'whichever cola product you happen to carry', while some people use 'coke' to mean any kind of soda.

Exactly. Particularly in the Southeastern part of America you will hear or participate in the following exchange:

A: "Hey, while you're up, could you get me a Coke?"
B: "Sure, what do you want?"
A: "Dr. Pepper if you have it. Thanks."
posted by teleri025 at 12:57 PM on June 5, 2006


"Y'all" really does have its purpose and I'm quite fond of it, despite the fact the minute it comes out of my mouth people automatically know I'm from the South. With the exception of using "Coke" for every carbonated beverage, "y'all" is my only regional dialectal tell."

Well, we all in the Midwest seem to have picked this up within my generation. I say "y'all" all the time, as do my friends.

The one thing that Eideteker hit on that is important for the prescriptivist camp is the ease of learning. Not necessarily so much in the infant language acquisition, but in the ESL sense. I know that when I was learning German, I was grateful for their regularity (something that bothered me about French was its apparent randomness). And I know that my neighbors, many of whom are foreign, often ask me questions about English that I have to shrug off because we're weird.

I'd also like to point out that clarity and comprehensibility are not dichotomies; you can be more or less clear or comprehensible and often prescriptivist word choice helps eliminate things like misplaced modifiers and ambiguities.
posted by klangklangston at 1:03 PM on June 5, 2006


As friend of mine once opined, "I'd rather be wrong than be that right."
posted by Richard Daly at 1:15 PM on June 5, 2006


A new one to my ears is the word salmon, pronounced salmon, with the L.

I can't get my parents to stop saying Chipolte instead of Chipotle. They also somehow sneak a Y into fajita, turning it into fie-yee-ta.
posted by emelenjr at 1:38 PM on June 5, 2006


O.K., now for the biggie" who knows what rules, if any, govern pronunciation of the word "the" -- that is, whether it is pronounced "thuh" or "thee"?

Ha! A non-native English speaker (Danish) actually taught me this one:

- "thuh" before consonant sounds,
- "thee" before vowel sounds

(Now, if you say "thee historic", I'll haveta smack you, heh..)

I was never taught this rule in school, but she was, explicitly, just like "a" vs. "an". She told me this "rule", I thought about it, and damned if that doesn't seem right!

Now how about "a" -- "ay" vs. "uh"? Seems fairly random to me, or at least I haven't seen the pattern...
posted by LordSludge at 1:46 PM on June 5, 2006


...i tend to be more in favor of the idea that as long as you understand what a person is saying/writing, then the communication is successful, even if something is mispronounced or ungrammatical...too much other shit we need to think about these days...and it's not like we're going to wake up tomorrow and be faced with an entirely new language we don't understand...

...however, i will admit to being annoyed for some reason with the use of the phrase 'the reason why'...it may be entirely correct, and i hear it used all the time by reasonable people, but it just seems redundant to me, as reason=why...and also the use of 'where' when 'in which' is appropriate, as in 'i had an accident last week where i broke my finger'...

(by the way, i'm also achingly annoyed by the sound of people crunching around me, such that my partner is not allowed to eat potato chips or ice in my presence...if anybody happens to know a cure for this, i would appreciate it, as one day i would like to attend a movie theater and not want to kill everyone around me who eats popcorn)

as a transcriptionist, my favorite word usage of all (that i've heard spoken by more than one doctor) is 'stigmata' as in: 'the patient has the stigmata of right knee pain'...

and i'll confess a personal enjoyment for the use of 'i'm like' in place of 'i said' or 'i thought'...

...and the use of ellipses, appropriate or not...
posted by troybob at 1:55 PM on June 5, 2006


Had a fourth-grade teacher - definitely one of the old guard, small-town Southern lady - who couldn't manage to pronounce the second r in library.

The second "r"? She said "libray"? Or the first "r", "libary"?
posted by FeldBum at 1:59 PM on June 5, 2006


Seems the Oracle of Wiki agrees with the Danish education system:

"The" has variable pronunciation. It is generally pronounced with a long e (IPA /i:/) before a word starting with a vowel, and with a schwa before a word beginning with a consonant. However, to emphasise the importance or truth of its following word, it can be pronounced with a long e anywhere, in which case it essentially acts additionally as an adjective synonymous with "pre-eminent", as in "the hospital for back problems". In written form, in the absence of pronunciation, the in this sense is often italicised or otherwise emphasised, although in some written expressions, such as "the novelist of middle-class despair", and some spoken contexts (e.g. advertising) it can stand without emphasis since the context is assumed to be clear.

...and there's a bit on "an" before a pronounced "h":

The form "an" is always prescribed before words beginning with a silent "h", such as "honorable", "heir", "hour", and, in American English, "herb". Some British dialects (for example, Cockney) silence all initial "h's" and so employ "an" all the time: e.g., "an 'elmet". Many British usage books, therefore, discount a usage which some Americans (amongst others) employ as being a derivative of the Cockney. The reason is that the indefinite article "a" is pronounced either of two ways: as a schwa or as the letter itself is pronounced, "long a" (actually a diphthong, /eɪ/. Some words beginning with the letter "h" have the primary stress on the second or later syllable. Pronouncing "a" as a schwa can diminish the sound of the schwa and melt into the vowel. Pronouncing it as a "long a" does not do this, but the pronunciation cannot be prescribed, the word is spelled the same for either. Hence "an" may be seen in such phrases as "an historic", "an heroic", and yes, "an hôtel of excellence" was the by-line in an advertisement in a New York City newspaper.

Great. Now I'm confused as to what the heck the above underlined text means -- the schwa "melt[s] into the vowel"???
posted by LordSludge at 2:04 PM on June 5, 2006


Language is dictated by its speakers. I used to get upset when people used "hopefully" without a joining verb, as in "Hopefully we will reach 200 posts," instead of using it properly as an adverb, as in "I stared hopefully at the compter, silently praying for new posts." But then the meaning of the word changed.

The same happens with pronunciation and grammar. Language is a living thing.
posted by FeldBum at 2:04 PM on June 5, 2006


Irregardless, English 2.0 pwns.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:05 PM on June 5, 2006


the idea that as long as you understand what a person is saying/writing, then the communication is successful, even if something is mispronounced or ungrammatical...

I was looking for the html tags that cut the top half off of text, sorry but I couldn't find it. It's freaky, bt y cn rd txt vn f y dnt hv ll th lttrs. ndrstnd? ys. sccssfl? n.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:05 PM on June 5, 2006


It doesn't work that well though. The 'vn' threw me right out of that sentence.
posted by smackfu at 2:19 PM on June 5, 2006


Has anyone made a "Summon languagehat" card yet?

Actually, someone did, a few years ago, and it was quite beautiful [...]but alas the link broke long ago.


Well, here you go then.


posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:33 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


No one is talking about minimal comprehension. We're talking about optimal comprehension. In some situations people understand you better if you use the vernacular.
posted by argybarg at 2:34 PM on June 5, 2006


I was never taught this rule in school, but she was, explicitly, just like "a" vs. "an". She told me this "rule", I thought about it, and damned if that doesn't seem right!

See, that's because it's a real rule of English. Real rules—the kind linguists look for and collect into real grammars—are what people do without even thinking about it; they're how the language works. The kind of "rules" prescriptivists think we should follow were mostly invented in the 18th century by people who thought English grammar should be as much like Latin as possible.

gnfti: Ooh, shiny!
posted by languagehat at 2:45 PM on June 5, 2006


Real rules—the kind linguists look for and collect into real grammars—are what people do without even thinking about it; they're how the language works. The kind of "rules" prescriptivists think we should follow were mostly invented in the 18th century by people who thought English grammar should be as much like Latin as possible.

I understand the distinction you're drawing, but--as I'm sure you're aware--it isn't a hard-and-fast one. That is, there are lots of "real rules" that cease to be rules over time, just like the "artificial rules." And it's not clear to me which are really "more important." That is, a speaker who only ever pronounces "the" in one particular way will never be misunderstood, and need never produce other than an elegant, precise sentence. A speaker who futzes the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested" (to use your own example of a completely post-hoc "rule") or "infer" and "imply" (another "rule" for which there is no historical or logical warrant), actually erodes a distinction which serves a useful purpose, and makes language a less precise tool.

I think it's worth being pragmatically "prescriptivist" on those examples, because if a sufficient number of speakers maintains a distinction the power and precision of the language are correspondingly enhanced.
posted by yoink at 2:56 PM on June 5, 2006


LordSludge: thanks! I will monitor myself and others with that [real] rule in mind. If it works out, I intend to start correcting people, interrupting them if necessary, on their use of "the" and "a". Good times.
posted by Rumple at 2:56 PM on June 5, 2006


A good example, by the way, of a "rule" that is taught to second language speakers which native speakers never even stop to think about is the sequencing of adjectives. That is, if you want to describe an object as "red" and as "old," do you say "the old, red barn" or the "red, old barn." No native speaker would ever say the second, but only one in a thousand or so could say why it sounds so odd.
posted by yoink at 2:59 PM on June 5, 2006


Ooh, from that Wikipedia link, a dissertation on the word 'the'.
posted by Rumple at 3:02 PM on June 5, 2006


In some situations people understand you better if you use the vernacular.

The real problem is that my vowel-less typing might actually have succeeded as well. After all, it made the same point I might have made with a syllogistic argument structure, but it made it faster. (Except for that damn 'vn') I'm not opposed to instrumental grammar, I just want to point out that you can throw out a lot of rules if you really must. (Postcard fiction? Telegrams?) The question is always which rules to throw out when, and what justifies the insurrection. I'm of the opinion that class and culture are the too best reasons to jettison the rules, and that usually there's a class-ist or jingoist tinge to these prescriptivist callouts. (although sometimes it's an anti-bourgeois ethos and I'm guiltily sympathetic.)

I'm wondering how many dogmatic descriptivists would still feel comfortable piling-on a self-linker or a badly framed FPP? Most, I'll wager. (And rightly so!)
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:06 PM on June 5, 2006


My local newscaster reporting on 'shtreet gangs' drives me mad!

Is Sean Connery your local newscaster?

what rules, if any, govern pronunciation of the word 'the' -- that is, whether it is pronounced 'thuh' or 'thee'?

And what about the "the"s in the band name The The? Is it pronounced "thee thee," "thuh thuh," "thuh thee," or "thee thuh"?
posted by kirkaracha at 3:12 PM on June 5, 2006


Also, can we say that, no matter how descriptive our resident linguists are, there are definitely advantages (in terms of cultural capital) associated with certain forms and habits of speech? I'm thinking of the studies that show that racial stereotyping applies even if one cannot see the person. That is, racial prejudices are also tied to the inflection and syntax of black speakers.

Sure, we can say that. But we can also say that these linguistic prejudices are arbitrary and wrong-headed. And we can also tell those who are unaware of their own linguistic prejudices that they are inadvertently promoting elitist and racist attitudes when they judge people by the frequency of their shibboleths, rather than the content of their character.
posted by Bizurke at 3:32 PM on June 5, 2006


inadvertently promoting elitist and racist attitudes

ayup
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:47 PM on June 5, 2006


Does this sort of thing ever pop up in sign language?

"God, I wish Ray would stop making those sloppy "the"'s."
posted by furiousthought at 3:49 PM on June 5, 2006


I gotta go to the libary, after I do the warsh and ‘nat.

“You learn something every day.” -
posted by agregoli

Old joke: This guy looking for odd jobs knocks on someone’s door and asks him for work. The homeowner says, “Sure, just paint my porch and I’ll give you $20 and some dinner.”
So he gives the guy latex paint, rollers and brushes and sends him off to work.

About 2 hours later the guy knocks on the door and says “Well, I put two coats on and finished it with gloss,” he said. “But I gotta tell you, it’s pronounced ‘Porsche.’”
posted by Smedleyman at 3:57 PM on June 5, 2006


I was raised by an English Teacher, so maybe I'm a little biased, but...

Sure, there are variations, and language needs to evolve in order to be optimal. But the variations must deviate from something. Elster may be a prig about it, but he's laying down the conventions which make deviations remain sensical. If enough deviation may render the communication a "failure," then less deviation is required, which means that the deviations still derive from an ideal, and that ideal is probably worth knowing.

Moreover, those subsets who throw proper conventions to the wind ("Where my chillins at?" or "I'm-a kill that woman what stole my truck.") will be understood by most, while still disdained for their ignorance, no matter how subtle the disdain. To disregard the teaching (or learning) of one's native tongue is to disregard the value of education, and if you're teaching (or learning) the language than you teach (or learn) the ideal. Any variations that have any relevence will be picked up along the way. And Bizurke, while people should certainly be judged by the content of their character, if judged at all, interactions with people are a different matter, which are quickly and subliminally sized up on the basis of relative intelligence and education, and this will generally be done through Shibboleths. Those who would consciously or subconsciously judge race based upon a person's speech patterns, and then judge the person based on that assumed race, are just that - racist. But that's a very different thing from guessing at someone's intelligence and education. The ideals exist, and speaking properly exhibits an effort to have learned how to speak properly, while "improper" english shows that you don't care, which is the calling card of ignorance.

While people on this page have noted the equal communication value of patois, and jive, and chat-room dialogue - and they're right, they miss the larger point, which is that they're full of Shibboleths themselves, cultivated to form insular cultures wherin outsiders are immediately recognized. You could easily say that "proper" english is simply the vernacular of the successful, and you'd probably be right, but in a world where everyone strives for success, you should know the language to be best equipped for the journey.

Incidentally, I do think language evolution is a generally good thing. "Y'all" means something different and inexpressable from "you," but is still frowned upon because it comes from the South, and therefor must be ignorant. It's not part of "proper" english, but probably will be soon, as more and more Southerners enter the ranks of the successful and others realize it's usefullness. Similarly, "yeah," which is considered inproper and impolite by the strictest standards, has as much a purpose as "yes," being it's informal equivalent, and can express a range of communication that "yes" cannot. So evolution of language is good, and god knows it happens organically no matter how much we talk about it, but like any evolution, it happens slowly.

By the way, I was always taught in school that Clique was pronounced "click," and I've NEVER heard it pronounced differently. How are y'all saying it? Cleek? Clikwah?
posted by Navelgazer at 4:17 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Regarding the pronounciation of "the" - a professor at my university has done some research on the topic:

Thiy versus Thuh.

Studying only prepared speech can mask the role of spontaneous pronunciations in processing. Pronouncing the as thiy (instead of thuh) can indicate when an upcoming speech suspension will occur. When speakers say thiy, 81% of the time they then pause, say um or uh, repeat words, or otherwise suspend their speech; such suspensions follow thuh only 7% of the time (Fox Tree & Clark, 1997). The evidence shows that the choice between one or the other expression is a conscious one, planned in advance, and placed deliberately (Clark & Fox Tree, 2002; Fox Tree & Clark, 1997). Saying thiy instead of thuh is not a meaningless performance phenomenon.
posted by redteam at 4:43 PM on June 5, 2006


"improper" english shows that you don't care, which is the calling card of ignorance

This is an example of "the prescriptivist who seeks to preserve privilege (we speak differently and that justifies our wealth)." Thanks!
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:52 PM on June 5, 2006


languagehat: Yes, because that's how it's pronounced by the vast majority of English speakers, who don't give a fuck [...]

I think that's the real issue.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:52 PM on June 5, 2006


Navelgazer: I've been openly ridiculed for pronoucing it CLEEK. As in, "Hey, N@, say clique for us so S. can hear it!" And I refuse to change! *shakes his fist at those not raised by a francophile*

Sludge: I think by melt, they're talking about the propensity to say "uhstoric" or "uh-ih-ro-ic" (sounding out in my head) for "a historic" or "a heroic" if you pronounce a as a schwa sound rather than a long a. Since a written "a" can be read either way, the only way to prevent this from happening is to prescribe an "an".

I'd love to name my daughter "Schwa." It's such a lovely sounding word: Schwaaaaa. And, of course, I always pronounce it like I'm performing a precision Kung Fu move.

You know what bugs me? Think different. LY! DIFFERENTLY, DAMN YOU! *shakes his other fist at apple and its derivatives*
posted by Eideteker at 4:59 PM on June 5, 2006


And what about the "the"s in the band name The The? Is it pronounced "thee thee," "thuh thuh," "thuh thee," or "thee thuh"?

Thuh thuh. Obviously ;-)

(Now, if you say "thee historic", I'll haveta smack you, heh..)

I do! But the way I pronounce 'historic', the 'h' is hardly there. (Ten years of living in Scotland has made my accent turn more posh RP, less Wirral - not Scouse, oh no - and I've picked up lots of Scots vocab., word ordering and rhythms. Which puts me in the awkward position of not much liking my own accent.)

How did clique become click

Er, it didn't, did it?
posted by jack_mo at 5:09 PM on June 5, 2006


jack_mo: AmericaFilter. Here it's "click" for some reason.

As a bit of a Francophile, I tend to pronounce words that are obviously of French origin (clique being one of them) with a French accent. People think I'm being snobby, but I do it without really thinking about it -- which got me into some trouble when I was in Belle Fourche, SD (which is pronounced nothing like the way you would expect if you speak French.)
posted by malthas at 5:19 PM on June 5, 2006


"Think Different" never bothered me because the way my brain parsed it, I understood it to mean not "Think in a different manner," but "When you think of Apple, think 'Different'." As in Apple = different from the norm.

Oh, and Smedleyman? Meet RavinDave.
posted by emelenjr at 5:25 PM on June 5, 2006


On preview: malthias, ditto Coeur d'Alene, the town in Idaho. At least I was admonished for pronouncing it the way someone with a background in French would approach French words. Apparently the proper pronunciation is something resembling "core d'Elaine".
posted by emelenjr at 5:29 PM on June 5, 2006


Language sorts itself out.

My problem with this is it seems to deny the agency of individual users of a language. Yes, English is a living thing, but I'm a part of it, dammit, and I can do my part to shape it like everybody else. I view my usage of English the way I view my vote in this democracy, if that makes sense.

"click" for clique is horrendous.

You guys say "kleek?" I've never heard that before, and it sounds odd to me. Both Merrian Webster and American Heritage dictionaries list both pronunciations.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:49 PM on June 5, 2006


(Littella voice) And what's up with Brett Favre? Has no one in his family ever bothered to look at their surname??!!
posted by rob511 at 6:25 PM on June 5, 2006


Yup. Clique. Rhymes with pique. You know, as in to pique one's curiosity. Which is another word lots of people spell wrong. It's not peak.
posted by emelenjr at 6:30 PM on June 5, 2006


yoink: A speaker who futzes the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested" (to use your own example of a completely post-hoc "rule") or "infer" and "imply" (another "rule" for which there is no historical or logical warrant), actually erodes a distinction which serves a useful purpose, and makes language a less precise tool.

I realized on the drive home today that much of the prescriptivist position is driven by the romantic myth of grammar cops as the sole force standing against the forces of linguistic and cultural disintegration. And I'm torn between slapping them silly due to their ignorance of pragmatics, and thinking that we need people with delusions of grandeur.

Case in point:

That is, a speaker who only ever pronounces "the" in one particular way will never be misunderstood, and need never produce other than an elegant, precise sentence.

This is, of course, assuming that there is one pronunciation that is standardized among all English speakers across seven continents, Oceania and the Caribbean. This is not an assumption that I'm willing to make.

LordSludge: Certainly there is a need for a "common tongue" of English -- a.k.a. "Proper English" -- that is understood by most, if not all, English-speakers.

Is it certain? Part of the problem is that written English is different from spoken English. And on top of that, written English is is different from medium to medium, mode to mode, register to register. The "Proper English" used in a British academic journal is likely to be very different from the "Proper English" used in the NYT.

There is a whole other layer to the English language beyond vocabulary and grammar. In actual practice, understanding is not just a function of the speaker's attempt to compose an elegant sentence or utterance, but the process of feedback and negotiation. The failure to recognize the role of feedback and negotiation and the focus on the construction of idealized sentence forms as some kind of a magic bullet for communication reveals just how naive and shallow most of the participants here are in their understanding of their own native tongue.

linux: re "could care less." Actually, IMNSHO one of the more problematic aspects of English is the mixed standards regarding double-negatives. In most publication and formal styles double-negatives are nonsense. In many vernacular styles double-negatives are emphatic. Similar to Spanish where constructions like "I can't get no" means "I really can't get any." Personally, emphatic-negative constructions are one of the things I hope work their way into mainstream English.

Navelgazer: But the variations must deviate from something. Elster may be a prig about it, but he's laying down the conventions which make deviations remain sensical.

The question is what should be that standard? The NYT? JAMA? James Joyce? Virginia Wolf? I think the only way one can really deal with this is look at variations away from the language that is understood by the target audience.

You could easily say that "proper" english is simply the vernacular of the successful, and you'd probably be right, but in a world where everyone strives for success, you should know the language to be best equipped for the journey.

Except of course, the vernacular of science, with its preferences for passive constructions is very different from the vernacular of business. And those are very different from the varieties of news writing.

Certainly, there are common consensus elements here. But the naive and shallow claim being made here is that there are some idealized rules that if carefully followed will permit universal understanding among the hundreds (if not thousands) of linguistic communities of practice that use the English language.

When I am grading or editing a person's work, one of the things I look for is conformity to the language of the intended audience. This is f***ing hard work. Pretending that there is one idealized grammar or set of semiotic mappings gets in the way of that goal.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:31 PM on June 5, 2006


The only times I get twitchy around changes in speech are when it's a struggle to understand the speaker. Listeners, for all intensive purposes" insteadeven active listeners, shouldn't have to do all of the work of obtaining clarification while the speaker just spews.

If you say "he just axed me" when you meant "he just asked me," don't be surprised if I offer my condolences at you being fired.
posted by illiad at 6:42 PM on June 5, 2006


By god I really botched that post. Apologies. I meant to say:

The only times I get twitchy around changes in speech are when it's a struggle to understand the speaker. Listeners, even active listeners, shouldn't have to do all of the work of obtaining clarification while the speaker just spews.

If you say "he just axed me" when you meant "he just asked me," don't be surprised if I offer my condolences to you for being fired.
posted by illiad at 6:43 PM on June 5, 2006


A foreign friend of mine whose first name is Kitty is constantly frustrated by Canadian's refusal to pronounce it properly. She gets called "Kiddy" all the time.

Yah, cute kiddens, wear your middens, pass the budder. The lazy pronunciation is probably from shivering in the cold up here :D

It's kind of disturbing though that there are adults who have never heard of the original pronunciations of words such clique. I can't help grimacing when I hear someone say foy-err, or foal-aj (foliage), or pronouncing their own last name as though they have no idea of it's heritage. Luh-neer instead of Lanier? *shudder* Those are my subjective peeves at any rate.

I mean, nobody who doesn't want to come off as a pretentious ninny would say 'Paree', or 'Monn-rayal', or 'Balenthia'.

Not all english speakers live in a unilingual society, thanks. Pronouncing Montreal properly just means I live in Canada. Considering the huge amount of native Spanish speakers south of the border it would seem perfectly natural for anglos to pronounce Mexican dishes and Spanish names by their original pronunciations. That most don't is kind of weird, kind of boring.

Also it's one thing to be creative with language when you're hanging with friends or writing songs, poetry, rap, novels etc., but it's another thing altogether when you're tanking yet another job interview. My peers struggle quite a bit because they have no idea how to comport themselves in such settings, in both dress & language, but mostly language.

Having a slowly evolving sort of standard is not a bad thing, as long as it isn't used to squash creativity.
posted by zarah at 8:39 PM on June 5, 2006


What about people who use peruse when they mean browse? That's one I'm guilty of that I endeavor to change.
posted by Eideteker at 9:23 PM on June 5, 2006


Shunning. It's the only way to deal with your kind!
posted by zarah at 9:33 PM on June 5, 2006


For the record, I wasn't saying that being judged by speech patterns was a good thing, or that the priveleged should have any divine right to say, "this is how people talk." Whether that is morally correct or not (probably not) it is the way it is, and any phiosophizing on the matter isn't going to change that. Speak in whatever way makes you comfortable. Lord knows I don't speak perfectly. I'll probably never stop saying "a whole nother" and I tend to curse like a sailor, among many other things, all of which can get me some looks, but when I slip up, I don't vehemently defend myself with a "but you understood me" screed. I know that I wasn't speaking correct english, and simply choose not to care.

Language isn't innate, and it isn't instinctual. It's a human invention and as such must have governing rules in order to work. Obviously when these rules are bent the speaker may still be understood, but that's because there's an unconscious translation back to the ostensibly intended structure. If a child says "pusgetti," we may find it cute, and we'll certainly understand what they mean, but we won't be under any delusions that it is correct. And if an adult were to say it unironically, we would know in an instant what we thought of them. No one is penalized for knowing, writing, and speaking proper English, but people areknocked down a peg - however unconsciously - when they don't know it. Being that there's nothing to lose and everything to gain by speaking properly, or at least knowing how to, then why would descriptivists get so up-in-arms over a guide to proper English? What harm can it possibly do?

KirkJobSluder: There is not one singular idealized form. In fact, making that claim would logically require a universal language, which is ridiculous. Any standard will be arbitrary, be it Wolfe or Joyce or the Village Voice, but that doesn't make a standard any less necessary. MLA guidelines are as arbitrary as can be (and ever-changing so as to sell a new handbook each year) but students still refer to them in wrting their theses, because having a standard format allows for better communication. The meta-jargon grammar constructions of science, business, and headlines vary from eachother, yes, but they serve their own industry-specific purposes and are generally consistent within themselves - perfect examples of language finding the best form for its intended use. They are also variations of American Standard English, but I spoke enough about that in the above post.

anotherpanacea: They teach proper english in primary school, rather extensively as I recall. If you get out of fifth grade and can't conjugate verbs properly, that's a sign that you were uninterested in education, which is ignorant by definition. Interestingly, all the posters here arguing against a standard form are still using that form to argue against it. Why aren't you writing in the variants which would more adequately facillitate your communication?

The bottom line is that, yes, the rules are arbitrary. So is the distance between the bases on a ballfield, the base-ten system, and the number of hours in a day. That doesn't mean the rules should be ignored. Constructs allow for better freedom within them, and in ther case of language, better freedom to colorfully stray from them. Language will evolve, as it has always done, but it won't evolve from nothing. The standard will simply continue to adapt to common usage. But that doesn't make the standard useless.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:11 PM on June 5, 2006


which got me into some trouble when I was in Belle Fourche, SD (which is pronounced nothing like the way you would expect if you speak French.)

I was trapped by a broken-down car in this town, and I am Canadian.

I once got lost in a South African black township, and lived in places in SE Asia where people would touch my skin because they had never seen a real live white person person before, yet I never felt as foreign as I did in Belle Fourche.

I am an anglophone WASP who can speak a little franglais...and yeah I muffed the local lingo badly... then had a woman at some small local museum deny me entry saying the place was "closed" when a sign on the door had the hours clearly posted. The mechanic refused to accept Canadian dollars (it seemed because he couldn't figure out the conversion), or get this... or *get this* Mastercard.

So to bring this whole thread around, communication barriers can exist among people who speak the same languages.
posted by Deep Dish at 11:19 PM on June 5, 2006


Pronouncing Montreal properly
How do you pronounce "Caesar", or "Cicero", or, hey, "Wednesday"?

We pronounce foreign-captured words differently because it turns out we speak differently than the French, or the Germans, or the Italians, or the Romans, or the Greeks.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:21 PM on June 5, 2006


I think proper names should be pronounced as they are at their origin, or at least an effort should be made. Montreal should be pronounced "mon ray AL" for example. If nothing else, you'll sound more cultured than the dork over yonder who says "Tor ON tow" instead of the clearly more proper "Tranna."
posted by illiad at 12:13 AM on June 6, 2006


They teach proper english in primary school, rather extensively as I recall.

I'm guessing that's why you write the way that you do. Consider the possibility that not all educations are equally extensive, and that what is taught as 'proper' is primarily the speech habits of the primary school teacher. If he or she pronounces 'sh-treet,' then so will his or her pupils.

What you term 'ignorance' may simply be differences due to class and culture. (Have you noticed that Parisian kids say 'we' instead of 'yes'? What's up with that?) All groups 'know' their linguistic habits quite well, regardless of class or education. The effort made to force Harlem kids to speak like white people in Park Slope is just another excuse for the whites to feel superior. No one ever tests the white kids on how well they can mimic black children, do they?

Nonetheless, I recognize that white privilege allows whites to supply educational benefits and preferred jobs to a limited number of non-whites who meet whatever arbitrary standards they choose to apply. Sometimes, that standard is diction and syntax. Thus, there is some competitive advantage to speaking more like those in power than those with whom one competes. Whether that advantage, or that version of English, is 'proper' is a question of justice, not grammar. But I think the answer is 'no.'
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:45 AM on June 6, 2006


I realized on the drive home today that much of the prescriptivist position is driven by the romantic myth of grammar cops as the sole force standing against the forces of linguistic and cultural disintegration.
Offhand, Kirk, I'd say you theorized that, since I don't think it's real.

I am reminded of the Shanghai couple who stayed with us for a few months. They'd worked in Singapore for several years, and were used to Singlish. He was convinced that he could speak English well enough to get a job here (U.S.) He couldn't. Singlish is a mix of English, Mandarin, and Malay, which apparently is a very dynamic exercise of the process of feedback and negotiation. A speaker monitors his listener closely, and if he sees that his currently-used language is not understood, he repeats himself in one of the others. This supposedly takes place pretty automatically, so much so that our houseguest thought he was semi-fluent in English. He probably did almost all of his actual communication in Chinese. I could see it was frustrating for him that Americans couldn't understand him at all.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:22 AM on June 6, 2006


Navelgazer: Language isn't innate, and it isn't instinctual. It's a human invention and as such must have governing rules in order to work.

Well, this is a matter of much debate. What we know from developmental psychology is that children learn language at a surprisingly young age. By the time children get to kindergarden, they have mastered the real rules of their mother tongue. If they don't know English by the time they get into elementary school, children face some severe problems catching up. What is taught in school is not English, but the rules of more formal registers and styles of English.

Creole languages appear to be created with regular grammar by groups of children with no formal instruction in grammar. This provides some support for the claim that some forms of language use is a dynamic interplay between instinct and environment.

I don't think you really understand what the descriptivist position here really is. I don't see anybody objecting to the creation of standards. What I object to is the claims that these standards serve as anything other than guides to the language of a particular subculture. Certainly, if you want economic success in North America, being able to speak the linguistic norms of the dominant class is useful. But that does not make language more precise, more useful, more powerful, more elegant, or "more correct."

Why aren't you writing in the variants which would more adequately facillitate your communication?

Why do you think that I'm not? As someone who falls into the descriptivist camp, I see that a part of this conversation is not only a process of negotiating topic, but also negotiating language. I am using a variant of English that I've seen on metafilter many times in the past, and I'm consciously and unconsciously adapting my language to match your texts. If I was writing for a different audience, through a different medium, I'd adapt my language to match.

You ask, "What harm could it do?" Well, I think there is a huge harm in treating language as if it is just vocabulary and standardized grammar, and ignoring the functions of feedback and negotiation. If you want to be understood, you must negotiate to the linguistic norms of your audience. These are going to change depending on gender, SES, geography, age, profession and cultural identification.

What bugs is the repeated claim that if we just stick to the rules we would be understood. I find that belief to be justified only by an extremely naive and shallow understanding of language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:52 AM on June 6, 2006


Kirth Gerson: I see it in all the hand-waving about the horrors of the possible future evolution of language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:53 AM on June 6, 2006


/emelenjr - I didn’t hear the “oral sex” version of the Neil Armstrong/kid next door goes to the moon joke until I was 30. Everyone likes to tell bouncers jokes, but they all seem to tell them wrong. Bartenders get it straight for some reason. Probably because folks were drunk by the time they were talking to me.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:32 AM on June 6, 2006


Yoink: That is, a speaker who only ever pronounces "the" in one particular way will never be misunderstood, and need never produce other than an elegant, precise sentence.

KirkJobSluder:This is, of course, assuming that there is one pronunciation that is standardized among all English speakers across seven continents, Oceania and the Caribbean. This is not an assumption that I'm willing to make.


Hey, KJS--you completely misunderstood my point. The person who "pronounces it in one particular way" would be doing something "Wrong" according to normal rules of English, in which we vary our pronunciation. What I was saying was that the claim that "correctness" leads to "ease of comprehension" was incorrect. I wasn't claiming (which would seem a rather extraordinary--not to say lunatic--claim, that once you master the pronunciation of the word "the" all the other rules of grammar become child's play to you.

I realize that sites like Metafilter exist principally so that people can sneer at the foolishness of anonymous strangers, but if I'm going to be sneered at, it would be nice if it were for something I'd actually said.
posted by yoink at 9:47 AM on June 6, 2006


It's kind of disturbing though that there are adults who have never heard of the original pronunciations of words such clique.

Fo shizzle, ma nizzle.
posted by onegreeneye at 9:51 AM on June 6, 2006


yoink: A speaker who futzes the difference between "uninterested" and "disinterested" (to use your own example of a completely post-hoc "rule") or "infer" and "imply" (another "rule" for which there is no historical or logical warrant), actually erodes a distinction which serves a useful purpose, and makes language a less precise tool.

KirkJobSluder: I realized on the drive home today that much of the prescriptivist position is driven by the romantic myth of grammar cops as the sole force standing against the forces of linguistic and cultural disintegration. And I'm torn between slapping them silly due to their ignorance of pragmatics, and thinking that we need people with delusions of grandeur.


Here, at least, you're sneering at me for something that I actually did say. But is it really worth your sneer? I'm basing my argument, after all, on entirely descriptivist principles--that is, I believe that languages change, and that once they change it doesn't matter how much you rail against the barbarian hordes, the language is what the language is. But if you have a potentially useful distinction--such as infer/imply or uninterested/disinterested--why, according to those same descriptivist principles, is it "wrong" to fight to preserve it?

You broaded out my argument to suggest that it is based on the idea that language has arrived at a state of perfection, and that all change should be fought against--which would, of course, be absurd. But does the fact that language inevitably changes, and that today's "correct" English will be tomorrow's "quaint" English necessarily entail that there is never any point in arguing for the practical utility of maintaining this or that particular feature of the language? Why? And if that's so, on what basis would you ever correct anyone's usage (child, second language learner, whatever) if you had in fact understood what they meant?
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on June 6, 2006


It's kind of disturbing though that there are adults who have never heard of the original pronunciations of words such clique.

Somehow this doesn't disturb me.

But if you have a potentially useful distinction--such as infer/imply or uninterested/disinterested--why, according to those same descriptivist principles, is it "wrong" to fight to preserve it?

Heh, this is usually what I say about "indie." It doesn't work, though :(

But does the fact that language inevitably changes, and that today's "correct" English will be tomorrow's "quaint" English necessarily entail that there is never any point in arguing for the practical utility of maintaining this or that particular feature of the language?

This brings to mind another point - wouldn't it be useful for today's English to be as accessible as possible to future English users? How much more would today's students appreciate Shakespeare if the language didn't seem so impenetrable to them?
posted by ludwig_van at 10:04 AM on June 6, 2006


This brings to mind another point - wouldn't it be useful for today's English to be as accessible as possible to future English users? How much more would today's students appreciate Shakespeare if the language didn't seem so impenetrable to them?

It's an interesting question. One of the related points that I wonder about is whether mechanical recording devices will slow the rate of language change. Do enough people watch old films and old TV shows that it helps to keep certain linguistic forms "current" in a way that would not have been the case before the C20th? Would the Great Vowel Shift ever have happened if people had been listening to Chaucer on their iPods?

My suspicion is that it won't make all that much difference, given the data one sees about increasing dialect differentiation in the contemporary US. But a priori it seems like it ought to have some effect.
posted by yoink at 10:21 AM on June 6, 2006


I think proper names should be pronounced as they are at their origin, or at least an effort should be made.

You think English-speaking people should tell you of their trips to Muenchen in Deutschland or Budapest in Magyarorszag or a lovely trip all over Suomi and Norge?

Do you also think francophones should stop talking about Londres and hispanohablantes about Nueva York?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:24 AM on June 6, 2006


KirkJobSluder: there you go with naive and shallow again, describing an argument I never made in the first place. I don't think we're arguing about as much as you think we are, so maybe we can stop using eachother as straw men. Communication is, first and foremost, interaction, like you were saying, and like I was saying above. But the way that one might talk around the cracker-barrel isn't neccesarily going to help much in a job interview. The pure-descriptivist view that language is as good as the communication it allows is true in essence, but doesn't take into account the unconscious judgments made by listening for Shibboleths. (interestingly, as for the word Shibboleth, I can never be sure whether I can frame to pronounce it right.) Knowing "proper" English doesn't require that one always speak within those bounds anymore than knowing Strunk & White's Elements of Style forces one to always use active verbs. That doesn't mean they're not worth knowing. It's better to have the knowledge and not need to use it than to need to use the knowledge and not have it, is all I was saying, and so I was defending against negative claims of pedantry for laying down a guide to those rules.

anotherpanacea: I wasn't saying that it was just, quite the opposite. I was simply saying that it is how it is. My claims about ignorance may have been a little harsh, but I was mostly talking about perception anyway, and a guide that shows how to properly enunciate may help people to dispel certain judgments made about them. Again, knowing the rules doesn't hurt anybody.

But still... and I'm stepping into dangerous territory here, but have you ever met a native English speaker who couldn't speak English "properly," but showed a great propensity for, say, math or science or history or any other "learned" subject? Incorrect English tends to prop itself up mostly in areas with a bent towards anti-intellectualism. You're absolutely correct that most of these kids we're talking about already have a strike or two against them going into school, having been brought up in an environment which speaks "incorrectly" (or doesn't do much of anything to teach them rudimentary math, science, etc.) but to me having those strikes against them is the bigger injustice than people being judged about it, though neither is positive. Elster is just trying to teach, which is the solution to both problems for those who are interested in listening.

Generally, I would abide by the e.e. cummings / Robert McKee idea that one should master the rules in order to most effectively break them.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:25 AM on June 6, 2006


Navelgazer: The sentence could mean one of two things: "Incorrect English tends to prop itself up mostly in areas with a bent towards anti-intellectualism." Either intellectuals are right because they've discerned the truth, or intellectuals are right because they're in a position to define the truth. I think you need to decide whether the word 'incorrect' belongs in scare quotes or not. I notice you go back and forth. When you've settled on that point, we can talk further. (I'm using single quotes here in the typical use/mention fashion.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:19 PM on June 6, 2006


I use the word incorrect because, as far as American Standard English is concerned, the language I'm reffering to is oncorrect, even though I don't really disapprove of it, at least not as much as I might have made it seem. I use qoutes when I'm talking about the way that certain groups speak, which might be perceived as incorrect by the elite and successful even though 99.9% of English speakers probably don't speak correctly according to ASE guidelines. Again, my point isn't to disparage those who don't speak "proper" (there are those quotes again) English, but rather to admit that not doing so presents a real-world problem for them, and that prescriptivism, for all of it's philosophical fallacies, can provide a solution.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:30 PM on June 6, 2006


Standard American English from the American Heritage Dictionary.

I think we're in agreement that people with power like to use linguistic differences to justify their power. So the question is: "Do we side with the linguistic-haves or the linguistic have-nots?" Using words like 'correct' and 'proper,' and referring to people with clearly identifiable dialects as 'ignorant'... these are ways of subtly siding with the haves. (Reading back over your comments I think you're perhaps just siding with your mother.)

Better to think of 'proper English' instruction as dialect coaching, since that's what it really is. You're advocating that we turn our elementary schools into enormous acting workshops so that all the children of our nation can do funny white people accents. An amusing suggestion, I suppose, but shouldn't we be prioritizing math, science, history, and literature?

That being said, I sure would have enjoyed the opportunity to learn how to do a good Cockney. Monty Python basically ruined me for all time.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:31 AM on June 7, 2006


Better to think of 'proper English' instruction as dialect coaching, since that's what it really is. You're advocating that we turn our elementary schools into enormous acting workshops so that all the children of our nation can do funny white people accents. An amusing suggestion, I suppose, but shouldn't we be prioritizing math, science, history, and literature?

Brilliant. And yes, we should.
posted by languagehat at 5:06 AM on June 7, 2006


Better to think of 'proper English' instruction as dialect coaching, since that's what it really is. You're advocating that we turn our elementary schools into enormous acting workshops so that all the children of our nation can do funny white people accents.

That seems somehow dismissive of non-whites who are educated in English. Again, there are reasons for wanting to maintain linguistic transparency and stability besides oppressing minorities. I can't get onboard with this "stick it to the man, speak non-standard English" attitude.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:22 AM on June 7, 2006


And I don't know how you expect to prioritize math, science, history, and literature if the students don't have a solid background in the language used in those fields.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:24 AM on June 7, 2006


I was going to say something sarcastic, but Ludwig nailed it in his second comment. When I have to edit people, I sure as shit prefer dealing with those who can write in standard english.
posted by klangklangston at 6:46 AM on June 7, 2006


I may have misunderstood anotherpanacea's intentions, but I should clarify my own: I certainly don't think people should "stick it to the man, speak non-standard English" (unless that's their choice, of course, rather than the only recourse left them by a failed educational system), I think people should be taught standard English in school... but it should be viewed precisely as dialect coaching rather than as the One True Form of English and the proof of their intelligence, level of culture, all that crap. "You'd better learn this variety of English because it will get you goodies and you'll be able to lead a freer, more comfortable life if you can wield it when needed. When it's not needed, talk however you like. Different forms of English are equally valid, equally correct; it's just that this particular one is socially favored and certain people—particularly those with the power to advance or hinder your career—will look down on you if you can't use it." That's a sensible and helpful approach. "You don't use English correctly, you dumbass, and I'm going to humiliate you until you do"—that's not.
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on June 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


That just seems like overcompensating. I understand and partly buy into the descriptivist position, but I feel like people like to use it as a kind of linguistic nihilism or something.

I don't see any reason to refer to textbook-English as "dialect coaching." Standard English is not the "One True Form" and proof of intelligence, level of culture, and all that crap, and I don't recall it being presented as such in school; it's just standard English. I think the term "standard" is rather clear and accurate in this case.

Dialect:

1. A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists: Cockney is a dialect of English.
2. A variety of language that with other varieties constitutes a single language of which no single variety is standard: the dialects of Ancient Greek.

Neither of these definitions seem applicable here. Would you argue that one of them is?
posted by ludwig_van at 7:13 AM on June 7, 2006


or pronouncing their own last name as though they have no idea of it's heritage.

I've never really felt comfortable with the way I was taught to pronounce my own last name. It's Pille, and I grew up with Pill-ee. When people see it written, they pronounce it with all sorts of variants-- pile and peel being the most common, with occaisional sort-of-French peel-ay (it's really, really rare for anyone to intuitively use pill-ee; I think that using -ee for an e that ends a name might be a regional thing from eastern Nebraska, as there were several other family names in town that used the same rules-- Rogge/rogg-ee, Plugge/plug-ee, Beebe/beeb-ee -- while I don't really see that sort of thing anywhere else).

After a while, I started thinking that pill-ee sounded really ignorant and hickish (and I was sick of nobody getting it right), so I did a little digging. An uncle told me that the name came from northern Germany, with a possible spelling shift from "Pilla" and a pronunciation of "pee-lah." I was actually kind of excited about that, and thought pretty seriously of making a concerted effort to switch to the new pronunciation, both to get back to my roots (sort of-- really, I have other alleigances) and to continue to purge the Nebraska out of my speech. Then I realized that I'd feel like a total twat if I started correcting all of my friends who've gotten used to pronouncing my name a certain way for a long, long time, and that it just wasbn't worth that level of twathood.

So what I'm getting at is that sometimes you know the heritage (at least sorta), but don't feel like fighting city hall.
posted by COBRA! at 7:42 AM on June 7, 2006


sorry about the rambling post full of typos and misspellings. Still recovering from several days of 666 celebration.
posted by COBRA! at 7:43 AM on June 7, 2006


And I don't know how you expect to prioritize math, science, history, and literature if the students don't have a solid background in the language used in those fields.

I think the dispute over standard v. dialect is often about written v. oral language. At least, that's the issue in this objection. (Is that what you're referring to, ludwig_van? If so, we're in agreement. I think this statement, however, is manifestly false: "Again, there are reasons for wanting to maintain linguistic transparency and stability besides oppressing minorities." So maybe we should have that conversation instead.)

I take the bold stand that English should be taught in every school in America. :-) But that's 'textbook' instruction (i.e. literacy.) The subject of this thread is pronunciation, diction, etc. I do think it's necessary to teach middle-class 'accents' in some situations of poverty, for the purposes of class-mobility, etc. I wish it weren't.

As for literacy and composition skills, it's a different matter entirely. Certainly, all young writers start out parroting their own speaking-style as they learn to write, whatever that regional variation might be. But if they read enough, they'll develop a literate style that is mostly uninflected. That doesn't mean they need to stop saying 'ain't' or some-such. They just won't generally write it. (As others have said, there are significant 'dialects' in disciplinary writing, anyway: science v. poetry, philosophy v. history, reverse pyramid journalism v. speech-writing, etc.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:38 AM on June 7, 2006


Languagehat put it well:

"Different forms of English are equally valid, equally correct; it's just that this particular one is socially favored and certain people—particularly those with the power to advance or hinder your career—will look down on you if you can't use it."

I just think this isn't reason for celebration, but rather a dirty fact of life that we ought to oppose when we are in the position to do so (which I am, so I do.) It's not that I'm "sticking it to the man," but rather that, as someone frequently confused with 'the man,' I try not to be the sort who needs to have 'it' stuck.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:49 AM on June 7, 2006


I think this statement, however, is manifestly false: "Again, there are reasons for wanting to maintain linguistic transparency and stability besides oppressing minorities." So maybe we should have that conversation instead.)

Ok then. So you don't think that it's a worthy goal for today's English to be comprehensible to future English speakers? Or for English to be consistent in order for it to be easier to learn? Or to preserve terms/distinctions that were once meaningful and useful rather than let them become diluted and eroded away?

Note that of course I know that English is always changing (and that this is not necessarily good or bad) and is already terribly inconsistent, etc. But I don't see that as a reason to throw up our hands and give up on the above ideals.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:49 AM on June 7, 2006


Well, I recognize that those are all goals some people might take to heart. (Mostly pedants like ourselves.) But I suspect that those goals only gain credence generally because they are in line with elitist and racist goals. It's not that all prescriptivists are snooty racists, (I'm not accusing you of this, for instance) but that their fans are. Moreover, I don't believe that militant grammarians have ever had any success in the battle they are waging. Like a number of wars I could name, the War on Bad Grammar has many innocent victims, but no victories.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:20 PM on June 7, 2006


I take that back: grammar improves (i.e. becomes closer to standard) all the time. Pronunciation and diction, as the post describes, continue to evade our best attempts to enslave it. So make it the "War on Bad Diction."
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:27 PM on June 7, 2006


But it's that kind of defeatist attitude that I don't agree with. We're all participants in this big language game, not just observers. I don't see why I should just accept that I can't have any effect on the evolution of the language. Why do you think that the "war on bad diction" is completely useless? Because people will say what they want to say despite being corrected? In that case though, don't you think it's still valuable to spread knowledge? I mean, if John Doe is going to speak however he pleases regardless of anyone correcting him, isn't it still an asset for him to know about pronunciation differences and how they arise, etc.?

I don't think it always has to be about racism and elitism, or that the conclusion of this line of thinking should be to simply not bother.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:40 PM on June 7, 2006


I mean, if John Doe is going to speak however he pleases regardless of anyone correcting him, isn't it still an asset for him to know about pronunciation differences and how they arise, etc.?

Yes! I think we're on the same page here, too. Knowledge about differences is very useful. It's the whole logic of the 'correction' that bothers me. Correct my spelling, correct my sentence structure, and please please please correct my punctuation. But when somebody says to someone else, "No, it's toe-mate-oh!" they're making the assumption that their pronunciation is superior. It's not. It's just different, and maybe useful. If they said, "That's funny, where I come from, they say wah-ter, not wuh-ter," then we're talking about differences, not corrections. (Similarly, if a teacher in Harlem says, "During a job interview, you're more likely to get the job if you talk like this," [all in a supercilious Connecticut accent] then I'd approve. I use Harlem because I know the sorts of things that progressive teachers were doing in Harlem five or six years ago.)

Obviously, what I'm doing here is a sort of correction. I'm saying that it is unjust, and impolite, to correct people. But I'm doing it in the name of a recognizable principle: respect for difference. You're fighting for 'correctness,' but you have yet to articulate any reason other than speculative 'future comprehensibility.' I'm not sure that trumps justice.

The claim that white accents are right accents, which is the underlying claim of English Standard standard-bearers, is racist. But that's different from learning a number of different accents and noting that there are differences. I suspect that we are settled on this point: more knowledge is good. Why aren't white kids spending classroom time learning how to speak like black kids?

Have you seen Six Degrees of Separation? The way they treat diction in that film is exactly right; it's all about 'passing' with one group or another, not about getting it right. I think all children would enjoy a course in funny walks and 'funny' ways of talking. The way it's taught these days is pretty oppressive, all because of this prescriptive trend.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:02 PM on June 7, 2006


The claim that white accents are right accents, which is the underlying claim of English Standard standard-bearers, is racist.

I just don't see why you keep talking about a "white accent." White people have many different accents, some of which are the same as those of non-whites.

Future comprehensibility wasn't specifically an argument about diction, just language change in general.

Why aren't white kids spending classroom time learning how to speak like black kids?

That doesn't make sense to me. Plenty of white kids and black kids already talk the same way. but they're still ideally all learning the same standard English in school.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:56 PM on June 7, 2006


anotherpanacea:
You've convinced me! You're right! The only purpose of a standardized language is to oppress minorities. How could I not have seen it before?

Seriously though, it took me until your last couple of posts to realize that we were talking about two different things. I wasn't talking about accents at all but for what it's worth, I completely agree with you that we shouldn't turn our schools into giant acting workshops where we teach children how to do funny white people accents. I'll have to look back through the posts, but I don't think I mentioned accents once. I was commenting on the evolution of language and that descriptivists aren't pragmattically correct in saying that all forms of communication are equal.

Of course you're right (for real) about the accents, and I can see why you were so vehemently against me. I almost want to trot out a list of "I'm not racist" credentials, but I don't want to embarrass myself. I'll say this though - the image I had in mind of the guy who couldn't speak Standard English was a white guy. Accents are a part of regional culture and a person's accent is an - albiet superficial - part of who they are. ASE, however, is free to all who live in America, and is within anyone's capabilites to learn. It's anyone's right to choose not to, of course, but considering that ASE is the language of all further education, to live in English-speaking America and not learn it is to say that education isn't important. That's ignorant, and has nothing at all to do with race.

I agree with you that people will grow up immersed in different dialects, and so learning ASE will be more of a challenge for some than for others, but I disagree that those kids who didn't grow up around it shouldn't be expected to learn and use it in school, and even more so that they might be incapable of doing so. I'm dyslexic, but I was still able to learn how to read, and I'm sure as hell glad that nobody thought it unrealistic to expect me to read. These kids are in school five days a week learning this stuff from age 5 on - they can learn. Hell, if we started teaching foriegn languages at that age every twelve-year-old in America would be bi-lingual. The problem isn't the language of their environment, but the anti-intellectual attitude of their environment (and low-funded, crumbling, prison-like schools and other socioeconomic factors, etc.) You can unlearn bad grammar, but not if your niche of society is constantly telling you not to.

I've worked extensively with a brilliant, black, freelance IT guy who lives in the Bronx. He had to take out a P.O. Box in lower Manhattan before anyone would hire him, because nobody though a guy from the Bronx could handler IT. That's racism. Preserving a standard form of English is not. Holding the children of the poor and uneducated to lower standards than the children of the wealthy is classist, no matter how well intentioned. Asking that all kids learn (generally) the same rules of grammar, syntax, etc. so that they'll all have the same opportunities for further education is not.

Languagehat: Different forms of English are equally valid, equally correct; it's just that this particular one is socially favored and certain people—particularly those with the power to advance or hinder your career—will look down on you if you can't use it.

This makes me wonder, since language is a social tool, doesn't social favorability actually determine the correct form by default?
posted by Navelgazer at 2:05 PM on June 7, 2006 [1 favorite]


since language is a social tool, doesn't social favorability actually determine the correct form by default?

Yes, absolutely. Every "standard" dialect is that way because some elite stratum of speakers favored it. What's amusing (I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused) is that to insiders, the favored dialect seems obviously, inherently clearer, neater, more comprehensible, just plain superior... but to someone who grew up with another language and hasn't been indoctrinated, it doesn't sound that way at all. I much prefer the sound of Viennese German, for instance, to Standard High German (which I believe was originally used pretty much only in the theater), but to speakers of SHG it sounds bumpkinish—sort of the way Southern English sounds to people from New England.

Once more: I have no problem with people being taught ASE for the obvious practical reasons; I do have a problem with other forms of English being marginalized and treated as signs of deficient culture and intelligence. Find some other way to pat yourselves on the back, you snob. (Not talking to anyone in particular, just that straw man in the back!)
posted by languagehat at 3:42 PM on June 7, 2006


Well then... agreed.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:58 PM on June 7, 2006


I just don't see why you keep talking about a "white accent." White people have many different accents, some of which are the same as those of non-whites.

Because I got tired of typing "the accent of the white, college-educated, upwardly mobile professional class." Seriously: just a shortcut. Everything you say about race is true, except that our prejudices tell us that poor white people have 'sweet southern drawls,' and poor black people have 'dirty mouths.'
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:37 AM on June 8, 2006


For the record, the correct pronounciation of 'signal' is "ZEE-gh'g-NU!AHL", where "!" is the bushman click thingie, naturally.
posted by signal at 5:33 PM on June 8, 2006


"I much prefer the sound of Viennese German, for instance, to Standard High German (which I believe was originally used pretty much only in the theater), but to speakers of SHG it sounds bumpkinish—sort of the way Southern English sounds to people from New England."

Heh. My family comes from the Northwest of Prussia (some of it Poland now), and I felt a weird pressure to learn German as my foreign language. When I did, I got the very explicit message from my family that Bavarish was for retards and hillbillies. I know that it's an irrational feeling, but the sound of Austrians (or Swiss, for that matter) speaking German raises my hackles.
Part of it is probably because I don't have a command of it, especially not the way that I do with Southern English. With SE, I can drop it in an' out intentionally, usually for a more "friendly" tone of voice (people tend to give you a better price when haggling too).
But you really prefer Erdapfel to Kartofflen?
posted by klangklangston at 8:03 AM on June 9, 2006


Well, as long as you know it's irrational!

Erdapfel/Kartoffel is pretty much a wash, but I do like Grüss Gott.
posted by languagehat at 10:14 AM on June 9, 2006


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