Language Wars

I was struck by a comment to a post a while back on Cognitive Daily:

It’s “DOES the use of hand gestures.” Please, pay attention; grammar matters. “The use of hand gestures” is the subject, and it is singular.

Grammar matters?

A certain segment of the population gets very worked up about “correct usage” of language. As a scientist, I understand the difference between “standard” and “non-standard” language, and why one might care, as an educator, about the standard. Language is most useful when everybody understands one another (cf The Tower of Babel). This is why the standardization of spelling was such an important — and relatively recent — achievement.

However, the people who say, “pay attention; grammar matters” seem to be concerned with something else entirely. I can’t say for sure what this poster cared about, but most that I know believe that without proper language, one cannot have proper thoughts. Thus, if we could make everybody produce perfectly-diagrammable sentences, everyone would finally think right, too.

To actually prove this contention, you would have to do a controlled experiment. Find two people who speak with “poor” grammar and have similarly sloppy thinking, teach one the correct grammar, and see if that person now thinks more clearly than the uneducated speaker.

To the best of my knowledge, no such experiment has been done — no doubt partly because scientists seem to as a group reject such thinking altogether. For one thing, you would have to define “correct grammar,” which is a priori impossible to do. The only known way to determine if a sentence is grammatical is to querry a native speaker of a language. That’s it. There are no other methods.

So, now suppose we have two people (for instance, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) who disagree as to whether a sentence is grammatical. How do we decide between the two of them? Typically, most people for whatever reason side with the wealthier and more politically powerful of the two (in this case, Henry Higgins).

That doesn’t sound very democratic. So we could take a poll. Typically, you’ll find that one judgment is more common than another. But now we have only defined a standard: not necessarily a “correct” judgment. Moreover, these differences in judgments often vary as a function of where you live. As I understand it, there are parts of the South where most people will agree that you simply can’t refer to a group of people as “you” — “y’all” is the correct term.

A war of words
If it is the case that there is no evidence that “correct grammar” helps people think more correctly, and that this is because there is no such thing as correct grammar — and I assure you, there isn’t — then why do people get so hung up on it?

First, you might answer that most people live their lives just fine without ever thinking about correct and incorrect grammar. I suspect that is false. Much hay has been made about Palin’s “mangling” of the English language, some of which is valid, but much of which is due to the fact that she speaks with a nonstandard dialect. It has been remarked by more than one Southerner that Yankees think they are dumb just because of their accent. If you’ve never done this, then I ask you, have you really never assumed someone with a West Virginian accent was dumb? If you haven’t, then at least accept that even babies prefer people who speak with the local standard accent (note that somewhat older children may actually prefer a person with a locally high-status accent rather than their own accent).

I’ve heard it claimed that wars have been fought over linguistic differences, but I couldn’t think of any obvious examples (please comment away if you have one). Still, I think the evidence is compelling that people really, really care about accent and language use, and this goes beyond a belief in the empirical claim that right language leads to right thoughts. This runs deeper. Hopefully we will some day understand why.

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15 thoughts on “Language Wars”

  1. What I finds me self ‘specially hilarious, speakin of the way them folks likes to speaks, is a ubiquitous phenomenon which, parenthetically and quixotically counter to the claimed intended socio-evolutionary function and communicational intent and purpose, becomes as experientially evident as a truckload of bullfrogs the second they sets themselves to writing some bit of ‘a-ca-demic’ readin’.

    I mean, really: when otherwise perfectly conversant people begin to write journal papers (and to some extent business proposals) who exactly are they talking to that they should suddenly being to talk in that very opaque and stilted way? And if it is to be so ‘effective’, then how do we explain the Good Dr. Fox?

    I think the answer may be “Whatever it takes to sway the listener,” which, if I remember correctly, was the conclusion of some research reported here earlier; we speak to bend others to our notion, that’s the bottom line. If that means using one style vs another, then so be it if that’s what it takes to ‘win’.

    There was an informal survey done some years back by the early Blogerati asking the journalists among them whether they used the same language style in their blogs as in their respective journals (some academic, some media) and why that might be. All of them confessed adhering to unspoken rules for each forum; none of them could explain those rules, or explain why they should be important.

    So you see (and Grammar fans do take special note) it cannot be about an abstract “clarity of ideas” because the syntax rules change with the context of the communication and that there should be such a strong peer-pressure to keep the status quo is, I think, a very interesting question.

  2. You misspelled query. A query is a question, a querry is a groom.

    The other problem with your whole argument is that it assumes that every grammar mistake is a reflection of dialect instead of an actual violation of rules the writer knows and normally uses. This is demonstrably not the case, and I would argue that when those mistakes occur, they not only make the sentence confusing for the reader, they reflect a level of confusion on the writer’s part, *especially* when an individual’s spoken grammar is standard but his or her written grammar is not. When someone uses the same grammar in written and spoken English, *that* is a reflection of dialect.

  3. …and your whole argument is built up on that misapprehension. Additionally, entire swaths of the discipline of linguistics is built up on the premise that language shapes your thinking; it’s called the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.

    The key is not what set of rules you are using (that’s dialect, and while it’s not arbitrary there is no one version that is more correct than another) but your level of SELF-AWARENESS about those rules and therefore your ability to reflect and express yourself clearly.

  4. Saying that someone doesn’t “think right” because they speak or write using incorrect grammar is like saying that they don’t “think right” because they speak or write in a foreign language that you don’t understand. Grammar is not about how you think; it’s about being able to clearly communicate whatever it is that you’re thinking. If you speak and write sentences with good — not necessarily perfect, just good — grammatical structure, you have a much better chance of communicating your intention, and a better chance that your audience will put effort into thinking about your message, than if they have to pore and puzzle over your words just to attempt to figure out what you were trying to say.

  5. You are mixing up two totally different things: grammar and accent.

    Let’s start with the easy stuff: Grammar is what you say and accent is how you say it.

    Palin’s accent didn’t cause many people to think she is stupid. Her incoherent word salad of streaming nonsense sentences without any subject, object or complete thought–now, that is what made people think she is stupid.

    And yes, ignorant people will always get hung up on regional accents, but just pat those people on the head and them them to hush up.

    As for grammar, it is important. Yes, it is fluid and yes, people will disagree. However, there is still a solid core of grammar that is absolutely necessary for humans to understand one another. Not using correct grammar reduces your credibility and your ability to be understood. Good grammar supports superior communication.

    If you closed your eyes and didn’t get dazzled by Palin’s lipstick, but only listened to her talk, you would 1. understand the importance of grammar and 2. never vote for her ever, for anything, not even dog catcher.

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