Thursday, March 01, 2007

Two Geoffreys on the English Language

Geoffrey Pullum: "I want to confess to a straightforward idiosyncratic personal linguistic preference — an aesthetic judgment, if you want to call it that. At the end I draw out a lesson from it. The confession is this: I simply hate the term person of color (along with its standard pluralization, people of color). I have never used it, and I never will. They can't make me."

Geoffrey Nunberg: "Most of my fellow linguists, in fact, would say that it is absurd even to talk about a language changing for the better or the worse. When you have the historical picture before you, and can see how Indo-European gradually slipped into Germanic, Germanic into Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon into the English of Chaucer, then Shakespeare, and then Henry James, the process of linguistic change seems as ineluctable and impersonal as continental drift. From this Olympian point of view, not even the Norman invasion had much of an effect on the structure of the language, and all the tirades of all the grammarians since the Renaissance sound like the prattlings of landscape gardeners who hope by frantic efforts to keep Alaska from bumping into Asia."


monkey said...

Jee Leong, I'm happy that you posted links to these excellent pieces by linguists. (Pullum is co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log.) But I wish you wouldn't pull the most provocative three sentences out of Pullum's post without context or comment. His real point is this:

"When we argue against prescriptive grammar here on Language Log, we are not saying people shouldn't have strong likes or dislikes on matters of English usage. We are saying those likes and dislikes should not be confused with objective facts of correctness, and they should not be taught to schoolchildren as if they were facts."

Were you trying to test your readers to see if anyone would fly into a rage without reading to the end of the post?

Greg said...

Jee Leong, I love that Nunberg quote--it gives a great bit of accuracy & perspective about language. & it's interesting to think of it together with the Pullum. Thanks.
Also, I find that both quotes work quite nicely just as you've posted them.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi monkey,
thanks for giving Pullum's publications, to establish the fact that he is no wacko. Pullum introduces his essay with that provocative statement I have quoted. I guess the writer in him thinks that the provocation is a good hook; I follow his lead.

Hi Greg,
I'm glad you find the links useful.

Jee Leong

monkey said...

Thanks, Greg and Jee Leong, for your thoughts. I'd like to share a couple things to add some context for anyone following this discussion.

Jee Leong, Greg, and I are all good friends, and I gave Jee Leong the Pullum and Nunberg links. Jee Leong and I have talked about these issues in person, so nothing I say in this post will be new to him.

Pullum and Nunberg are both contributors to Language Log, a great blog that I hope people will take a look at. Pullum has written many hilarious posts debunking prescriptivist attitudes toward language. He wrote his post "People of Color" for an audience that (1) already knows he's a descriptivist, (2) has an interest in linguistics, and (3) is likely to read to the end of the post. And he began the post with these words:

"I want to confess to a straightforward idiosyncratic personal linguistic preference — an aesthetic judgment, if you want to call it that. At the end I draw out a lesson from it."

As Jee Leong quoted them, Pullum and Nunberg may appear to be in opposition, with Pullum representing the conservative/prescriptivist view and Nunberg the liberal/descriptivist view. In fact, they are kindred spirits. If anything, my impression is that Nunberg is slightly more conservative.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear monkey,
thanks for providing all the context that I failed to provide. You did all the hard work. I'm going to add to the post the opening words you quoted.

Jee Leong