Steven Pinker recently released a salvo against The New Yorker, following Joan Acocella's piece on "proper" language usage. I appreciated Pinker's rebuttal, because I have a reflexive distaste for the insular, middle-length thinking that magazine inculcates in its readers, and because, more than anything, I can't stand language prigs—whether they’re lambasting each other over misperceived errors regarding the plural of "vinyl" or one-upping each other in the quest for stylistic purity by avoiding the prepositions with which the rest of us end sentences.
Why? Because, frankly, they’re wrong.
Pinker’s issue with The New Yorker concerns a supposed opposition between “descriptivists” and “prescriptivists”: respectively, those who think the best way to understand language is with descriptions of how it is actually spoken, and those who want to fathom the real laws of language and judge existing speech or writing accordingly. This opposition is old as the hills and, like many such conceptions, it isn’t really accurate. Nowadays in linguistic studies, things are not so dichotomous. This makes sense: in order to suss out formal rules, you need to approach the seething linguistic morass that gurgles outta people’s throats, and in order to describe how that morass functions in life, you outline patterns that, like it or not, regulate the way words work. And most people who actually delve into language are not so cavalier about claiming to know the final truth about the right stylings of linguistic awesome.
The thing is, Pinker errs in his endorsement of a "standard English." What would that be, anyway? The difficulty with his position reveals itself when he likens “conventions” such as standardized weights and measures to the tacit rules that govern expression within a community. Take, for instance, this analogy encouraging “standard” usage:
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong withain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.
See: there is nothing inherently wrong with either, but we would be poorly advising people if we told them that they could drive on the left in the States. It'd lead to horrific collisions, or at least make road-texting that much harder. Sad.
Problem is, this isn't really apt. Manners of speaking reside far deeper in our psyches, constitute much more of our identities, than familiarity with driving on the left or right side of a strip of asphalt. They constitute our very capacity for describing ourselves, our lusts, aspirations, sexual fantasies, fealties, and relation to the divine. (Intimate things, those.) Nor is language learning managed by the ISO, or other bodies that govern the “conventions” to which Pinker compares standard English; there have been no agreements about what words should be said to infants, and in which order, and it’s unlikely there will be. Hence, the way we speak isn't a practice that can be instrumentalized like driving within a territory—though perhaps children shouldn’t get a speaker’s permit until they turn 15, and only after a bleak, Red Asphalt-style course on hurried sentences and the influence of alcohol on utterance.
Somehow I don’t think that’s likely scenario. And somehow I don't think hearing ain't used in a sentence causes many semis to swerve into oncoming traffic.
Watch this space next week for Part 2 of "Describing Your Prescriptivism."
Image: Planet of the Apes