« Baltimore, my Baltimore | Main | More on the difficult craft »

Language is fine; people are the problem

David Bentley Hart has returned to the issues over which he and I disagreed a couple of weeks ago to clarify a couple of points about his views on language.

The first: “My column was just an elaborate flippancy, but it did express certain convictions regarding language that I truly hold. …” I believe that that is exactly what Arrant Pedantry and I understood him to be saying. It is gratifying to know that we were in agreement after all.

Dr. Hart then contrasts the viewpoint of the prescriptivist and the descriptivist: “The prescriptivist believes clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness need to be defended against the leveling drabness of mass culture; the describer believes words are primarily vehicles of communicative intention, whose ‘proper’ connotations are communally determined. The one finds authority in the aristocratic and long-attested, the other finds it in the demotic and current. The one sees language as a precious cultural inheritance, the other sees it as the commonest social coin. The one worries about the continuity of literature, traditions, and the consensus of the learned; the other consults newspapers, daily transactions, and the consent of the people.”

I think that Dr. Hart is spot on in his description of the hard-core prescriptivist, because Those People, Queen’s English Society pretenders and the like, talk about themselves as an embattled aristocracy attempting to keep the fabric of the language from being spattered by the rabble.

But loath as I am to suggest that an eminent theologian and scholar of Orthodox Christianity might be given to loading the dice, his portrait of the descriptivist doesn’t match any of the descriptivists I’ve met. Imagine the response, for example, if you were to describe Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum’s prose as drab and demotic. Or to suggest that Ben Zimmer’s lively accounts of the language are “the commonest social coin.”

It might be well to keep in mind that the demotic is where new things bubble up in language, many of which come in time to be adopted by the aristocracy, which otherwise grows a little inbred and attenuated.

But really, the jaw-dropping part of this latest essay comes with his insistence that the “analytic, lexically antinomian line is that, in themselves, words mean nothing; persons use them as instruments to mean this or that. But, conversely, persons can mean only what they have the words to say, and so the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean. Hence, ‘prescriptivism,’ however hopeless it is, has a rational and moral worth that ‘descriptivism’ lacks.”

A specific example of where this preposterous attitude leads? Transpire “does not mean ‘occur,’ no matter how many persons use it that way.”

Yes. His own words, directly transcribed.

It is neither rational nor moral to suggest that words have some—let me risk lifting a word from Dr. Hart’s field—ousia or Platonic essence. Words mean only what people choose them to mean. That is precisely why nice no longer means “lewd.” Transpire came to mean something in English beyond its roots in Latin, from “giving off breath or vapor” to “coming to light.” And it is increasingly in use meaning “occur.” Over time, the vulgar, who created English in the first place, have their way.

But let’s keep our heads. These transformations do not mean that Dr. Hart and his fellow patricians are at risk of being carried off in a tumbril, or should be.

What it does mean is that there is a place—even at those dreadful demotic newspapers—for reasonable prescriptivists who take some trouble to understand what linguists are actually saying and who attempt to make informed judgments about which distinctions are worth preserving and which are decaying into shibboleths.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (14)


Or maybe he was joking again.

What's so irritating about this attitude (well, everything about it is irritating, but one thing in particular) is the position that to be prescriptivist is to be in favor of "clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness" whereas, by process of elimination, to be descriptivist is to somehow not be for those things. It's the same sort of spin that extremists put on terms like "patriotic," where by their very definition, someone who does not agree with them entirely cannot be that thing. The vulgate, no matter how unstandard it may be per Hart, is perfectly capable of all of these things. As linguists like to point out, the human language has not yet been found that is not capable of subtlety, precision, blah-blah, all those things that Hart et al. seem to believe is expressible only in their chosen and stridently defended dialect.. More than one scholar has noted that supposedly substandard dialects can express grammatical nuance that is not in fact built into standard English.

And it once again sets up the straw man of the "anything goes" descriptivist, which simply underscores that Hart and his ilk _do not understand_ what linguists do.

It's a kind of language colonialism, in which the light of civilized speech must be brought to the primitive savages and their heathen gruntings, their pagan ways converted to the worship of the One True Language.

Yes, the demotic can be messy, but one cannot call it drab, by any means.

I believe Lewis Carroll had some relevant things to say about what words mean.

I just read a column in the Times by Frank Bruni in which he underscored the hypocrisy of politicians who always claim that they run for office based on a "higher calling," and never for the perks of office. It reminds me of the basic aim of the prescriptivists; let's keep the language pure - that way we'll recognize each other when the room fills up with rabble. Language rises from the people, not from the aristos who decree speech by fiat. The prescriptivist credo, to paraphrase Orwell, is that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Except of course Hart clearly says the whole distinction in such extreme terms is nonsense. He definitely doesn't give any encouragement to the patrician business. His only argument, to the degree it's serious at all, is that prescriptivism is a necessary and honorable sort of labor, trying to keep the channels of communication open as wide, across space and time, as possible, by creating a standard written language that allows us to mean what we say and to be understood. David Foster Wallace says the same thing, even more comically, in the essay linked to the Hart column.

It's instructive to see that McIntyre thinks one of the extremes Hart describes is an accurate representation of a real group of people while the other is not. Hart sees them both as biased exaggerations. So it looks to me like Hart is more moderate than McIntyre on these points.

He's also right that "transcribe" doesn't mean "occur," at least in the sense that Hart clearly gives to "mean." As he says, it's an esthetic thing. Among those who agree with Hart on that point are Saul Bellow, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and Anthony Powell. And, yeah, I think those writers should be taken more seriously than daily newspapers.

What I really don't get is why McIntyre is so self-righteous about articles that aren't self-righteous at all, but a lot of fun. I guess DF Wallace was right about the language wars. C'mon, man, lighten up. The rest of us get the jokes, why don't you? This should be an enjoyable debate, not an occasion for preaching. Hart goes for laughs and McIntyre goes for the throat.

Well, of course Dr Hart doesn't suggest that descriptivists write in drab and demotic language, so your Pullum exclamation is a little naughty, Mr McI. But is does raise an interesting point. Why is it that the written language of educated prescriptivists and educated descriptivists is to the naked eye indistinguishable? Can it be that the whole battle is in fact a sham? Well, yes, it can. Although no doubt there are sound economic reasons for continuing it.

Paige, you are correct that "transcribe" doesn't mean "occur," but the word under discussion was, I believe, "transpire."

If ardent prescriptivists want to be taken seriously, they should write like Chaucer. Or to put this in language they should understand clearly, gif brandháte prescriptionists behéfþa béon ágéaton genéahra, hit sy gebeterunga ádihtan swá Chaucer.

They should also remember that all words are made up words. Not a one came to us any other way.

Cheers (or wistfullnessa),

Yes, I realize I suggested Chaucer but then wrote in Old English (rather than Chaucer's Middle English vernacular). Serious prescriptionists will catch this. If they don't, they're rank amateurs.

Quite an amateur myself,

Paige, we're evidently reading with two different sets of spectacles! For one thing, you see humor where, let's just say, I don't. (Though the David Foster Wallace piece is perhaps my favorite thing he ever wrote.) De gustibus and all that.
Of greater weight, you say that D.B. Hart describes both groups as biased exaggerations. In those descriptions, though, I find a bias loud and clear. I think he's smart enough to know that he is loading the dice; and it's the one he intends as positive that Mr. McIntyre holds up as describing reality.
The unfairness is in the original, not in the unpacking of it here, or so say I.
(My Captcha word is COMMENT. Why, yes, thank you, I will!)

Right, sorry about saying "transcribe" rather than "transpire."

Dear Carolyn, if you look at Hart's descriptions, the dice look loaded only if you yourself share one of those biased perspectives. But Hart openly admits which side he's on, to the degree there is a side. The problem is that Mr. McIntyre hasn't bothered to convey the actual argument he makes. Anyway, since Hart is one of those philosophers who's also a philologist, he's probably debating a completely different set of issues than McIntyre is debating. I'm not sure there's an actual interesting argument here at all.

I'd have been willing to give Dr. Hart the benefit of the doubt that he was merely caricaturizing two extreme positions, but then, in his own person, he made that extraordinary remark that prescriptivism is more rational and moral than descriptivism. I'm not sure that "preposterous" is adequate to describe it.

"Hence, ‘prescriptivism,’ however hopeless it is, has a rational and moral worth that ‘descriptivism’ lacks."

Oh, that Dr. Hart. What a cut-up! And so bold in his humor. Who else uses the words "rational" and 'moral" so jocularly? He slays me!


A perceptive comment:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected