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Special lunchtime lecture: Pre-University College presentations

On the fourteenth of December a special edition of the Codifiers’ monthly lunchtime lectures took place. During this meeting the Pre-University College students who worked on research projects with members of the Codifiers’ project presented their results to each other, the project members and a number of invited guests.

The results were presented in English, making use of powerpoint presentations, in a setting, but also with a quality of research which made the meeting feel like a genuine mini-conference. The listeners were provided with fresh ideas on research topics from all corners of the project members’ expertise: Heidi Aho’s presentation was on descriptive elements concerning the strong verb in eighteenth-century grammars, Duygu Yilmaz and Suzan Enzerink presented an analysis of the letter-writing habits of Lindley Murray and the hazardous postal system in eighteenth-century England, and Sara van Goozen and Annemarie Rullens presented their case study on the progressive in Horace Walpole and his correspondents’ language in light of the Social Network Model.

The lunchtime lecture presentations provided a fitting finale to an inspiring project, both for the students ("there’s more to studying than just medicine and law!" one student said she had discovered) and for the researchers involved.


Prescriptive grammar lesson

On Language Log a comic was posted recently which depicts a grammar lesson. It struck me particularly since the grammatical shibboleths discussed in the comic can all be found in the grammatical tradition of the Late Modern English period. We see double negation, irregular use of perfect and simple past forms in the strong verb paradigm (see Oldireva-Gustafson 2002, Lass 1994 and Cheshire 1994 (these last two can be found in Stein & Tieken 1994)) and also irregular pronomonal usage (see, for example, Tieken 1994, also in Stein & Tieken 1994). 

It is also interesting to see the teacher utter sentiments about the link between social and linguistic insecurity which is likely to have been a major drive for the popularity of the normative grammars in the Late Modern English period.


For Better or Worse, 22 april 2007

On Language Log, Heidi Harley’s commentary on this comic illustrates how prescriptivist attitudes can arouse strong feelings about what ‘Grammar’ is, and about how to deal with the grammatical tradition which grew from the time of the Codifiers.

She calls the comic "a prescriptivist nightmare, framed in the normative language of correctness and error, perpetuating the notion that there is such a thing as ‘good grammar’ that is ‘difficult to learn’". What discourages her most is "the idea that, for 99.99% of the educated American public, this is what ‘grammar’ is: a laundry list of half-remembered strictures against certain forms and usages, understood as commandments from on high about How To Do Right, not even dignified with a discussion of what the proscribed forms and usages actually are, grammatically speaking". She argues that "[t]his stuff is not ‘English Grammar’. At best, it’s lessons in (Standard American) English Deportment and Etiquette. It is really, really demoralizing that almost nobody out there knows the difference."

It is interesting for us, who study the prescriptivist and normative tradition, to see how the definition of what ‘grammar’ is apparently still varies between different groups of people: there are the "99,99% of the educated American public" who apparently (and according to Harley wrongly?) see ‘grammar’ in the sense it had in the normative tradition as prescription of ‘correct usage’, versus the modern linguist’s idea of descriptive grammar.

N.B. I am not in any way claiming that either view of grammar is right or better, or even that the views of grammar are as irreconcilable as is popularly assumed. My point is that it is interesting to see differing concepts of grammar pop-up over the internet also with reference to popular culture.

Descriptivism and change from below on Language Log

Browsing the website Language Log, I recently encountered the discussion of a phenomenon where constructions such as "still unwrapped" are used with the intended meaning of "not yet unwrapped". This discussion may serve to illustrate some interesting points concerning opinions on language descriptivist vs. prescriptivist attitudes and change from below.

Geoff Nunberg notes the usage in this post and wonders why this "glaring error" goes so easily unnoticed and Mark Liberman notes that the usage is widespread in this post, calling the incorrect usage "disturbingly natural". 

Nunberg then goes on to explain that OED’s Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer have pointed out that the usage is "extremely common" also in other sources than the internet. Ben zimmer apparently displays a descriptivist attitude in noting to Nunberg: "How many examples would you need to see before considering this to be a legitimate usage?" However, Nunberg does not agree: "’legitimate’ comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one". Moreover, it is his "contention that few if any people are actually willing to stand up and defend their use of unpacked to mean ununpacked once the apparent illogicality of the construction is made clear. Note that by "apparent illogicality", I don’t mean according to the pseudo-logic that prescriptivists invoke to justify their condemnations of double negation and the like; this one is clearly inconsistent with the morphological rules of the speakers’ own grammars, unless they’re willing to countenance it as an idiosyncratic exception".

The descriptivist vs. prescriptivist point of view pertaining this "mistake" is taken up by the authors of Language Hat and commented on by Nunberg  in a post titled, interestingly "The condescension of descriptivism". Nunberg summarises the argument posed by language hat as follows:

Language hat argues that "the usage shouldn’t be ruled out as "a part of English" just because people who use the construction generally renounce it once its apparent illogicality is pointed out to them: "People who think language should be a certain way even though it’s not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it’s wrong, I won’t do it again…" You can’t depend on users’ judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I’ve seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is ‘(still) packed"".

Nunberg, of course, disagrees and states that "It goes without saying that a comprehensive description of English should take note of this curious use of unpacked. But there are ways of doing this without seeming to recognize it as a fully naturalized citizen of English — that’s why we have usage notes, after all. Let’s not be so quick to throw out native speakers’ Sprachegefuehl. They have the sense they were born with."

From this discussion, it becomes clear that the tension between language description and language prescription, or rather, that which is perceived as incorrect language use, is as alive as ever…

Almost a year later the discussion is picked up again by language log when Liberman  notes a widespread usage of "still un-x-ed" constructions. Importantly, Liberman notes that, "One of the most interesting things about this usage is how widespread it is, even among excellent writers; how hard it is for readers to notice any problem with it; and yet, how often people conclude that it’s a mistake when it’s pointed out to them, even though there is no hectoring by "language mavens" on the question". 

The still un-x-ed construction is apparently an unaccepted construction, which is in widespread use, nonetheless. This construction (and other constructions with a non-negative use of the un-prefix) may perhaps serve to illustrate language change from below (remember how Language Log’s Mark Liberman identified it as feeling "disturbingly natural". It may also be interesting to see the influence of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist attitudes towards language in how widespread and accepted this use of un- may become. 

Guest Lecture Prof. Robert Darnton: A Report

On June 14th Professor Robert Darnton gave a guest lecture at the University of Utrecht, titled “Mlle Bonafon and the Private Life of Louis XV: Communication Networks in 18th-Century France”, which was announced on this weblog as well. I attended this lecture, and although it was very much focused on the (book)historical practice of the “libelle” and  “chronique scandaleuse”, some points were made that may be relevant or at least interesting from the point of view of socio-historical linguistics  and especially social network analysis.

In eighteenth-century France, with its widespread state censorship, people turned to alternative sources for news. News was in fact spread mainly through lower class women, servants, who went door-to-door to collect news and gossip for their mistresses, who then talked together about this news in their salons. News in eighteenth-century France can be thought of as spreading through social networks by means of what can be said to be peripheral members of these networks and was then spread by the early adopter, the central member of the network cluster, in her salon, to the other network members.

Lacking official news sources (the state-approved newspapers did not print any news worth talking about, nor did the newspapers printed abroad for the illegal French market) eighteenth-century French people got the news from what prof. Darnton termed public noise. Eighteenth-century scandalous publications (romans-a-clef and other censored books) and the public noise worked to reinforce each other. Gossip and popular literature at that time did not reveal what was actually happening, but what people perceived to be true. In a way eighteenth-century pre-revolutionary works can be said to be more than an accumulation of anecdotes; these publications are part of a greater narrative in which the texts can be seen as manifestations of the (discourse) community of eighteenth-century France.