Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Minor Musings About Language Use

Language evolves; that fact is not news.  This Gary Gutting post in the New York Times "The Stone" provides a good reminder.
Debates about linguistic norms typically set traditionalists against revisionists. The two sides are particularly entrenched because each is rooted in a fundamental truth: the traditionalists are right that the rules are the rules (for instance, pronouns do need to agree in number with their referents), and the revisionists are right that language does change over time (nouns can come to be used as verbs).
Gutting's conclusion, however, goes far beyond the obvious.

The pure traditionalist and pure revisionist positions are both oblivious to what is at stake in arguments over language. The traditionalists claim they are just asking us to play by the rules of the game; revisionists say they are just asking us to accept the fact that language is always changing. But both sides ignore the profound consequences of how we speak.

Language usage is and should be a battleground. Our task is to make the conflict fruitful. To do this, we need to understand what precisely is at issue in any particular dispute. Does a new locution advance or retard our power to express our ideas effectively? Is the issue primarily one of different aesthetic sensibilities? Or is our argument over language rooted in deeper disagreements over who we are and how we should live? Once we understand what is really at stake, we may be able to learn much through arguing about language.
I tend to believe that language arguments are the "deeper disagreements," and that STEM can never adequately deal with the questions about "who we are" and "how we should live."

The cynic in me frequently wonders if Governor Daugaard's or Arne Duncan's emphasis on STEM isn't a concerted effort to distract people from contemplating deeper questions.

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