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The reformed grammar Nazi speaks

Language prescriptivism (or "grammar Nazism," as it's more commonly known) is one of my flash points. I do not for a moment believe that "kids these days" are ruining the language by their "lazy" texting, tweeting, and other shortcuts, and I rouse myself to the defense of both the kids and the language whenever my friends start grumbling in this fashion. But I wasn't always so enlightened.

I used to be a grammar Nazi/language bigot/whatever our term is, of the worst, snottiest kind. It was studying linguistics (ironically, some people would think, but not true linguists) that turned me around. So I bring it up to show that one can change!

I know grammar Nazism is based in a worry that people are losing the ability to use language in all its possible ways, or that the language is about to die of multiple stab wounds or something, but that just never, ever happens to languages. They don't die from being well used and experimented with. They only die from being *not* used. An adverb suffix or lack thereof, or "who" vs. "whom," is a tiny matter. And as for spelling, that isn't even really language; it's writing, which is a pale reflection of speech, which IS language.

As linguist Steven Pinker puts it, "In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. And likewise, the prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way."

So don't worry about English, folks. She's survived lots worse.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2014 02:13 am (UTC)
Yes. I agree.

However, I can't help but feel sad when certain delicious words with rich meanings are hollowed out and gain weaker, more generic meanings. A case in point would be "decimate." Originally, it was an intensely cruel military punishment where ten men in a unit would be forced to agree upon which of them they would have to kill.

The current definition doesn't even retain the 10% bit of the prefix. Instead, it means to destroy most of something.

I think languages lose something when this kind of treatment happens to a word.

Then again, we gain new words all the time, I suppose. Great words like "selfie." Yay.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 30th, 2014 03:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, "selfie" is really just an abbreviation of "self-portrait," which maybe sounded lame way back in Leonardo da Vinci's day or whenever it was first coined. :)

Actually, over time, some words take on a more generic meaning and some take on a more specific meaning. They can go either way. I would require a lot of time and research, equating to an additional term paper in semantics, to give sufficient examples. But I would agree that the newest of neologisms are usually referencing something very specific, which there was a perceived need to name.

Edited at 2014-10-30 03:50 pm (UTC)
Oct. 30th, 2014 03:43 pm (UTC)
It's natural to notice and regret the usages that we've lost, or that are now slipping; or slang we can't stand. It's a normal human habit. But by doing so, I think we're applying a mental filter and only noticing negatives. Lots of felicitous new words and phrases have been invented in the last century or so, and fit so perfectly that they slipped right into our lexicon and haven't seemed out of place ever since, so we don't think about how they're recent. Google "words coined by writers" for examples--for instance, "chortle" from "Jabberwocky" to name just one--and I'm sure if I spent way too long with a dictionary, I could compile a long list of others.

I would say "decimate" came to mean "destroy all but roughly 10% of something" because humans felt more need for a verb that said that than for a verb that described a very specific military punishment that (thankfully!!) isn't used much anymore. (As far as I know. I hope...)

As for "selfie" and other slang, I wouldn't worry. Slang is incredibly short-lived as language changes go. The great majority of slang terms don't last a decade. Only a few slip through and hang on (like "cool" and, apparently "awesome"). So either the terms that bug us will die soon, or we'll get used to them and stop noticing them.
Oct. 30th, 2014 07:59 pm (UTC)
I actually have been confused by modern uses of decimate. I remember hearing a radio program discussing a salmon disease. They said it had decimated stocks. I thought, "Whoa. 10% was killed off. That's pretty bad."

It ended up being considerably worse than a 10% kill-off, so I severely underestimated the damage based on the word use.

I have no issue with confabulated words and names. My issue is with words having unintentionally ambiguous meaning.
Oct. 31st, 2014 03:33 am (UTC)
True, there's usually an awkward phase during which some confusion may result because some people mean a word a new way, and others are still taking it the old way. But it will likely shake out to a commonly understood meaning that almost no one will misunderstand anymore, after a while. How long, I am not sure. Yet another term paper's amount of research required for that answer. :)
Oct. 30th, 2014 03:28 am (UTC)
Yeah, every time I start to complain about how my nephew uses "epic", I have to remind myself what my generation did to "awesome".

The watering-down of some words makes me sad. The use of textspeak has its place and, though I'm not really fond of it, I know that. I know it will be a long time coming before any respected university will accept a proper academic paper that has "ur" instead of "your" (unless it's a direct quotation, etc.).

Ultimately, I think every generation goes through this. They think the generation before them left them a steaming pile of debt, etc., and that the generation after doesn't appreciate how good they have it.
Oct. 30th, 2014 03:46 pm (UTC)
Yep, there are apparently "kids these days" laments written in Latin from first-century Rome. I'm not even exaggerating. It's being going on a while. :)

We notice the watering-down because it makes us sad, but in doing so, we're failing to notice the lovely and harmonious innovations that have cropped up in language. There are lots of recent usages and phrases that the language is richer for, and it's a shame that people don't give those credit, and instead spend all their time bemoaning the few changes they don't like.
Nov. 2nd, 2014 12:40 am (UTC)
It amazes me how I can love some of the changes and hate others, and there's really no logic to it. For some reason, I've grown to love "feels" (ALL THE FEELS!) because it's somehow like... a positive version of "overwhelmed". On the other hand, every time I see an article about a "life hack", I want to scream No! That's ADVICE! It's freaking ADVICE!

I wish the complainers would realize that realistically, a lot of the "new words" and such gradually die off as quickly as they came. Sure, "bootylicious" got in the dictionary--but I doubt it'll still be there in twenty years. Something else will be added, and that'll be one that's quietly shuffled off.
Nov. 4th, 2014 02:56 am (UTC)
Haha--I'm not in the habit of using "life hack" and hadn't thought about it, but you're right, it's a pretty unnecessary phrase. But I do like "bromance," and "because [X]" as shorthand for a larger explanation, and other innovations.

And those we don't like, yeah, they'll either go away soon anyway, or they'll stick around but we'll stop noticing them because we'll get used to them. So, no worries.
Nov. 7th, 2014 01:13 am (UTC)
I always wonder how slang develops in other languages, especially ones that have noun endings and such. Language is a such an amazing thing. Whenever people ask "What superpower would you want?", my answer is always something like "Complete language fluency" and they think that's boring. Plllbbbttt. They just lack imagination. ;)
Nov. 8th, 2014 04:56 pm (UTC)
Getting a Babelfish ear (and tongue) would be a great superpower! I should have thought of that when the hypothetical question comes up. Perhaps now I will.
Nov. 8th, 2014 04:32 pm (UTC)
I am a language Quiet Judger. Grammar, vocabulary, and diction, spoken or typed, can reveal a lot about a person's education and cultural values, and in certain contexts their work ethic as well. This is useful information, so long live dialects.
Nov. 8th, 2014 05:03 pm (UTC)
I think everyone's at least a quiet judger (if not a louder one). And that's perfectly fair, since we do have to pick up as many clues as we can in order to function socially. Indeed, language habits and choices can give us a glimpse of whether people have wise judgement as to the appropriate thing to write/say in a certain context. That may be more a personality issue than a linguistic one, but it does involve the linguistic area of "registers," the different speech styles we all possess for use in different circumstances. Using the inappropriate register, like talking at a job interview the way you'd talk with your friends at a bar, usually would indicate poor judgement skills. :)
Jan. 17th, 2015 07:47 pm (UTC)

Kids nowadays are lazy!

Back in the old days we invented words like:


The Illusionist
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )