Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Language matters

StraightMan was devasted by the following post on The Chicago Manual of Style's Facebook wall:

CMOS 16 Sneak Peek: In author-date citations in reference lists, put article titles in quotation marks and use headline capitalization. With this change, the two systems of Chicago documentation (author-date and notes-bibliography) become easier to learn and use, since the stylings of elements will be the same in both systems. Only the order of the elements varies, as before.

In fact, he just had spent part of his morning "fixing" the citations in an article that he has been writing. We have a CMOS 15 on our shelf. The purchase of which we invested $55 during the writing of my dissertation. It is a little disconcerting to think that it might be obsolete: I thought good style never went out of fashion?


Is it just me or does there seem to be a growing interest in linguistic concerns? Arguably, language and all its uses and effects matter all the more with the use of technologies and social media, like the Internet and Facebook. The fact that the folks at CMOS are hip on Facebook seems to prove this point. Also, the point that a lot of people who engage in writing for at least some part of their day are spending too much time on Facebook - 9,508 people "like" CMOS.

In addition to the revival of the On Language column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, a blog on language has been introduced on The Economist's Web site. It is called "Johnson," which no doubt causes much snickering in certain quarters, but which the blogger helpfully reminds us is named for dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson. Were The Economist based in the U.S., it might have been called "Webster." (See above.) I esp. like Johnson's reaction to Sarah Palin's "refudiation" of critics of her inventing the term "refudiate."

Much as I enjoy them, however, these erudite essays cannot be all there is to press coverage of language matters.

Language is the news. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, the need for Arabic specialists was much discussed - the college where I teach is in the process now of developing a minor in Arabic, which students themselves are demanding. The proposition to make English the nation's "official" language has been afoot for some time, but there seems to be renewed attention to the English-only movement, esp. with anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona.

A critical point that I tried to make in my linguistic anthropology class is that no language is inherently better or worse than any other for human communication: French is not more beautiful than German. Arabic and Chinese are not in any objective sense the hardest to learn in the world. The dominance of English results not from some kind of linguistic superiority - for example, it is argued that it is more efficient and therefore a better language for science and technology - but from processes of standardization and planning, which continue today.

It is interesting to consider how the "policing" of language works. It is for this reason that I feel as half-hearted about so much talk about Palin or George W. Bush before her: You say plain talk, I say linguistic gaffe. Is plain talk really plain? Or is it the appearance of being plain? Who among us does not commit such gaffes? Can a person's proper or improper use of language really tell us all that about him or her? What is proper and improper use of language in the first place?

More important, what are the stakes involved here? Now we have ventured into assumptions about what language is all about - and they need to be examined.

I wonder whether or not leaving language matters in the hands of the pointy heads in fact might trivialize their significance and more importantly, deflect attention from the consequences for We the People in our everyday lives.

There seems to be a need today for linguistic journalism, along the lines of science journalism, to help interpret what everyone is talking about, from so-called political correctness to Palinisms and back again.


On a related note, Lexington's column in the July 15th issue of The Economist offers the immodest proposal of banning the use of "great" and "exceptional" (and their variants) in political speeches in the U.S.:

Just think what a relief it will be, once Lexington’s ban comes into force, to be able to debate the role of government on its merits, without bringing providence into it.

The ban will also liberate America’s politicians to speak like normal people. At present, failing to lard their speeches with God and greatness can get them into serious trouble.

For me, another reason to like Lexington - aside from the quaint and lovely practice of having an individual assume the column's identity (versus the column assuming an individual's identity - is his? / her? assessment of David Brooks, a columnist whom I love to dislike:

In 1997 David Brooks, writing then for the Weekly Standard and now at the New York Times, wrote an essay called “A Return to National Greatness”, complaining that America had abandoned high public aspiration and become preoccupied with “the narrower concerns of private life”. It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, Mr Brooks said, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness”.

If that was ever good advice, it is rotten advice now. Americans are not unhappy because they lack an energetic government; many think Mr Obama’s administration too energetic by half. The last thing the country needs is to be distracted from its practical problems by the quest for an elusive greatness. Put such language away, says Lexington. America is indeed a great and exceptional country. But it isn’t talking about it that makes it so.

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