Monday, 10 June 2013

On the priority of speech over writing.

An Oxford English academic has implored pedants to be more relaxed about written English. "Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?" asked Simon Horobin at the Hay Festival, to gasps of shock, before arguing that "there", "they're" and "their" could be spelt in the same way, and that "thru" and "lite" were perfectly acceptable.
I've had some interesting comments about this article.
1) "Because it changes the meaning of what we're saying, that's why it matters."
2) "The trouble is, there is no "motivation" (in the Saussurean sense) to spelling these three words the same way as to do so is for the only reason that they sound similar. That is a reason of laziness, not efficiency. To spell them the same will erode the differentiation of meaning between those words."
3) "Just because Londoners assimilate pronunciations doesn't mean their sloppy English should be forced on everyone else. Samuel Johnson, who standardised English spelling, had Scottish friends, and very much reflected their pronunciation; outside of Glasgow they speak English far more as it is spelt than the English themselves do."
4) "There is an ethical dimension to this in that the lowest common denominator of laziness must be forced on everyone else. We dont force everyone to dress in piss stained clothes just because some people are happy to wear them. We don't legalise assault because some people like to attack others."
5) "I find this of deep concern - the point of standardisation is communication. Yes, it does matter. Yes, it should be taught and yes, the errors should be pointed out! Our language would soon deteriorate into sloppiness and actually morph into another language. That would be a huge divider in society - there is nothing equalising about this! I seem to be a proud pedant!"
6) "The English language has and always will evolve and change to reflect common usage. If the generation coming moves away from certain well tried practices currently in use then that will be the English of the future"
7) "But that is no reason to permit negative changes without resistance. If English is allowed to degenerate to a degree that diminishes its utility as a medium of communication, it will shortly after become another extinct language."
8) "Yes, language evolves, but evolution of a language works to ease communication. The complications which arise from sloppy English do not do this. Misplaced apostrophes and incorrect variances of certain words are a world away from the morphing of 'all right' into 'alright' etc. over time."
What do I think? I approach all discussions of language from the point of view of a linguist, which is to say that there is no "wrong" language as such, just language. I prefer my own language to follow what might be termed traditional norms, and I can't actually see anyone trying to force any others upon me. I don't see that argument makes any sense.
I think there is a difference between being inconsistent, i.e. sometimes using "it's" or "its" because you can't remember, and the changing of a language, which can evolve gradually, or quickly.
American English is a mix of archaism (words which have not evolved much since the 17th century, e.g. "candy" which was replaced in Uk English with "sweet"), and the movement for spelling reform, which means we have "color", and "z" instead of "s" in a number of words. You might sympathise or sympathize with these changes! The dipthong has all but left words, archaeology still uses it, encyclopedia rarely does.
But sloppy English - to use this adjective - has always been with us - if you read the 17th century diaries of Parson Woodforde, for example, there is a huge amount of inconsistency, and this is an educated man who had been to Oxford. And spellings are often appreciably different from today, hence "rosted duck" rather than "roasted duck".
The sharp focus on standardisation of English came later in the 19th century, when the grammar was modelled on Latin - hence the stupid "no split infinitives" rule which doesn't make any sense in English, and is impossible in Latin.  As Steven Pinker notes:
"The scandal of the language mavens began in the eighteenth century. The London dialect had become an important world language, and scholars began to criticize it as they would any institution, in part to question the authority of the aristocracy. Latin was considered the language of enlightenment and was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. The period also saw unprecedented social mobility, and anyone who wanted to distinguish himself as cultivated had to master the best version of English. These trends created a demand for handbooks and style manuals, which were soon shaped by market forces: the manuals tried to outdo one another by including greater numbers of increasingly fastidious rules that no refined person could afford to ignore. Most of the hobgoblins of prescriptive grammar (don't split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition) can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads."
Students of the original manuscripts of Shakespeare (or Shakespear etc) know that spelling was wholly inconsistent back then as well. Basically language was written for the most part - as if it would be read out loud - which made spelling much lower importance. Once printing and newspapers came along, and really churned out stuff, it was bound to be more uniform.
A comparative development can be seen with time, which was standardised with the railways. Before then, different parts of the country had differing times. As English was standardised, regional variations went, so that "I don't no anything" became the norm, and "I don't no nothing" dropped out; French, however, still retains the double negative - ne pas.
As linguist Steven Pinker notes:
"The so-called "double negative," far from being a corruption, was the norm in Chaucer's Middle English, and negation in standard French, as in "Je ne sais pas" where "ne" and "pas" are both negative, is a familiar contemporary example."
Returning to the loss of the apostrophe, it is notable that the standardisation is in fact a very recent invention. As the linguist David Crystal notes - commenting on "Waterstone's has decided to become Waterstones"
"The apostrophe was one of the last punctuation features to come into English orthography, and it has never settled down. In writing from around Shakespeare's time we see people beginning to experiment with it. It's used to show a missing letter and to mark posssession, but it's also used for plurals and third person singulars in verbs. In the first printing of his plays we find such spellings as fellow's, how fare's my lord, and dilemma's."
"Even as late as Dr Johnson, in the 18th century, the system was still developing. There are no longer any plural apostrophes after a consonant, but there are several after nouns ending in -o or -a. In his dictionary we find him allowing such spellings as grotto's, innuendo's, and echo's as well as comma's, opera's, and toga's."
"In the 19th century, printers attempted to standardize the system, but they didn't do it very well. They applied the rule about possession rigorously to nouns, but forgot about pronouns, so that his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs don't have an apostrophe, even though they do express possession. They banned the apostrophe from plurals, but allowed a number of exceptions, such as after numerals (the 1860's), abbreviations (the VIP's), and individual letters (P's and Q's)."
We tend to prioritise the written word over the expense of the spoken, but the written language is and always has been secondary to the spoken word, from the inception of language in our evolutionary history. As Chomsky has demonstrated, there's something almost hard-wired about spoken language, so that we pick it up as we grow without needing to hear all the permutations, and we learn extremely rapidly how to speak, generating sentences that have never been heard before.
The written language is an evolutionary latecomer, and is a means of transcribing what we say into symbols which we can read to generate the spoken language. This is why the sloppy use of language in terms of spelling or apostrophe continues, because with the exception of punctuation - comma, fullstop etc - the symbols even when spelt in non-standard ways will still generate the same spoken language.
To take up the argument that -"To spell them the same will erode the differentiation of meaning between those words." - this cannot be the case when the sentences are spoken out loud. So how do we really differentiate "it's" and "its"? We do so by context when the sentence is spoken, and that is exactly how we do it when the two are confused in written language.
When a sentence in "proper English" reads the same way as one with errors, we have a situation where both sets of symbols map onto the same spoken sentence, so in terms of understanding, there is no incentive for that degree of precision. That is why the fight against sloppy English is certainly one which will be lost, and today's sloppy English will become tomorrow's standard.
Punctuation should be used to facilitate the spoken word, to allow pauses, and to ensure that meaning is correct. The well known sentence - "King Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off" - illustrates why we need punctuation, in order to prevent misinterpretation, and to reflect the pauses in speech. The best way, therefore, to ensure a good working use of punctuation, is to read a text out loud. Rule book prescriptions are the worst possible way to do this. It is notable that C.S. Lewis got his students to read their papers to him, and, indeed, when he met with the Inklings, they would read what they had written out loud. This prevents convoluted sentences - unless, perhaps, you are a politician or Sir Humphrey Appleby.
It is interesting how sloppy English, which has always been with us, is seen as "degeneration".  The arguments which came from the Facebook discussion argued that this would be bad if it prevented communication. But it is spoken English which is the primary means of communication. As long as it is easy for us to translate the symbols into spoken language, this will not prevent communication. And in fact, we can do much better than that. Can you read: this?
"If olny taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pcleas, the rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm"
Now most English is not constructed out of garbled sentences like this, and yet we can understand this sentence, which breaks all the rules of spelling deliberately. The ability to decode a language should make us think twice about any arguments that the pretty trivial sloppy written English of today will somehow cause English to be so degenerate that it becomes unusable. Jarion Lanier said
"My hypothesis is that even a tiny amount of the mysterious element we call 'context' can correct even very high levels of scrambling."
Nevertheless, I would not like to read even an entire Enid Blyton book in garbled sentences, as the decoding, while possible, would be tiring. The same can be said of sloppy English; the greater the degree of sloppiness, the more effort it may take to read. That is probably the best argument for keeping language less sloppy, in that the writer is providing an easier and more fluent means of communication, in which stopping every so often to decode from context is needed less.

No comments: