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Language Criticism and the Usage Panel The role of language criticism in a multicultural society.

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Presentation on theme: "Language Criticism and the Usage Panel The role of language criticism in a multicultural society."— Presentation transcript:

1 Language Criticism and the Usage Panel The role of language criticism in a multicultural society

2 Todays Questions What is the social context of conservative language criticism? What do we learn from a longitudinal study of a dictionarys usage panel?

3 Language Criticism in History In every age, language criticism has been concerned with issues that in retrospect often seem incomprehensibly trivial. G. Nunberg Selected issues of eighteenth-century language critics: Jonathan Swift, British author: mob (mobile vulgus), pozz (positive) Jonathan Swift Samuel Johnson, British lexicographer: eccentric (meaning odd) Samuel Johnson Noah Webster, American lexicographer: British spellings, e.g., honour and theatre Noah Webster Benjamin Franklin, American statesman, linguist: notice (as a verb)

4 Language Changes Shakespearean English Don Pedro: Runs not this speech like iron through your blood? Claudio: I have drunk poison while he uttered it. (Much Ado, Act 5, Scene 1) Innovations may disappear or they may become respectable. This is language change. Language change cannot be halted.

5 So why Study Language Criticism? Uninteresting issue The particular usages that critics object to. Interesting issues The social issues symbolically at stake. The kinds of arguments that the critics use.

6 Social Issues in Language Criticism Usages are linked to social groups. Swift disliked words used by the idle aristocracy. Webster disliked conformity to the British model. Generally, critics ignore substandard usages of traditionally recognized oppressed groups.

7 Usage Criticism often Targets Social Groups Psychobabble. Own your feelings. Passive-aggressive. Project. Process. In a good space. Vent.Work through your issues. Youth speak. I just spaced it. Really. Hes like, Oh my God. You know? Politically correct speak. Differently abled. The prison community. Eurocentric.

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11 Arguments about Usage Traditional language criticism assumes a shared conception of intellect. Thinking about grammar had some intellectual merit. John Stuart Mill: the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

12 The Decline of Grammar Nunberg: If we are bent on finding a decline in standards, the place to look is not in the language itself but in the way it is talked about. An example. Agreement between a pronoun and anyone, each person. Everyone should take his/their test.

13 H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1st edition, 1926) Each and the rest are singular; that is undisputed; in a perfect language there would exist pronouns and possessives that were of as doubtful gender as they, and yet were, like them, singular; i.e., it would have words meaning himself-or-herself or his-or-her [...] We lack the power of saying in one word his- or-her. There are three makeshifts: A, as anybody can see for himself or herself; B, as anybody can see for themselves, and C, as anybody can see for himself. No one who can help it chooses A [...] it is so clumsy as to be ridiculous [...] B is the popular solution. It sets the literary mans teeth on edge [...] C is here recommended. It involves the convention that where the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important, he and his shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man.

14 The Harbrace College Handbook (1950s) In formal English, use a singular pronoun to refer to such antecedents as anyone, someone and nobody. In informal English, plural pronouns are occasionally used to refer to such words.

15 No one Finds Grammar Interesting anymore Nunberg: The point of traditional grammar was to demonstrate a way of thinking about grammatical problems that encouraged thoughtful attention to language, not to canonize a set of arbitrary rules and strictures.

16 Grammar as an Old-Fashioned Pursuit Good grammar becomes one of many values that liberal America has forsaken. Grammar is viewed as something that schools used to teach, along with moral values, etc. Grammar becomes identified with conservative politics.

17 Grammar and Conservatism The fact that some people are too thickheaded to grasp, for example, that anyone is singular, as the one in it plainly denotes, does not oblige those who know better to tolerate anyone may do as they please [...] And dont let fanatical feminists convince you that it must be as he or she pleases, which is clumsy and usually serves no other purpose than that of placating the kind of extremist who does not deserve to be placated. John Simon

18 What is the function of a dictionary? dictionary Users of monolingual dictionaries are highly literate, and seek guidance in verbal self- presentation.monolingual dictionaries literate l Flaunt vs. flout, disinterested vs. uninterested, hark back vs. harken back? l What does nonplussed mean? l What does internecine mean? l How does one pronounce hegemony? l Should I say a person like me or a person such as myself?

19 The Usage Panel In 1968, the American Heritage Dictionary hires 175 writers, scholars, public figures to rule on disputed usages.175 writers, scholars, public figures to rule on disputed usages In 1988, Nunberg asks them to rule on many of these usages again. He also asks them some new questions.

20 The Results Did the panel become more permissive? Yes and no. Their responses differed according to whether they were thinking about traditional usage concerns or usage issues inspired by political ideology.

21 Usage Recommendations Based on Latin Etymology Anxious for eager (angare to press tightly) 1968: 23% 1988: 52% Aggravating for irritating (adgravare to make worse) 1968: 43% 1988: 71% Transpire for occur (transpirare to breath across) 1968: 38% 1988: 58%

22 Latin Etymology Issues (contd) Cohort for companion (cohors a group) 1968: 31% 1988: 71% Decimate for slaughter the majority of (decimare to kill one in ten) 1968: 26% 1988: 66%

23 Has our Panel Simply Become more Permissive? The answer is not that simple. The panel is still strict on certain issues: 4Disinterested for uninterested. Most Americans are disinterested in politics. 1968: 7% 1988: 11% 4Hopefully as a sentence adverb. Hopefully, we will not have to leave early. 1968: 44% 1988: 27%

24 Why is the Panel Giving up on Latin then? The diminished relevance and authority of Latin and Greek, and of western civilization, as a shared cultural context. Etymology can help us figure out what a word means, but not what the word should mean.

25 The Panel Applies some Rules Mechanistically They occasionally hypercorrect: Splitting an infinitive. (to boldly go) It appears that much of my life as a journalist has been devoted to sedulously setting off firecrackers. Acceptable to 28% Modifying an absolute property (very false) The American Constitution is still nearly unique in that it offers no self-destruct mechanism. Acceptable to 28%

26 Rigid Adherence to Traditional Norms Theres not much intellectual merit in many of the questions that the panel is considering. When they consider the usage issues, the panelists make comments like, The shade of Sister Petra sits watch over this one.

27 What do the Usage Critics really Care about? They put thought into questions involving feminist usage issues. These questions were new in These questions involved: tThe feminine suffix -ess tThe use of the masculine pronoun as a generic pronoun

28 The Feminine Suffix -ess When the ambassadress arrives, please show her to my office. women: 13% men: 28% Mary is such a charming hostess that her parties always go off smoothly. women: 74% men: 92% His only hope now is to marry an heiress. women: 92% men: 95% Mr. Bhuttos daughter and political heiress, Benazir Bhutto, returned to Pakistan in April. women: 28% men: 37%

29 Fill in the Blank: Which Pronoun? A writer who draws upon personal experience for____material should not be surprised if reviewers seize on that fact. his: 50% other singular (e.g., his/her): 48% their: 2% A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of____income can be prosecuted under the new law. his: 46% other singular (e.g., his/her): 53% their: 1%

30 Pronouns A patient who doesnt accurately report_____sexual history to the physician runs a risk of misdiagnosis. his: 37% other singular (e.g., his/her): 61% their: 2% A child who wants to become a doctor should be encouraged by___ parents and teachers. his: 36% other singular (e.g., his/her): 60% their: 2% Conclusion. Where a gender bias is possible, the neutral form is used.

31 Conclusions The feminist program has [...] succeeded, in that it has forced most literate speakers to reflect on the way in which usage might reinforce gender stereotypes. (Nunberg) There is no longer a shared conception of literacy or culture. We live in a socially and culturally fragmented society.

32 Conclusions Public discourse is now about the competing needs and rights of social groups. Radical language criticism targets usage that is perceived as perpetuating negative attitudes toward traditionally recognized oppressed groups. The politically correct usage program is the only form of language criticism that is meaningful today. When we talk about p.c. usage issues, were talking about vital social concerns.


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