Friday, March 3, 2017

A Bit on the Ethics and Aesthethics of Prescriptivist Thought

This is a response to a thing written maybe two years ago in a facebook group; I hope whoever wrote it has forgotten about it and does not feel harassed or pointed out. This post has been a very long time in the works, and while I could come up with better examples, more in-depth explanations etc, I think I will just call it a day for this one by now. Indented text are quotes, all the rest is my own writing.Finally, I did ask for permission to repost this and comment to it, but I don't even remember who wrote the original text. No malice intended.
I think I've finally managed to put my finger on what exactly bothers me about language evolution, particularly of my native language. It's not the fact that languages change, period, that gets on my nerves; I accept without grievance the fact that the present is ephemeral and all things must change - and I would be proud of contributing to a shared achievement of our species that continued to grow in complexity, nuance, or efficiency.
This is a nice onset. Of course, the context in which it was posted puts some limitations on it: facebook comments and statuses and 'posts' don't really provide a venue for any depth. So, I'll point out a few things I find missing this far: metrics for complexity, nuance and efficiency.

Complexity itself is not an obvious concept here: complexity for complexity's sake is often among the most wasteful things imaginable, and therefore at odds with another desideratum: efficiency. What is complexity supposed to mean? Let us imagine a rule that says that words that begin in clusters cannot be preceded by the preposition 'for', but need to be preceded by the preposition 'otaque'. This would increase complexity without making the language any more expressive. Complexity is anything that increases the amount of data needed to describe the language's workings.

Further, we can come up with quite different metrics for the other thing I mentioned, viz. efficiency: the most important are probably precision in expression, data compression, noise tolerance, effort for the brain etc

Turns out these are somewhat incompatible too: more compression / shorter exponents for information leads to less noise tolerance. Greater precision leads to greater effort for the brain.
It's the fact that it doesn't do that, at all. The principle of least effort predicts that almost invariably, the people who will end up being vindicated by evolution are the majority, the people who put the least pride into how they speak and typically carry the least amount of linguistic knowledge. It's demagoguery, but made inevitable not through governmental decree but by the core tenets of human social behavior.
Given the quality of governmental decrees throughout history, I think we should be happy it's not for the government to decide on what your language is supposed to be like. Let us give an example of an inconsistent ruling given by a language academy, viz. the Swedish Academy. Much like some flavours of prescriptivist English, the Swedish Academy frowned on 'better than me'-style constructions. The justification was that 'it is a shortened form of 'better than I am', and thus calls for the nominative rather than the accusative form. However, the Swedish Academy permitted the use of reflexive possessive pronouns in that position, e.g. 'better than her own sister'. Here's the kicker: you can't under any circumstance have a noun phrase with her own as its possessor be a subject in Swedish, so clearly the Academy were either unaware of their own failure to be consistent or they didn't care that their explanation was mistaken.

Yet that particular alleged grammatical error was often used by teachers to harass kids in school, or by people who felt they spoke "better" than others to illustrate that they indeed were better. In many things, pride often precludes clear thinking. And language is one of the fields in which pride both precludes clear thinking and becomes a whip with which to punish those you don't approve of. (And often, those are of social classes who just don't have the time to invest to learn this things, nor would get any actual tangible benefits from investing it.)

The linguistic systems that have been formalized as Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Finnish, Russian, etc, are in part of course inventions of a few scholars - but the bulk of them are the results of undirected linguistic evolution! Not a bad day's work done by random drift in a speaker community. Most of what those scholars did was just analyze what random drift had come up with.

These people whose linguistic knowledge is being put down by the poster to whom I am responding, are also among those who need language as a tool in their daily life, and they are representatives of the kind of hardware that needs to be able to interact with it - their brains contain the heuristics that sample the string of phonemes and do crazy good reconstructions of the underlying sentence that only sometimes get it wrong – and they adjust to whether they're often misunderstood or they often are met with the reaction 'oh you misheard' by adding redundant information that helps in recovering the message; and thanks to the magic of evolutionary design methods, this takes their brains' limitations with regards to memory and speed, their own limitations with regards to time they have at their disposal to invest in learning additional vocabulary and additional grammatical quirks to satisfy upper middle class wankers' linguistic aesthethics, et.c. into account. Luckily, most won't even desire to suck up to upper middle class wankers, thus prioritizing the other desiderata higher than the satisfaction of those upper middle class wankers.
I guess that's why I've always been, to my own occasional chagrin, more into engineered languages than ones designed to resemble natlangs, which - while I continue to have a lot of fun with - I ultimately only enjoy to the extent that they let us break human convention, not imitate it.
Anyway, rant over, I understand I'm being a pretentious ass, yada yada yada, we all get to have one thing we're like that over, mine's language. Just thought I'd share.

Yes, you are being a pretentious ass, but I also think you're being an ignorant ass, which in my view of things is worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment