prescriptivism, conventions, irony, and could(n't) care less

Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Wed Jan 31 14:04:41 UTC 2001

--On Wednesday, January 31, 2001 8:35 am -0500 Herb Stahlke
> Just before the Christmas break, the ATEG list had a longish
> discussion of prescriptivism.  These are largely college and high
> school grammar teachers, many of them linguistically trained and
> aware of the issues.  A point widely held among them is that,
> while it's very important for students to master prescriptive
> rules and write accordingly, the rules themselves should be
> recognized as the social norms they are, rather like table manners
> and dress codes.  My students respond well to this analogy.  It
> allows us to talk about the rules and see where they don't make
> sense linguistically at the same time as we are observing language
> use at multiple social levels and in different dialect contexts.
> Students tend to be pretty bright about this.  The hard part is
> getting them to see the relevance of in-depth study of the
> structure of English.

yes, this is the position that I was trying to express with the discussion
of 'arbitrary cultural conventions'.

> As to "Ya done good," there is a long history in English of
> adjectives and adverbs having the same form.  This is clearly true
> today of "fast"
> Don't walk so fast.

Yes, but 'fast' has long been considered to be an adverb in its own right,
in the UK as well as the US.   I agree with my British interlocutors that
you often hear adjectives doing adverbial work in US English--but that
their evidence is 'ya done good' makes me think that they're
misinterpreting a set phrase with some humorous affect (that UK English
doesn't have) as a part of a more general pseudo-standard pattern that they
therefore interpret to be foreign to UK English.  I'm neither convinced
that 'ya done good' is only found in adv/adj-conflating varieties, nor that
adjectives-as-adverbs are unheard of in UK non-standard dialects (which my
interlocutors seemed to be claiming--that it's only Americans who would say
things like "I walked slow" or "I feel good").  Certainly, the pattern of
adj-to-adv is not so widespread as one of my more American-disparaging
acquaintances would have it--I can't imagine anyone saying "I can't come,


M Lynne Murphy
Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

phone +44-(0)1273-678844
fax   +44-(0)1273-671320

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