Herb Stahlke hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 3 23:15:00 UTC 2009

Just a couple of quibbles with Jonathan's eminently sensible and
well-argued posting.

The split infinitive was not one of those 18th c. Latinate
prohibitions.  David Mulroy notes in his The War against Grammar
(Boynton/Cook 2003) that the first reference to a prohibition on split
infinitives is in the 1860s, not as recent as PAP, but still not too
old.  Wrong-headed, yes.

The other is on the status of ain't.  That was, Jonathan suggests, an
18th c. prescriptivist screed.  Those grammars and self-help books
were aimed at people trying to climb up into the middle class and
higher, and the authors, who often didn't know themselves how the
nobility and upper classes spoke, did pretty much what prescriptivists
do today, made it up as they went along.  However, as late as the
1930s, Dorothy Sayers has her noble characters using ain't freely.
It's no longer common among the upper classes but that was a 20th c.
change.  The nobility never bothered to read the self-help books and
so never got the advice against using ain't.


On Tue, Mar 3, 2009 at 5:39 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Snow
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> There are crucial differences between most kinds of linguistic study
> and mathematics or the physical sciences.
> Mathematics and physical science demand objective proofs (or at least
> falsifiable results). This necessity has led to methodological standards
> that must be rigorously adhered to if the results are to be accepted.
> Language, as I tell my introductory linguistics students, isn't like math or
> science. In fact, it isn't much like *anything* else.  As I said before,
> it's psychological rather than purely logical.
> Even the question of "standards" is misleadingly simple, partly because
> generations of many generations of schoolteachers misinformed their pupils
> about the nature of language in general and of English in particular. At
> first they insisted that English be made to conform as much as possible to
> Classical Latin. Why? Because Latin was more complicated (and "therefore"
> more "precise") and because it was a much older language (and
> "therefore" had undergone less "decay" from some Edenic ideal).  To be
> entirely consistent, they should have insisted that English model itself
> on Hebrew, but with so few English pedagogues who were fluent in Hebrew,
> Latin was accepted as a solid compromise. (They did have to be practical.)
> Some people are still terrified of splitting an infinitive.  Why were they
> instructed not to? Because Roman writers did not split Latin infinitives.
> The reason they didn't, however, is that Latin infinitives are composed of a
> single word and it's impossible to split them.  This is not the sort of rule
> that has anything to do with the internal logic of English, which often
> encourages you to split infinitives for the sake of clarity or emphasis.
> The obsession with English as a debased form of Latin eventually passed, but
> its soul kept marching on. That soul was the belief that English could be
> "improved" through the observance of innumerable subtle principles that
> often seemed "logical" in the abstract but whose "logic" was not always
> sufficiently obvious to be adopted by the millions of native speakers of
> English. Take "ain't."  From the pedagogical point of view, "ain't" had
> several strikes against it.  Unlike "don't" and "isn't," it was not
> transparently a contraction of anything (and well into the nineteenth
> century all contractions were rather frowned upon). Furthermore, since it
> can be used with any person (I, you, etc. ain't) it "obscured grammatical
> distinctions," something that was supposed to be ruinous for your mind as
> well as for your language. People who like to judge such things
> sometimes said it had an "ugly" sound. Strike four was the perception
> (correct or not - it's impossible to say) that the vast majority of people
> who used "ain't" were ignorant, illiterate rustics; dangerous, illiterate
> slum dwellers; and social climbers stupid enough to give away their
> hereditary boorishness by saying "ain't."  In other words, lunkheads.
> Now consider this. The war against "ain't" has been going for well over 200
> years. With interesting results.  On the one hand, the absolute number of
> "ain't"-sayers in the world has undoubtedly exploded from what it was in,
> say, 1790, when the population of the U.S. was under three million. On the
> other, the taboo against using "ain't" in formal writing has been
> so thoroughly accepted that in twenty-odd years of teaching I don't think I
> saw a single freshman, no matter how benighted otherwise, use it seriously
> in a theme. And I never told them not to, because they already knew.
> Let me make my major point and go away. There are many different "standards"
> applicable to a language. Possibly the most obvious is the distinction
> between what's "acceptable" in speech and what's "acceptable" in writing. In
> speech, any locution seems to be functionally acceptable to the world at
> large if it is perfectly understandable and if it does not incite violence.
> In writing, it is acceptable to the university-educated community of readers
> and writers if it is perfectly understandable. not obviously illogical, not
> ridiculously or distractingly novel, and not associated with lunkheads.  If
> you believe I'm belaboring this "lunkhead" idea, think about it. Writing
> that seems to have originated with a stranger whose command of spelling (not
> an issue in speech), vocabulary, punctuation (not an issue in speech),
> syntax, etc., is much less than perfect in the eyes of his audience is
> likely to be utterly unpersuasive. That stranger appears to be too feckless
> to have learned how to "write" like an educated person.
> In speech there are regional standards, social expectations, and on and on.
> Why do Northerners sing pop songs with fake Southern accents and nobody
> seems to notice? Because it's become a "standard" feature.  It can be
> explained historically but not justified logically.  As we've discussed here
> recently, if "decimare" in Latin meant "to execute every tenth one" (one of
> those unsplittable infinitives) must to "decimate" in English be confined to
> an identical meaning?  And if so, how can we enforce our decision?  Or any
> decision like it that the public doesn't feel like honoring?
> An astronomer who thinks "Jupiter" is really called "Venus" will not keep
> his position long because other astronomers won't stand for it.  If
> people talk of Marines as soldiers, who can stop them? (I agree that a
> professional journalist should be held to a higher standard, but most people
> are not journalists.)
> So what is "right" and what is "wrong" in English usage?  Usage ultimately
> decides; that's how we got from Beowulf's English to here.  One may prod and
> protest, but common usage always wins out.
> One more word. The popular belief about English in general being at risk of
> "decay" in any meaningful sense of  the word is nonsense.  People have
> always made blunders that don't stick; the ones that do stick and spread
> become "normal" and the system adjusts elsewhere to retain clarity. By the
> principle of "decay," Shakespeare and Chaucer were much poorer writers than
> Bede because Will and Geoff didn't use his presumably "purer" Old English.
> If English hasn't produced a later writer as great as Shakespeare (and
> "greatness" cannot be measured mathematically), blame Shakespeare's genius,
> not the supposed "decay" of English.
> JL
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