Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Mar 4 00:08:54 UTC 2009

Thanks for the "quibbles," Herb. It's been a while since I thought about
these points.

On Tue, Mar 3, 2009 at 6:15 PM, Herb Stahlke <hfwstahlke at> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Herb Stahlke <hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Snow
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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.
> Herb
> On Tue, Mar 3, 2009 at 5:39 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at>
> wrote:
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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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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> >
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