Never been in a (language) riot

September 7th, 2009  |  Published in Art and Literature, Social Science  |  1 Comment

I just got through a summer-long reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which has consequently invaded all my waking thoughts. Among the conceits of the book is that a character, one Avril Incandenza, is fanatical about proper grammatical usage to the point of helping to incite the "M.I.T. language riots" at some point in the early 21st century.

As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics, so I was unbelievably tickled by Avril's character. There are even references to Montague grammar, the logical formalisms and lambda-calculus of which I remember well, and whose descendants took up an unhealthy amount of my collegiate time.

But the funniest thing about Avril's character is how exactly contrary she is to everything I know about really existing American academic linguistics. This, after all, is a woman who does things like  replacing commas with semicolons on public signage and correcting "they" to "he or she" in her son's speech. Yet the one thing that has stuck with me from my linguistic education is the idea that these kinds of rules are totally meaningless and stupid.

We used to talk about prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. (Wallace was no doubt aware of this, as he had Avril be a member of the "prescriptive grammarians of Massachusetts.) Prescriptive grammar meant telling people how they were supposed to use language, like your elementary school teacher telling you not to say "ain't" or warning you against ending sentences with prepositions. Descriptive grammar, by contrast, was what real scientific linguists did. Its premise was that whatever people actually said was the real language, and it was our job to document that. All of the prescriptive rules were just superstitions or attempts by privileged social strata to make their way of speaking seem more "correct" than that of the less advantaged.

Now that I've slid over into a new career as a social scientist, I find that I'm all the more committed to this prescriptivist dogma, and I newly appreciate its sociological sophistication. All too many social scientists, who are otherwise eager to acknowledge the role of social construction and power relations in making our social world, nevertheless accept the reality and the usefulness of grammatical rules. Whereas even the most apolitical of the linguists I have known would dismiss such rules in an instant as irrational prescriptivism.

But it turns out that what I see as the only sensible way of understanding language is still very much a minority view.  And this always surprises me. It's not that I'm unaccustomed to holding unpopular views; I am after all, a socialist. But somehow the language issue seems like it should be more common-sense, less divisive. And then I read something like this, from an otherwise excellent Infinite Jest-related blog:

My argument is that as long as we agree that there are standards of grammar and spelling that we should aspire to (and most of us do agree), deviations will be seen as ignorance and possibly reflect poorly on the intelligence and abilities of the writer and therefore should be corrected. Since when is pointing out people's mistakes the same as telling them you think they are second-class human beings?

Well, as regards the parenthetical assumption: I do not agree! And I find it slightly appalling that others do agree. It's not even that, in practice, I disagree with this author's advice. I can understand advocating prescriptive grammar in the same way that one would advocate, say, wearing a tie to a job interview: it may not make sense, it may not have anything to do with anything, but it's what people expect and sometimes it's best to just go with the flow and accede to the demands of the social structure.  The "will be seen as" in the sentence above suggests that kind of argument. But I get the sense that this is not how prescriptive grammarians feel, even smart and educated ones. They think that obeying pointless grammar rules really is somehow indicative of one's intelligence or self-discipline or whatever.

What a waste. Not only does prescriptive grammar reinforce class hierarchies, it cuts educated and affluent people off from the richness, dynamism, and power of everyday American language.  Even if there weren't all the other objections I've already adduced, there'd be this: in traditional upper-class white American English, there is no word for wack.


  1. panoptic says:

    January 16th, 2013 at 4:02 pm (#)

    I know this is rather old but i once read an article by DFW on exactly this subject

Leave a Response