Language and morality

Cross-posted at Docere Est Discere

As a part of my current degree program, I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Applying Writing Theory” in which we study various rhetorical and writing theories, including some discussion of grammar specifically. Today, we covered the first two chapters of a book entitled “Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the first on avoiding confusing language (which reminded me of the amusing saying, “Eschew obfuscation“) and the second on correctness. The latter got me thinking about two fairly different subjects: language and morality. The stimulus for this idea is a stray thought about two major (if not the only) schools of thought on linguistics, prescriptivism and descriptivism. It occurred to me that linguistic prescription can thought to be a moral maxim related to language, whereas description does not purport to exert any moral obligations on individuals. Compare the following statements:

  • Correct language ought to conform to a universal standard for the language.
  • Correct language is intelligible to the intended audience.

The first statement is clearly moral: it speaks of what language ought to be. The second, conversely, is not, since it talks about what is rather than what ought to be. It is my contention that the former statement is a representative statement of prescriptivism and the latter of descriptivism. This answers one very important question rather parsimoniously: why some people are so adamant about using “correct” (read: socially acceptable) language. If correct language use as described in the prescriptive statement is seen as an obligation, then it’s no wonder that (as often happens with moral stances) those who do not comply are teased, ridiculed, and shunned by some individuals. (This isn’t even a relatively new trend; Augustine admonishes his audience in his Confessions about shunning a person who doesn’t pronounce the initial aspirate ‘h’ in ‘human.’ I assume since that’s the translation that Augustine, a Latin-speaker, would have probably been referred to the word hominem, and a cursory glance at the Latin text seems to confirm this.) Where I think the moral compulsion toward language fails is that language only requires a small degree of standardization within dialectic and social language groups. The ordinary person’s understanding of language is very flexible, and it is largely foreign vocabulary and syntax that will confuse the outsider of any group. The idea of standardizing language goes against the linguistic history of English at least and a number of other languages in all probability; development happens over time from the bottom-up, and it is never static by pressure from above. I would bet that a case could even be made for the developments that English and other languages have undergone as language has become more democratized: people have to use people for the public, not expect the public to conform to the language they send out. Language only needs to be what it is: a way to communicate and express oneself in a way that is intelligible to others. The ‘other’ is important, but it is such in a way that does not require a great deal of standardization in the pedantic way that some wish. When we understand this, we will start to lighten up on our grammatical admonishments.


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