Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do Linguistic Rules Rule?

A colleague pointed me to this recent column in the New York Times about a central tension in the evolution of language—one that pits linguistic traditionalists, of the never-split-an-infinitive variety, against linguistic revisionists, who don't think twice about the grammatical rules ignored in most tweets. The author, philosophy professor Gary Gutting, describes how we must both respect linguistic rules and accept that they will change over time.

He writes:
[L]anguage is both our creation and our master. We humans invented and continue to reinvent our language to meet various needs, but language can serve these needs only if, at any given time, we conform to most of what has been already devised.  Therefore, although we as an evolving species make language, it is also imposed on each of us individually.  There’s a sense in which we speak language and a sense in which, in Mallarmé’s famous phrase, “language itself speaks."
He concludes with some questions that lend themselves to further discussion:
Language usage is and should be a battleground.  Our task is to make the conflict fruitful.  To do this, we need to understand what precisely is at issue in any particular dispute.  Does a new locution advance or retard our power to express our ideas effectively?  Is the issue primarily one of different aesthetic sensibilities?  Or is our argument over language rooted in deeper disagreements over who we are and how we should live?  Once we understand what is really at stake, we may be able to learn much through arguing about language.

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