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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Language Maven Under Fire

Well, it's been a while. But the distractions of the holiday season are past and a new year is here, so I'm resolving to be at least a somewhat more frequent blogger.

As part of my resolutions for 2013, I recently cleaned up my woefully untidy home office, which had begun to resemble the Augean stables (minus the manure). Among the papers I sorted was an email exchange between me and an aspiring linguist named Jesse, who took me to task for my prescriptive views on language. Here is what he had to say:

"My name is Jesse ——. I'm a 31-year-old college student, aspiring to be a professional linguist one day. I was just flipping through [your book] What in the Word . . .

"I can't believe that, with all your years of experience and education, you still have such a narrow, prescriptivist outlook on spelling and pronunciation. Language is sounds on the tongue, not letters on a page. You are one of the 'Language Mavens' that Steven Pinker makes fun of (and not, 'of whom Pinker makes fun'), in his book The Language Instinct. John McWhorter ridicules prescriptive linguistics in Power of Babel. Derek Bickerton's Bastard Tongues reveals the arbitrary and subjective nature of phonetic symbols and their limited ability to standardize what is really a loose bundle [of] ever-varying dialects. Linguists on the left and right stand together and snicker when you dictate 'proper' speech for a community of roughly 375 million people. The world already has Howard Lederer; all you're doing is propagating misconceptions about the true nature of language.


Jesse ——"

If Jesse and Pinker and McWhorter and the rest knew anything about language mavens, they'd stop assuming that we all decry prepositions at the ends of sentences; obviously they've never read us seriously enough to know that, at least since H. W. Fowler in the 1920s, we have unanimously debunked that proscription. And the grossly misleading notion, propagated as infallible doctrine by linguists, that "the spoken language is the language," deserves a whole treatise unto itself. To dismiss outright the standards that have evolved around written communication—spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, grammar, usage, etc.—and to imply that writing is somehow simply recorded speech, is risible. But I'm not going to get into all that here. I'm going to share with you my response to this anti-normative warrior:

"Jesse, thanks for sharing your opinion. I'm sorry that you can't accept that that's all I'm doing in my books and articles and on my website. I have no desire to dictate, nor any delusion that anyone can do so regarding language. I merely believe that most people (linguists apparently excepted) agree that there are standard and nonstandard ways of writing and speaking, and it's helpful to have a frank and rational discussion about what the norms are and what constitutes a violation of them.

"And I am continually baffled by the imperious, snide, ad hominem argument that anyone who has an opinion about words, other than a linguist, is ipso facto an idiot. If Pinker et al. had it their way, language would be the only common pursuit in the world not subject to any practical or aesthetic standards or scrutiny. The problem with linguists, as your comments vociferously confirm, is that they deny that there is any difference between being literate or illiterate, accurate or inaccurate, telling the truth or spreading yarns. I wish you well in your chosen profession.

"And it's not Howard but Richard Lederer. Howard, the professional poker player, is his son.

"Very boringly yours,

"Charles Harrington Elster"
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