Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On lighter side: creative grammar

I've been noticing instances here and there of interesting grammatical "mistakes": inadvertent neologisms in which a word is created by combining two words, either of which relate to the intended meaning. It was this now-famous example that put my antenna up:

Sarah Palin (via Twitter): Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

Palin here creates a word by combining "refute" with "repudiate." The words sound similar, and the phase would have meant much the same thing had she used either word instead.

You might suspect I'm going to castigate Palin for offenses against the English language, but I'm not. In fact, I rather like the word "refudiate." I imagine it means disassociating oneself from a position and, in the very act of doing so, showing that position to be false; i.e., the position in some logical or empirical sense requires your support to be sensible.

For example, suppose I am going around the neighborhood screaming at gay people, which I justify by saying my bishop supports it, and I must do what my bishop supports. Now suppose the bishop disavows me and any knowledge or approval of what I have been doing. He has repudiated me. But in doing so, he also destroyed my argument for what I am doing -- he has refuted it.

We are not talking about the content of her message, which is bigoted and offensive. But the word itself is kind of nice.

Another example, from the fertile garden of language experiments that is the internet comment thread:

The intellectual libertarianism of Brink Lindsey is a cousin of socialism and as such doomed to failure.

Both are fancied by self selected elites that think their intelligence and reasoning power can fix institutions and replace traditions that have organically evolved, over centuries and millennia, and thereby mold a better society in their image.

This is the fatal conceipt.

Here the author has taken the common cliche, "the fatal conceit" and added a little bit of the word "concept." Again, it's clear what he's taking about; liberal rationalism could be described as a "conceit" or as a "concept."

I'm not sure if this particular linguistic phenomenon has a name, though I wouldn't be surprised if there is one, and I don't know it. It's similar to a portmanteau, but that usually describes a conscious yoking of two words, while this seems to be accidental, like a spoonerism or a malapropism. Indeed, the hive mind at wikipedia wants to call "refudiate" a malapropism, but I have to respectfully disagree -- a malapropism is a similar-sounding, but nonsensical substitution. This is not a substitution at all, but a combination of two words, but of which are sort of right.

People who erroneously believe themselves to be experts in grammar will often deplore such innovations as crude, ignorant, barbaric, or ugly, or stupid. This is a particular type of what is known to the real students of language as "prescriptivism"; the impulse to seek universal "rules" of grammar and usage, to see those rules as indicative of education, culture, or intelligence, and to enforce them by heaping scorn on malefactors.

In terms of teaching people, especially non-English speakers, to speak and write for broad audiences, and in formal, work-related, or academic endeavours, the enforcement of grammatical rules has a limited practical use. But the moralistic colors it often flies make of it offensive nonsense.

It can easily be seen that prescriptivism has nothing to do with the study of language. The science of language -- linguistics -- is like every other science. It observes, seeks to describe, then seeks to understand and perhaps predict. It does not seek to ENFORCE the principles it discovers. That would be ridiculous! Imagine if biologists thought a species of fish ate only other fish, and then discovered that many of them eat plankton. Would they deploy nets to keep the plankton away? Poison the deviant fish? Sterilize the lake?

If you see why that would make no sense, you should see why prescriptivism is absurd. People talk the way they talk. There is no right or wrong as long as you can be understood by the people you're communicating with. Children learn the grammar of their native language naturally and without being taught -- we are "hardwired" for grammar, it's built into our brain's language circuits. Most of the things that make prescriptivists' heads spin around in circles -- double negatives, slang, made-up words -- are perfectly understandable and thus, perfectly good language.

I didn't really appreciate this fully until I studied the history of the English language, and was forced to confront the fact that there is no way to understand our modern language except as the accumulation of false analogies, borrowings, errors in translation and in pronunciation, neolgisms and shorthand. Words grow and shrink and are merged with other words.

Don't let me make linguistics sound interesting. It's not. Linguistics, someone famously remarked, combines the dullness of the hard sciences with the uselessness of the humanities. So take my word for it: language, like DNA, evolves via "errors," which are the primary way it grows and changes. Those people whose way of loving language is to attack rule-breakers would fatally wound the object of their affections, were their efforts not so ludicrously futile. So despise Sarah Palin for the many sound reasons she has given us to do so, but not for "refudiate."

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