The Society has been concerned about the decline in standards in the use of English for many years. Our language faces a number of challenges, as it becomes ever more widely used by people with ever less knowledge of it and respect for it.
We aim to: [...] Help our youngsters to learn English and enjoy using it properly.
Every time something goes wrong [...] we hear the phrase "communications failure." But nobody will plainly admit that it was a failure to read and write documents in standard English.
The QES could become the recognised guardian of proper English and we would strive to halt the decline in standards in its use.The focus on downward decline, the fate of our children, and the failure to recognize the true source of our problems could all be lifted from an evangelical preacher's call to recommit our lives to Christ.
Bill Labov has also noted to us in class that language change is unique among social changes. He said that there are some older people who keep up with fashion, music and technology, but no one has ever been interviewed who said "You know, it's really great the way kids are talking these days. They're just doing great things with the language, and I hope they keep it up."
I have to wonder why language is moralized. A lot has to do with class and social structures certainly. Certain uses of language become associated with certain groups of people, and then attitudes towards those groups of people are transferred to the uses of language. But I think there might also be more to it than social attitudes. For instance, I doubt the woman who recently engaged in what amounts to linguistic (not-so) civil disobedience in a Starbucks was motivated by her social attitudes towards baristas. Likewise for the emotional reports by some that things like misplaced apostrophes "make [them] want to stab bunnies."
I think it would be worth evaluating this peeving as being exactly what it looks like: a form of moral judgment. There was a TED talk that captured my imagination on this topic a while ago by Jonathan Haidt. He was discussing his Moral Foundation Theory. He hypothesizes that there are 5 moral foundations of moral judgment:
- Harm / care
- Fairness / reciprocity
- Ingroup / loyalty
- Authority / respect
- Purity / sanctity
The focus of his talk is on the difference between liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to to focus on the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity moral foundations and reject the the aspects of ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity which have repressive social effects. Conservatives, on the other hand, embrace all five foundations given the premise that order and security are better than chaos. The crucial quote from his talk comes at 14:45.
The great conservative insight is that order is really hard to achieve, it's really precious, and it's really easy to lose.That, I feel, must be the point of view of all peevers who take a moralistic stance on language use. In a sense they are right. The order and structure of human language is what allows it to function. Were that structure to crumble, so might many of our most useful and valuable human institutions.
However, that is where the peevers' premises are false. Language has been changing ever since humans have been speaking (by hypothesis), and there is no sense in which any observable changes in the available historical record have either contributed to or detracted from the orderliness of language. I'm not speaking from a hippy dippy anything goes social attitude either. What I mean is that in order for the Queen's English Society to even begin making the moral judgments they do, they would have to empirically demonstrate that the following conditions obtain:
- There is a meaningful scale of measurement for the orderliness and logicalness of a particular spoken language.
- The long chain of demonstrable language changes which took place between Proto-Indo-European and Modern English have been, on the whole, optimizing the orderliness of the spoken language.
- The contemporary language changes currently occurring in Modern English are, on the whole, destructive to the orderliness of the spoken language.
In conclusion, I feel bad for the peevers' misapprehension. Too many people already spend too much time engaged in moral outrage behavior based on false premises. These language peevers could be spending their mental time and energy on something actually socially useful. On the other hand, I am irritated by their anti-rationalism. When it comes to language peeving, there are empirical facts that are relevant to the very formulation of moral judgments, but these facts are surprisingly of little importance or interest to the peevers. That is a peeve of mine.