Monday, August 16, 2010

Language Use and Morality

People really, really like complaining about language use. Just check out the "peeving" tag on Language Log where they, of course, discuss the peevers rather than peeve themselves. The thing that has always struck me about peevers is how they view non-standard language use and language change through a moral lens. They certainly utilize moral language in their rhetoric. A great example is the  Queen's English Society. Some choice quotes from their website (emphasis is my own):
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:
  1. Harm / care
  2. Fairness / reciprocity
  3. Ingroup / loyalty
  4. Authority / respect
  5. Purity / sanctity
Here is his talk:

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.
The broad consensus of the language scientific community is that the first condition does not obtain, and therefore the following two conditions are not meaningful.

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.


  1. Excellent post. Glad to have found your blog!

  2. Jonathan Gress-WrightAugust 20, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    My impression is that what this is really about is the idea that we should treat our language with the respect with which we treat our other cultural artifacts. If you approach the problem from that perspective, then the moral argument for adhering to the standard language is remarkably similar to the argument often put forward for preservation of endangered languages: that a community's language is an important cultural artifact that demands respect and even nurture.

    Bill Labov's observation that no one he has interviewed ever expressed approval of current trends in language could reflect several things. It does not necessarily reflect only an irrational prejudice against language change. Remember that these individuals include those who are liberal with respect to other cultural changes; yet they are for some inexplicable reason conservative with respect to language change. It's not about why these individuals are moralizing language use; it's about why they are moralizing language use AND NOT other cultural trends. What is it about language change that is so especially irritating?

    Instead of dismissing these opinions as worthless, I think we owe it to them to see what good reasons might lie behind them, even if they can't articulate them as well as a professional linguist might. If the question is one of order, perhaps what they mean is not linguistic order, but social order. If we acknowledge that language is a legitimate object of cultural veneration, then perceived disrespect for language, as manifested by change, can be legitimately interpreted as an offence against social order.

    I agree that, to the extent the argument for preservation of the standard revolves around specifically LINGUISTIC order, it is helpful to have some notion about what order and logic mean with respect to language. However, I also agree that demonstrating that a given language is disordered or illogical in some absolute sense is more or less an impossible task (except perhaps for pidgins). A better standard by which to measure a language's value would be "expressive capacity" or expressive efficiency. That is, how efficient is a language at communicating a given meaning to the same degree of precision? I think this could be quantified by simple measures like the relative lengths of sentences that express the same logical statement.

    I think a study along these lines would help to confirm (or refute) the anecdotal evidence for an overall tendency to lose complex morphology, which is clearly observed in the Indo-European family (I know, you can cite examples of increased complexity, like some parts of French verbal morphology, but really those are exceptions to the trend). When a language's morphology simplifies, the same information structure must be expressed in the syntax, resulting in longer sentences. This can be understood as a loss of expressive efficiency.

    In particular, there seems to be a correlation between morphologically complex language and economically primitive societies. I don't see why these correlations can't be more rigorously investigated.

  3. Have you read "The Unfolding of Language"? It addresses a lot of these points about each generation's outcry over the erosion of language.

    Jonathan, he also spends some time talking about those primitive societies with very complex languages. One of the main theories is that whenever you see economic growth and complexity, you see immigrants, or at least lots of foreign merchants. The language erodes and is simplified through its use among foreign speakers. Since economically primitive societies don't have much reason to interact with outsiders, its language is shielded from the diluting effects of diversity.


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