Saturday, March 17, 2007

Psychoanalyzing The Usage Gripers

The folks over at Language Log devote a fair amount of time, space, and energy analyzing (and, let's be honest, mocking) the ignorance and general silliness of pop language mavens and grammar scolds. You know the type--people who think that misuse of the word hopefully or failure to honor the niceties of the subjunctive voice is a sign of the impending and richly deserved downfall of the American republic and who write shrill letters to newpaper editors announcing this fact.

Now, in some recent posts, linguist Mark Liberman goes beyond the mockery to speculate about what motivates the usage gripers, and he even quotes a few emails he has received theorizing about their psychological and philosophical characteristics. For what it's worth, here is my two cents, quoted from my own email to Professor Liberman:
My impression is that class, racial, social, and political anxiety is a major emotional driver behind prescriptivist complaints about grammar, usage, and other forms of linguistic "misbehavior."

People who feel that the world is going to hell because the values they were raised with are no longer respected find verbal mistakes an easy and publicly acceptable thing to seize on and complain about. And in their complaints there is often an undercurrent of resentment over the fact that the "wrong sort of people" are now shaping "our" language.

This resentment cuts in a couple of directions. It radiates "downward" in social terms, towards groups like young Blacks and Latinos who refuse to learn and use "proper" English, and also "upward" towards "elitists" like academics, politicians, and business consultants who use "fancy" euphemisms and obscure words as ways to befuddle and control "us" good solid mainstream Americans.

What these complaints have in common is an emotional undercurrent of fear about how the world is changing and a desire to push it back toward what was perceived as a more comprehensible and controllable state before "they" started messing it up.
Of course, the above generalizations don't apply to people like me. When I correct other people's grammar, I do it in the nicest possible way and out of pure human generosity, much as I would discreetly gesture to alert a friend that his fly was open or that he had a piece of spinach stuck between two front teeth. As Phyllis Lindstrom used to say on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "I'm just too much of a giver. It's my greatest flaw."

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