Monday, August 06, 2007

Language as Philosophy: Proscriptive vs Descriptive

I received the following from a friend:
Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins
weren't invented in England or French fries in
France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads,
which aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for
granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find
that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are
square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor
is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers
don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't
ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the
plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one
moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn't it
seem crazy that you can make amends but not one
amend? If you have a bunch of odds and e nds and get
rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers
praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does
a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the
English speakers should be committed to an asylum
for the verbally insane. In what language do people
recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by
truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run
and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be
the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are
opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy
of a language in which your house can burn up as it
burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling
it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not
computers, and it reflects the creativity of the
human race, which, of course, is not a race at all
That is why, when the stars are out, they are
visible, but when the lights are out, they are

The methods by which a language evolves to me serves as an analogy to many other ideas, especially the concept of "top-down" vs "bottom-up" control.

Take dictionaries, for example. The fall into two broad types - I'll call the "Proscriptive" and "Descriptive".

Proscriptive dictionaries describe language as it "should be" used. Descriptive dictionaries describe how a language *is* used. Which is right?

At one extreme we can reject all change and mercilessly hammer the dogmatic: words should be used/spelled as described. All variations are unwelcome. While this in theory would lead to a "stale" language over time, the real result is that it will never happen. People will speak however they like, dictionary be damned.

But the other extreme, the Descriptive dictionary is just the opposite, it intends to report on how language is used in real life. When this is taken to extreme, then no variation would be "incorrect". By simply speaking a word or spelling it however one likes, then the usage would be "correct" by deign that it was just "used" that way. With each person speaking/spelling however one likes, communication would break down.
(I'm obviously glossing over the approach used by Descriptive dictionaries, in that they tend to document the most common usages, not every variant.)

Strangely, society seems to slowly rock forward by mediating between these two extremes. Thus language tends to be a very "democratic" creation and as the example above illusrates, continue to appear to be a product of a committee of madmen.

1 comment:

mikekoutsukos said...

Very interesting, i was looking this up for a friend to understand the difference for the 2, and now i understand as well. i'm also pretty baked. so thanks for your help sir.