It gives me great pleasure to publish the following guest post by Bessel Dekker, a retired lecturer in linguistics at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (University of Applied Sciences). It was he who gave me the idea for my series of posts on the Negative Canon.
Elsewhere, there is a discussion about the “most irritating words and phrases” participants can think of. It has been going on for two years now, it has been liked by over 100 people and contributions exceed 2,000.
One wonders why. Are the grounds for irritation so much more numerous than the linguistic phenomena which deserve our interest, which require being observed or investigated? It seems unlikely. At least that other thread has the virtue of calling a spade a spade: it is quite explicit about its subject, which is irritation.
By contrast, I find that there is something very unpleasant in that recurrent expression “pet peeves”. Apart from the fact that it has become hackneyed, there seems to be something cosy about it. We suggest that there is something personal, even private in our irritations: after all, they are only our pets, so do not mind us. But then we go on to be extremely judgemental and it turns out that we actually do want to be taken seriously. Very much so.
The main attraction in all this, it seems, is the illusion that we are in the right camp. We are the people who fight for correctness, who resist the rot that is setting in, who know what should be said and what should not. We are superior.
In fact, this implies that others are inferior. Others are wrong, or as the usual labels go, lazy, careless, uneducated. It seems obvious that there is a lot of violence in this. We acquire our own inclusion, our sense of being among the fastidious, by excluding others: the ones to be corrected, to be judged and to be labelled negatively.
As likely as not, we depict our own fastidious group as an embattled minority, standing for traditional values, fighting corruption, keeping up standards. In fact, we are not a minority at all: all our “pet” “peeves” have been repeated over and over again, and the repetition is going on on countless websites and elsewhere. We are not even aware of it, but we are victims of the Negative Canon, a highly conventionalised and stereotyped set of well-worn black sheep. If it is not the spelling of “its”, we object to uptalk, to discourse markers such as “so” and “like”, or to singular “they”.
What our petty peevery prevents us from doing is to understand the language. Our false sense of superiority blinds us to actual phenomena and developments in the language: the reasons why there are discourse markers, for instance. Or the fact that some discourse markers are new, while others are very old indeed. Or the reasons for notional agreement both in English and in other languages. Or the interesting phenomenon that in various languages the oblique case appears to be ousting the subject case. Or again, the way change spreads.
As long as we are more interested in being right, in feeling correct, superior and indeed safe than in studying the language as it is, as it shapes itself before our eyes (should we be willing to open those eyes), we are not interested in language but in ourselves. Language is not a personal game of one-upmanship: it is a social institution of astonishing complexity, and any effort to really understand it a little is much more rewarding than the judgementality which ignores other speakers’ motives, reasons and indeed their rights as participants in the social venture.