Tag Archives: Linguistics

The Negative Canon: Introduction

A fellow contributor to the LinkedIn group Grammar Geeks, Bessel Dekker, has suggested the term negative canon for those features of English that are frequently the object of the attention of those in various Facebook groups and elsewhere who seek to tell us how to use our own language. They complain about current developments in the language, oblivious to the fact that such developments are sometimes far from new, and that English contains features that have come about through the type of changes in the past that they condemn in the present. We are asked to accept what they say because that’s their opinion or what they’ve always been taught.

A prominent characteristic of the negative canon is that it consists of a relatively small number of features which come up time and again, and are often of the kind that Geoffrey Pullum has called ‘the most intellectually trivial details of standard written English’.  As an example, Bessel has listed the following salient features of Afro-American Vernacular English:

(1) the multiple negative.
(2) nonstandard forms such as aks.
(3) absence the forms of be when it is a copula.
(4) uninflected be when it is an existential verb.
(5) word order which is different from that in Standard English.

His point is that of these five, only the first two are habitually seized upon. Other instances include sentence adverbs, where hopefully is often disdained, but all the others are ignored. Similarly, the pronunciation mischievious is thought to be an indication of moral decline and the end of civilisation as we know it, but, as Bessel has said, it is not the first, let alone the only, case were epenthesis has caused language change.

Bessel has therefore made an important distinction between the negative canon and what he has called the negative pool. While the latter consists of all instances that could be objected against, the former comprises the usual suspects which are in fact singled out. Thus, sadly as a sentence adverb, for example, would be in the negative pool only, while hopefully has made the negative canon. The composition of the negative canon, it seems, is quite arbitrary, which suggests that no that no systematic study underlies it.

Bessel has suggested a few criteria which give an item a good chance of being included in the negative canon. They are:

Primary
(a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
(b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
(c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

Secondary
(d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
(e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
(f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

It might, as Bessel has also suggested, be illuminating to compile an inventory of items that make up the negative canon and to trace each to its first source. That may be a little ambitious for Caxton, but in a series of forthcoming posts I plan to examine some of the usages in question in an attempt to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from prejudice, reality from fantasy. They can for convenience be considered under the headings of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography and punctuation. Negative canon posts will not be in any particular order, and not necessarily uninterrupted by unrelated posts.

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How We Spoke Then

In a previous post, I discussed Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. I’m now re-reading his ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. It was first published in the 1950s, so it is perhaps unsurprising how dated many of the words and expressions his characters have become. It is set in the era of RAF-speak, satirised in the Monty Python banter sketch:

Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.

They include, with, for those below a certain age, approximate translations:

blighter – an unpleasant person, a bastard, but can be used in a neutral sense as well
tight – drunk, pissed (also mean)
the balloon going up – things going wrong, all hell breaking loose, sewage hitting the air conditioning
a lot of rot – nonsense, rubbish, a load of crap
fresh
– flirty
twig
– catch on, understand
flap – a
state of worry or excitement, particularly in a military sense
goner someone who is dead or someone or something in some other way lost
decent kind, accommodating, pleasant, opposite of beastly
beastly – of behaviour or speech unbecoming polite society, oppsite of decent
the blower telephone
a bit thick– too much of some kind of unacceptable behaviour
topping – great

I was surprised to find that two, the balloon going up and a lot of rot, have citations in the OED as late as 2004. Of the rest, none is later than 1961 (although not all entries have been subject to the OED’s latest revisions). On the other hand, the contemporary Corpus of Web-Based Global English has 22 records for the balloon goes up, and 115 for blighter.

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More on grammar

Much discussion of language, particularly on the web, goes nowhere because those involved are very often talking about different things. In considering approaches to language, as in all else, it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about. In particular, the word ‘grammar’ is bandied around without much thought as to what it might be.

Some have commandeered the word to cast a cloak of spurious respectability over their prejudices and ignorance. Nevile Gwynne (here and here) is one such. It is true that the Oxford English Dictionary’s third definition of ‘grammar’ is

An individual’s manner of using grammatical forms; speech or writing judged as good or bad according as it conforms to or violates grammatical rules; also speech or writing that is correct according to those rules.

It is certainly used in that way, but ‘an individual’s manner’, ‘judged as good or bad’ and ‘speech or writing that is correct according to those rules’ all imply a degree of subjectivity, whereas it’s more helpful to think of grammar as a matter of objective fact. Specifically, the rules of grammar tell us how speakers of a language put together units of meaning to make words, and how they put words together to make sentences. 600 years ago, John Colet had much the same idea about Latin:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

There is no evidence, for example, to support a rule of English grammar that says they can only refer to a plural antecedent. By contrast, there is plenty of evidence to support the rule that the past tense of regular verbs is formed by the addition of -ed to the plain form. What linguists specialising in grammar do is search for such evidence and codify the results.

Style is quite a different matter, one not of fact, but of opinion. Some may say that they referring to a singular antecedent is awkward or ugly or illogical or whatever you like. They may conclude that for those reasons its use makes an utterance ineffective. Others may take an opposite view. What neither can do say is that it is ungrammatical, when there is so much evidence for its use in the prose of reputable writers over the centuries.

It’s like looking at someone’s shirt or wallpaper. You may not like the colour of the shirt or the pattern of the wallpaper, and you’re quite entitled not to like them. But you can’t deny that what you’re looking is a shirt or wallpaper.

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Six Conservative Propositions

I thought it might be of some interest if I posted here a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere. It consists of the six following propositions, which I believe to represent, more or less, current linguistic orthodoxy.

1. A language is a set of dialects having certain common features.

2. Grammar describes the way in which a dialect allows units of meaning to be put together to make words (morphology), and the way it allows words to be put together to make sentences (syntax).

3. The only admissible evidence for determining a dialect’s morphology and syntax is that obtained from NANS (normal adult native speakers).

4. A construction that a NANS would never use is by that fact alone ungrammatical, but the opposite is not necessarily the case.

5. The standard variety of a language is one dialect among many. It may be of great political, economic and social importance, but it is not linguistically superior to any other. The grammar of nonstandard dialects, like the grammar of the standard, is internally consistent.

6. The grammatical features of a standard dialect, like the grammatical features of all dialects, are matters of objective fact. Personal opinions and tastes are irrelevant.

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What Good is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Its branches include grammar, phonetics and phonology, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, neurolinguistics, stylistics, semantics, historical linguistics, computational linguistics, etymology, semantics and pragmatics. Like other scientists, linguists have intuitions about particular aspects of their subject, and they try to find out if they’re right through rigorous observation and deduction.

The practical benefits of some academic disciplines are more obvious than others. Medicine, engineering, and law faculties, to take just three, all produce people who are indispensable to modern society. But practical benefits are by-products, if, as in the case of these three, indispensable by-products, of the pursuit of knowledge. The prime motivation for extending and disseminating knowledge is not getting a good job, or even improving the world, desirable though both may be. Finding out about things is simply what humans do, and to limit such activity is to diminish humanity. The quotation attributed to the mountaineer George Mallory on being asked why he wanted to climb Everest applies to most human endeavour, including academic endeavour: ‘Because it’s there.’

All that has to be said, but, in practice, it is rare that academic study has no practical benefits, even if they are not its primary aim, and that’s true of linguistics as much as anything else. It is obviously of direct relevance in a field such as lexicography, but linguistics can also be applied to socially beneficial areas such as forensics and the treatment of various kinds of speech impairment. More widely, knowing how language works is an asset to those engaged in politics, journalism, advertising and the teaching of English and foreign languages.

For all of us, some knowledge of what is arguably the most important distinguishing feature of the human species is valuable. It allows us to be critical of our own use of language and that of others, particularly of those who are trying to persuade us to do something we would rather not. And it’s fascinating as a subject in its own right. Such knowledge, however, is no more easily acquired than knowledge of chemistry, law or history. If you’re new to the subject, you can make a start with some of the sources I provide under References.

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Why Children Don’t Talk Proper

In my first post I emphasised the importance of the teaching of Standard English. I reproduce here a short article which Richard Hudson, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, University of London, wrote for the Teachit Language newsletter in 2007. He suggests that Standard English needs to be explicitly taught.  He also points out very simply in his first paragraph that a form like them books is just as grammatical in nonstandard dialects as those books is in Standard English. Much misunderstanding could be avoided if those who like to discuss English grammar could grasp this fundamental point.

Is standard English easy to learn?

Some people say them books and others say those books. Both forms are perfectly correct, but they’re correct in different grammars – just like the difference between (say) UK lift and USA elevator (or, for that matter, between English hello and French bonjour.) You say those books, I say them books  – a pretty trivial linguistic choice, involving just one word out of the tens of thousands that we all know.

Unfortunately, when the choice does arise, it matters deeply because one form is standard and the other is non-standard. Those who use them books at home have to learn to use those books in more formal situations; and the place where they learn this is at school.

How many children does this affect? The bad news is that it affects a lot of them. According to a very small research project I did in 1995, about 50% of children use non-standard forms even when speaking in a fairly formal school situation, so the number who would use non-standard outside school is probably much higher.

But how many non-standard forms do they use? The good news is that only a tiny handful of the thousands of words in English offer a choice between standard and non-standard. Here are some of the main cases where a standard/non-standard choice applies:

  • some irregular verbs (e.g. She came/come.)
  • the present tense of the verb be with there (e.g. Are/is there any matches?)
  • adverbs formed in standard English with ly (e.g. Come quickly/quick.)
  • relative pronouns (e.g. the book that/what I read)
  • ‘double negatives’ (e.g. It’s not getting any/no water inside it.)

There are other choice points, but most of them are rare.

If so few forms are involved, you’d think it would be quite easy for children to pick up standard English at school; after all, they spend hours every day listening to – or at least hearing – teachers talking standard English. But do they get better at using standard forms? Our little research project suggests that in 1988 (when the data was collected) they didn’t. 15-year olds used just as many non-standard forms (when there was a choice) as 11-year olds (and, of course, boys at both ages used more than girls).

So what? Mere exposure (as in 1988, just before the National Curriculum was introduced) may be enough for some children, but not for most. If you want children to learn standard forms, you probably need to teach the forms explicitly. They may decide not to use them, but at least when they know them, it’s their decision.

If you want to know more about my little research project, you can find the full report at http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/papers.htm#scaa. It’s time someone repeated the exercise to see if the National Curriculum has changed the situation.

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Filed under Education, English Language, Language, Standard English