Wednesday, November 12, 2008

many living language types are guilty of what they complain about

Imagine, if you will, that you are a carpenter, in the years before power tools. Your hammer is your livelihood. Further imagine that every time someone used a hammer incorrectly, the hammer as a tool was degraded. It lost its ability to perform its essential function. When people used it in an incorrect way, somehow, the hammer stopped being as useful to you as it once was. You couldn't use it as efficiently or powerfully as you once did.

Now, wouldn't you be pretty goddamn sensitive about how people are running around, misusing hammers? I imagine you would! If misuse of individual hammers devalued hammers, I mean really devalued them in a physical sense, and you depended on hammers, well... I'm sure the subject of hammer use would be a bit of a sore spot with you. This is precisely the situation those of us who value and treasure language find ourselves in, and this exact kind of degradation through misuse is what Stephen Fry is cheerleading.

Words are communal objects. They are owned by everyone who speaks a given language. Their meaning is not static but fluid, and dependent on how people use them. Never let me say that language's meaning is anything else than socially constructed. Language is always a process. It is never a product.

So why would I object to Fry's "hey, however you want to use it" approach to language? Because as I've said, words are damaged when they are misused; and while "misuse" is entirely a function of perspective, my preference is no less meaningful for my acknowledgment that it is indeed a preference. When a word changes, it changes for everyone, which is why the social construction of language is both a freedom and a responsibility. (Societal responsibility! Imagine that.) Those who would say that a word only has what meaning we give it are correct. The failure lies in thinking that these communal acts of definition must be for the good, or for the right, or should go unquestioned. The fact that I acknowledge the social origins of meaning in no way entails that I have to agree with where society takes meaning. The definitions of words change according to how they are used. But I will keep my own counsel on the efficacy, wisdom and prudence of that change.

Words have value in their ability to distinguish and to discriminate. And they are only ever damaged in one direction: they become more abstracted, more broad, less specific, less forceful, less memorable, less powerful, more middling, less individual. When people misuse "anticipate" to the point where it is identical to "expect," there's nothing to cheer for anyone. Why? Because where we once had two words for two concepts, we now have two words for the same concept-- and no word that means "anticipate". You and I are rapidly losing that wonderful word. In it's place is a vague shell. Irony is a fantastic concept, wonderfully precise. The word "ironic," at this point, is close to having no individual meaning whatsoever. When "ironic" can mean any kind of sort of strange, sort of funny happenstance, we no longer use that word to access a specific and incisive idea.

Go in fear of abstraction, the man said, and I want to. But it becomes harder and harder to do that, when words become a pale mush, when "anything goes" is the rallying cry for language. There are many many more examples out there of words that, once powerful and cutting, have become more dull dross, spooned out to no particular effect whatsoever. (How I mourn you, "literally.") I am not, in fact, one of the carpenters. I'm not paid to write and entertain no particular desire to do so. But I'm an amateur writer, and I care about language, and I want a language that functions as a scalpel, not as a dull axe, capable of only force and not precision. I can have that only insofar as words have specific and individual meanings. These misused words are not being misused in the direction of increased specificity, and once lost, I'm afraid very few of these wonderful words are being replaced by equally specific, and equally valuable, language.

Fry invokes George Orwell, which I find sad and funny. Orwell is perhaps overquoted and referenced these days. But the man knew the consequences of allowing language to lose actual meaning. If words are allowed to be stripped of their specific meaning by misuse, and by the reverse snobbery of faux-populist appeals to letting the people have it the way they want, we'll be left with just more "double plus ungoods", sad shades of poetic and meaningful language.

Do I resist all changes in language? No. Some changes I welcome, some I resist. Again, no one is obligated to agree with me on the preferred direction of word use. I just don't cotton to being told that there is something immoral or phony about believing that I have the right to have an opinion about what kinds of word use are better for language. Let words evolve, but let them evolve in a marketplace of ideas where people are allowed to argue in good faith for one meaning or another. Let people who want to keep the traditional meaning of a word argue so without being attacked with the dull blade of bastard reverse snobbery. I don't trust most people manipulating language for the same reason I don't trust democracy. Most people are no more qualified to craft a coherent and meaningful language than they are to craft a workable civic government. I defy anyone to claim that our evolving language is evolving in the direction of specificity, or discrimination, or clarity. Now, I can't force people to keep the traditional meaning of words, and I wouldn't want to. What I can do, though, is argue that it is better that, say, "literally" means literally, rather than being yet another meaningless intensifier. (He literally took my head off back there!)

But this is what Fry is attacking, and attacking with almost comic self-righteousness. No, to want to preserve a word like "literally," to want it to have its own meaning, to want it to have some specific use and not relegate it to the status of any dozen of other words that can intensify or enlarge, why, that must only be the act of a "semi-educated loser." No one who genuinely cared about language could want to work to preserve traditional meanings, no. No one could think that perhaps there is value in the way certain words have usually been defined.

Fry's line is self-aggrandizement masked as populism, a pious attack on piety, pretension sold as criticism of pretension. I disagree with many people on how language should proceed into the future. I wouldn't pretend, like Fry does, that there is something inherently elitist or malign in someone arguing a meaning that I don't agree with. Fry has resorted to the most juvenile mode of argument, attacking what he perceives to be the people making an argument, rather than the argument itself. Well, I'll keep pushing back, because I think violence is done to language when it is drained of meaning to the point where words are sad, gray, limp facades. I'll keep pushing back because I want words that mean something beyond a vague direction like "good" or "bad" or "pretty" or "ugly". I'll keep pushing back because I want both "huge" and "gargantuan," and I want them to have their own individual meanings, because if they mean the same thing then that is one less tool I have in my shed. I do like to play with words, actually, I just don't want to play on exactly the terms Stephen Fry wants to, and I won't allow him to pretend (as people so often do) that his insistence that there are no rules isn't just his way of leveraging rules that he prefers himself.

Update: I'm not arguing that language doesn't change. I'm arguing that Fry is using the fact that it changes as a way to leverage a particular vision of language and act as though that's an inevitable consequence of the social origin of language. This is one of the problems of postmodernism: very often, people arguing that there is no authority is really just another tool to invest themselves with authority. Thus, again, the Sultan says "Am I Sultan or am I Sultan?" In doing so he subjects the old rules about who can marry the sultan's daughter to a postmodern critique, but in a way that reinforces his power as sultan-- a power derived entirely from tradition, from social construction. Never mistake the postmodern project for being inherently liberating.

The fact that it is true that much of our ways of knowing are social constructions doesn't change the fact that the people who say they're social constructions are often doing so because it helps them assert control over others. The will to power is an excellent adapter.


individualfrog said...

Oh, I wouldn't call it reverse snobbery.

jens said...

Much of that was really an apology for past fuddy-duddyism, rather than cheerleading.


(which includes some amusing clips)

Language has been around a long time, and as old distinctions die, new ones arise. Don't worry too much about it being "damage"

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry too much. People have been writing about the death of the English language for centuries, and they haven't been right yet. You might not notice new & more specific words coming into being, but I'm optimistic it'll happen. I get far more upset about the basic inability of many people to construct a grammatically correct sentence than I do about their somewhat limited vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

Why this post is downright . . . conservative!

Come to the dark side.

Zathras said...

"And they are only ever damaged in one direction: they become more abstracted, more broad, less specific, less forceful, less memorable, less powerful, more middling, less individual."

Not relevant to your central point (which is very well exposited here), but this statement is certainly wrong. Words can also become damaged by becoming more specific, but in a non-uniform way. Take the word "conservative." 50 years ago this word was very broad and vague. Now, you have religious conservatives, economic conservatives, etc., using the word in a more specific way, but not in the same way as each other. This type of "Tower of Babel" effect erodes language because different people use these words very differently, until they lose the ability to speak to one another.

Colin said...

Hm. If words "are only ever damaged in one direction", where did "anticipate" come from in the first place?

New words are coined ("blog") or appropriated ("spam") or given new dimensions of meaning ("avatar") all the time. You're only seeing half the picture if you think entropy is the only kind of change.

Robert S. said...

"I'm arguing that Fry is using the fact that it changes as a way to leverage a particular vision of language and act as though that's an inevitable consequence of the social origin of language."

- emphasis added

your virulent attack on what was quite a fine verb saddens me, sir. heh.

Robert S. said...

Additionally, I'd argue that "anticipate" hasn't lost it's meaning at all. It's still used with the same denotation in some contexts. It's simply acquired another denotation in another context. As Colin said, it's how language evolves. I doubt anyone could empirically argue our language is getting more simplistic. I suspect it's really only getting more complex.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, and I couldn't agree more. (And David Cross had a great bit on the bastardization of "literally.")

I hate to bring politics into this, but it's hard to avoid the fact that a certain party has bitterly attacked diction, grammar and even literacy in general as a hallmark of snobbery. Nothing outs you as coastal elite scum like knowing "a lot" is two words or that "nuclear" is not pronounced with two u's.

And then, of course, there's texting, twittering, IMing and all the other modern short-forms of communication, which have made our discourse even more lazy and childlike.

TheWurx said...

You need a new analogy for your opening. It is pure nonsense that another's misuse of a hammer degrades your expert use of one. Your hammer is every bit as capable of driving nails into wood as it was before your friend used it to open a wine bottle. In fact, if anything, his hammering incompetence underscores your hammering brilliance.

I tend to cringe at the use of apostrophes for anything but possessives and contractions, and I try to appreciate the finer distinctions among the definitions of words. But there is little use to bemoan the sloppiness of other people's word usage. Usually one only comes off rude and irritating.

I once got into a ferocious argument with a friend who used the word "adverse" when she meant "averse." I blithely corrected her, and immediately said I was sorry for my pedantry. She then said, "Good, but I meant 'adverse'" Because she was wrong, and since she was a lawyer and might one day make this mistake at a moment where the perception of her intelligence might be of some import, I felt compelled to correct her and explain why. This led to a two-hour argument that escalated in intensity and personal animosity.

Man, she was stubborn. I, of course, was being quite reasonable.

In any case, my basic point is other people's misuse of the language usually only makes those of us who only slightly misuse the language look all the more intelligent. And it is rubbish to imply that the language will die. A few words' definitions may die on the vine, but some of us still remember the original definition of "anticipate", and if we don't, perhaps someone will have the forethought to come up with a new word for it.

Swift Loris said...

In it's place is a vague shell.

Now, that's ironic.

Freddie said...

How is that ironic? Again, I'm not arguing for some ultra-traditionalist vision of language. I'm not arguing that language doesn't evolve. I'm not arguing against colorful or artistic use of language.

I'm arguing against the attitude that because language changes, it's unfair or illegitimate to argue in favor of traditional definitions of words. And I'm reacting against a common turn in postmodernism, where the language of liberation is used as just another way of asserting authority.

Colin said...

How is that ironic?


mdl said...

When you say irony is a "fantastic concept", do you really mean that it is (literally) fantastic? Or is "fantastic" just something in the vague direction of "good"?

Freddie said...

Really, I should have seen this coming. Refer to my previous comment.

individualfrog said...

swift loris, it's only Skitt's Law. Typos don't really have anything to do with Freddie's argument here.

Brendan said...

Nice preaching, Freddie. I'm pretty much already in your choir, but it was still a fine sermon even so.

To your list of words robbed of meaning, leaving a meaning without its own word, please add unique. Maybe you feel this is such an old complaint that it isn't worth repeating, but it is. I can't stand when people add modifiers ("very unique," "one of the most unique") to one word which -- literally -- should stand alone.

I anticipate blowback.

Nick said...

Thank you for posting this.

Having many friends who overuse 'random', 'literally', and 'ironic', I couldn't agree more.

That being said, I find myself choosing my words very carefully and self-consciously as I write this.

It's not the inventive poets we need to worry about: it's the Alanis Morissettes of the world, the faddish, the lazy.

I'll gladly drink to anyone who can open a bottle of wine with a hammer in a moment of linguistic need. But to use it instead of a screwdriver...

The Chimp said...

"thou shalt not question Stephen Fry"

Joseph said...

As a technical writer, I know exactly what you are talking about. In my work, I am constantly exposed to meaningless words.

By this I mean words that add no information to a statement. In other words, if they removed a word or phrase, the meaning of the sentence would not change at all.

I believe that littering are language with utterances disconnected from an object make our language unnecessarily complex and disadvantage both speaker and listener. Or writer and reader if you like.