‘He Seems to Be Enjoying Himself’

What is it with people who, because they know a language, presume that they know exactly how the language works?

They are like those who, because they can drive a car, presume that they know how the engine works. Except in that case, we all know better. You can be an expert driver without knowing the parts and connections that make the car go.

Similarly, you can be an expert user of a language without knowing the parts and connections—at least, not knowing how to explain them. But in the case of language, that doesn’t stop expert users from making the logical fallacy of assuming If X, then Y, X being knowledge of a language and Y being how that language works. It’s like someone who knows how to build a campfire telling a chemist that phlogiston accounts for the phenomenon of fire.

This is nothing new. In fact, it’s the subject of a famous article by a famous American linguist, Leonard Bloomfield, published in a 1944 issue of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America. The title is “Secondary and Tertiary Responses to Language,” and by that he means comments about language, in particular comments by know-it-alls who don’t know it all.

As a good linguist, Bloomfield summarizes his field observations:

“On other than a scientific level, our culture maintains a loosely organized but fairly uniform system of pronouncements about language. Deviant speech forms in dialects other than the standard dialect are described as corruptions of the standard forms (‘mistakes,’ ‘bad grammar’) or branded as entirely out of bounds, on a par with the solecisms of a foreign speaker (‘not English’).

“The forms of the standard dialect are justified on grounds of ‘logic.’ Either on the strength of logical consistency or in pursuance of largely conventional authoritative rules, which constitute a minor tradition within the main one (for instance, the rules about shall and will), certain forms are theoretically prescribed for the standard dialect.

“When it is noticed that speakers of the standard dialect do not use these forms or use others beside them, these deviations are again branded as ‘mistakes’ or, less often, attributed to ‘usage’, which appears here only as a special and limited factor, mentioned doubtfully as interfering with more legitimate controls. …

“The speaker who discourses about language sometimes adds that he himself has not a perfect command of his native language—the reasons differ with biographic details—but is aware of his weakness and tries to overcome it; he alludes patronizingly to other speakers who do not know enough to make a similar effort. In fact, it soon appears that the speaker possesses a fairly extensive stock of authoritative knowledge which enables him to condemn many forms that are used by other speakers.”

Such secondary responses do exasperate linguists, to the point that even a mild-mannered linguistic savant like Geoffrey Pullum is motivated to mutter “prescriptivist poppycock.” But the linguist’s reply prompts a belligerent tertiary response:

“The linguist’s cue in this situation is to observe; but if, giving in to a natural impulse (or else, by way of experiment), he tries to enlighten the speaker, he encounters a tertiary response to language. The tertiary response occurs almost inevitably when the conventional secondary response is subjected to question. The tertiary response is hostile; the speaker grows contemptuous or angry. …

“Invariably, in my experience, the linguist’s counter-statements are treated as eccentric personal notions—even by speakers who otherwise are aware of the cumulative character of science. The knowledge that the linguist has in person investigated the topic under discussion does not alter this response.”

Why do people act this way? Maybe because of the endorphins they release when they do it. (OK, just guessing. I’m not a biologist.) As a careful fieldworker, Bloomfield observes the secondary responders in action:

“Several peculiarities of these secondary responses deserve further study. The speaker, when making the secondary response, shows alertness. His eyes are bright, and he seems to be enjoying himself. No matter how closely his statement adheres to tradition, it proffers it as something new, often as his own observation or as that of some acquaintance, and he is likely to describe it as interesting. If he knows that he is talking to a professional student of language, he first alleges ignorance and alludes modestly to the status of his own speech, but then advances the traditional lore in a fully authoritative tone. The whole process is, as we say, pleasurable.”

And there’s the justification for a career in linguistics. What other science can bring happiness to so many?


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