Monday, May 09, 2005

postal scrotum: linguistic prescriptivism/descriptivism redux

Max writes in with an interesting take on the "ex-pat"/"ex-payte" issue. (Check out Max's latest post on Mother's Day in Japan while you're at his site.)

Hi Kevin,

You wrote:

Wooj inadvertently brought up an interesting linguistic conundrum on Saturday: he pronounces "expat" as "ex-payte." This makes sense because it's a short form of "expatriate," which has a long "a." However, I tend to pronounce the word as "ex-pat" (i.e., rhyming with "neck's fat"), and the only rationale I have for my pronunciation is that the female name "Pat" is pronounced with a short "a."

My response: Why not say "expat" whichever way you want to? I think people ought to take a more descriptive (in the linguistic sense) approach to pronunciation.

My first point is that pronunciation depends on the region you live in. Many (East) Indians, after all, speak fluent English, but their intonation can be quite different. Americans can't say that the way Indians pronounce and intone is wrong, just that it's different from our English. The same is true of creoles and the English used in Jamaica. Second, languages are constantly evolving; that's part of their beauty. I believe people should feel free to make up their own pronunciations of words, just as new words (e.g., slang terms) are created all the time.

In everyday life, let diversity reign. It's only in politics, diplomacy, and business (which includes English teaching) that standardization plays an important role.

Peace, M.

Good points, all. I take no strong position on the pronunciation of the word in question; my curiosity was simply piqued.

A while back (25 Sept 2004), Blinger wrote a post about my perceived linguistic prescriptivism (he took issue with this post of mine), to which I felt compelled to reply, because while I'm occasionally a language Nazi, I'm not a strong one. Here's the link to his post.

I'm reprinting my reply to his post here, because it sketches out my position on these matters: need to put my language rants in context. As I've made clear over the course of several such rants, I myself am very much aware that language is a thing in process. Personally, I think such organizations as the Académie Française are laboring in vain, because no matter how hard such organizations try to fight linguistic change, it simply can't be stopped.

But it's also wrong to assume that language is all novelty/chaos/process and no order/stability/continuity (to be clear, I’m not saying that's what you're saying). These things go together, as anyone who's had to write a paper according to a style manual knows only too well. Language changes, but it also manifests stability. Neither change nor stability is absolute.

Personally, I fall somewhere between the two extreme views of straitlaced language Nazism and hang-loose "It's All Good"-ism. I think this is the proper attitude to take. Consider: it's ridiculous to say "There's no such thing as correct English." Obviously, there is, which is why there are style manuals. If there were no correct English at all, then how could anyone teach English to anyone else? We'd be free to babble any nonsense we wanted and still call it English.

At the same time, it's equally ridiculous to say, "There is only one correct English." This is shown by the fact that (1) there's more than one style manual, and these manuals change over time; and (2) there's a whole world of English out there that conforms to no style manual at all, and this is a major source of English's robustness. (Obviously, I'd say the same for other languages.)

So in the end, you and I agree more than we supposedly disagree. I like the way you put it:

I tell my students that there is nothing wrong with using Konglish words when they are speaking Korean, but when they use those same words in English they sound foolish and sometimes impossible to understand for the uninitiated.

This is exactly how I feel. In the above, you're admitting that there are notions of correctness and incorrectness, and you're also saying that those notions are linked to context-- i.e., there's no absolute, written-in-the-fabric-of-the-cosmos correctness out there: it's only what we make and agree to.

So don't take my rant so seriously: when I wrote that crap about the usage of "sans" being sanctioned by God himself, I was joking.

Also, a scold: given how much I've written about Buddhism on my blog, I thought you'd have figured out that I'm no absolutist! A good essay with relevance to the linguistic question is my "Right and Wrong: A Nondualist's Perspective," which is linked on my sidebar. Once you read the taekwondo analogy in that essay, you'll see that you and I are actually on the same page.

In the end, this means that I'll continue to rant about correct usage, because there is a such thing as correctness. But it also means I won't be obsessive about usage, because I know language is a thing in process, like everything else, and there therefore is no absolute correctness.

Not a prescriptivist, no.



If I could change anything in the above, I'd alter the last line to read, "Not a strict prescriptivist, no."

For those who don't know Blinger, he's a great guy; he was active and instrumental during the blogger uproar about the MIC censorship of blogs after the Kim Sun Il beheading video's online release. I meant the above reply in a friendly way, and Blinger's reply to my reply indicates he saw it that way, too.

(I'm still annoyed by the increasing American misuse of sans, though!)

NB: My phrase "Wooj inadvertently brought up" was poorly chosen and easy to interpret negatively. It sounds like Wooj made some sort of misstep, when nothing could be further from the truth. If you've read Wooj's blog, then you know the quality of his English beats that of most of us typo-prone, spelling-challenged expat Koreabloggers in terms of style, mechanics, and content. I refuse to say "He speaks and writes so well!" because English is as much his native tongue as Korean, and to make such a remark, knowing his blog as I do, would be condescending.

By the way, Wooj in person is just as cool as the e-Wooj persona on his blog. Peter/Oranckay's daughter fell in love with him, I think. If the Oranckay ever gets eaten by a tiger, Wooj is likely to become her adoptive father.


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