Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pinched from the unimaginatively but informatively named Language Log (see blogroll)

'Decades ago Robert Warshow wrote an essay on "The New Yorker" that explains what Pinker is grappling with in trying to understand their need to create a false dichotomy in which they are the side of the Prescriptivists/Angels and Civilization itself, as well as their inability to understand that you can describe reality, recognize operative rules, and still acknowledge there are standards of usage that are useful and socially significant although entirely arbitrary from an linguistic point of view.

"The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately."

[(myl) Thanks for pointing to this essay, which I had not read. The citation is Robert Warshow, "E.B. White and the New Yorker", originally published in 1947 in Partisan Review under the title "Melancholy to the End", and reprinted in a 1962 collection Immediate Experience. It's a review of White's collection of essays on world government, The Wild Flag. I discussed my own encounter with The Wild Flag here.]'

This is very well put. It articulates the sense of hopelessness, of swimming through treacle, that I experience whenever I try to discuss anything remotely controversial,  or anything at all connected with economics, politics or what we might call general morality with almost anyone at all. I only tend to do it with the sort of people who throw in their own opinions on such subjects, uninvited and often unwanted, with the obvious assumption that a) whatever they just heard on the TV news is a complete and accurate analysis of the subject, and b) no reasonable person could possibly disagree with them.

The reasons for this are probably not hard to find. There are many subjects on which people feel they should have an opinion, indeed they may well feel that they are defined by their opinion on certain matters, and the more such subjects there are, and the more rapidly they appear and disappear as fashionable topics of conversation, the more difficult it is to do any real thinking or research. People take their opinions, their identity, off the peg from the sources they find at hand.

It doesn’t mean they are always wrong, just that they are not capable of having any real discussion, or of going deeper into the subject. They think they are arguing, but in fact their responses tend to be random dogmatic assertions, which they make no attempt to defend, other than by shouting, and most of the time seem to not even understand.

As you’ve probably guessed, I got drawn into an argument about the Spanish economy a couple of nights ago. And the quote I came across sums up the reason I should not have bothered: the media, or others with the help of the media, give people little bags of opinion, decorated with sequins of apparent explanation. People grab them gratefully and believe they have understood a difficult subject, when all they have done is adopt a second-hand attitude towards it, because it happens to fit their prejudices. The range of subjects to which this applies is enormous.

The response of most people to anything new- be it an idea, a person, a culture, an object, a practice, a place…- is defensive; they want to know if it will hurt them. Then they want to know how they can make it old as painlessly as possible, they want to know how it fits into the stuff they already know. It’s much easier to dismiss it as bad than to try to understand it, and if they feel that they must understand it, they have the New Yorker and a thousand other publications to tell them that they have understood it, without going to all the trouble of thinking about it. Once they are persuaded they have the orthodox attitude to it then they can relax and life for them can go on as before. The New Yorker and its brethren provide an invaluable service.


Sackerson said...

"... the media, or others with the help of the media, give people little bags of opinion, decorated with sequins of apparent explanation."

That's lovely. Reminds me of TS Eliot:

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn

CIngram said...

The Nobel prize is just round the corner;-)

Btw, I will finally have a response for you this weekend, before you forget what it was we were arguing about. I've been very busy lately. (which, given the state of the Spanish economy, is little short of a miracle).

Vincent said...

I find it difficult to see how "people" or "most people" are wrong in this. What attitude to the outside world can we have but a self-interested one? How can we approach any topic except with our prejudices (pre-judgements)? Almost every topic that comes up is one which we have already thought upon, and decided. To imagine that people will discuss and debate, like philosophers, is impossibly idealistic. Even philosophers probably don't do that. They have their intuitions and defend them.

And it's natural to be attracted to journalism which supports our prejudice because it reminds us why we lean that way, gives us a rehash of all the arguments that may have influenced us in a first place. I like to read opinion columns in the Daily Telegraph, for they tell me who my allies are and why I must keep at arms length from them, for I may dislike much of their credo, or their hypocritical behaviour. On the other hand I hate reading The Guardian because I find its entire approach repulsive, and super-hypocritical. Yes, these habits represent a prejudice, but I find it reinforced each time.

As for Language Log, I cannot read them any more either. Their anti-prescriptivist agenda bores me and is intrinsically absurd. Language has rules. The rules are of course constantly disputed, they may not be rules for every speaker everywhere, and they evolve. But you have to start with rules. Not teaching those rules (in school etc) is harmful. You pay a price. The rules are not for all time.

It's entertaining and instructive to read Fowler's Modern English Usage especially an older edition, not just for the rules enunciated, not just for the amusing text, but for the atrocious journalese and officialese of the examples the author quotes. Today's journalism may be slipshod and crass, but it's wonderful compared with those examples.

James Higham said...

So glad you put that:

"The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately."

Can use that now in the current post to illustrate the point you're making.

CIngram said...


Not sure if you mean I've made that mistake myself, or you're referring to the series of posts you put out yesterday about Frankfurt/NWO/CP etc. If the latter, I'm glad to have helped. If the former, well, I'm human, too. But what did you mean exactly.

CIngram said...


Your first paragraph is almost certainly true, I just wish that it weren't, or that it weren't always so,, and especially, I wish that I could know when I do it myself. Motes and beams. But I think the point of the quote was taht the New Yorker pretends to set itself and its readers a higher standard, but then uses consciously the same tricks that most of the time we use naturally and unconsciously, thus fooling iyts readers, who are not given what they think they are getting.

I think we've disagreed about Language Log before. The rules of language that are of interest to readers and writers and teachers (and linguisticians when they are acting in those capacities rather than as researchers into language) are mostly concerned with style and register and the effect sth will have on the reader or listener. We want the reader/listener not only to understand the message in the way that we intended but also to receive the correctly the impression of ourselves that we intended to convey. These are things that we may have to learn, as rules, for many different communicative situations, because a great deal of that understanding will depend on sender and receiver having the same set of rules by which to interpret.

But linguistics itself, and linguisticians when they are doing linguistics, are interested in the faculty of language and how it is expressed by the natural desire to communicate. What is wrong- and what is right- in this sense is a very different concept.

If I wrote on this blog about the same subjects but in the dialect of my native town, I would have even fewer readers than I have now, and neither you nor anyone else would think it worthwhile commenting here. And yet that dialect obeys its own rules of natural language, but it's non-standard words and forms are completely wrong for the communicative situation we are trying to create here.

Vincent said...

What I wonder is whether Language Log in its non-prescriptivism tacitly endorses usages arising from ignorance, lack of editing or simple copycattery. For example, In my previous sentence I wrote "its non prescriptivism". In your own comment above, you wrote "it's non-standard words".

Does non-prescriptivism give its (not it's) blessing to any instance where the meaning is not in doubt? Doesn't this result in a free-for-all where the literacy of yesteryear, when education was hard to come by, descends into a crass anarchy when even those who ought to be role-models, such as teachers, aren't even aware of what the rules are?

I'm just using this as an example by the way, not nitpicking on minor typos in comments amongst friends. We all do it, and it's neither here nor there. It's Language Log I have the argument with.

Vincent said...

When I said "any instance" I meant "every instance".

CIngram said...

The linguistics types at Language Log would point out my error as you did, and probably less politely. It was a typo, of course, in my case, but some people use 'it's' for 'its' out of genuine confusion. There really is a rule about this in English, one can that be seen to exist and to be observed be almost all writers (who check their work before they post it) and can even be explained historically (it doesn't originate from an ellipsis in the genitive form as many possessives do).

Linguistics recognises the existence of error in a number of senses, it distinguishes standard from non-standard forms, it can distinguish uses, spellings, idioms etc which are standard at one time and place and not at others, and it can tell good writing from bad. Most of this is what linguistics is for- it observes language and tells us what it is.

What language should be is another question entirely, one for teachers, editors, style instructors and readers to determine. Sometimes teachers are lazy and style instructors have little understanding of what they talk about. Many of the 'rules' savaged at Language Log are not in fact rules of English, but context-dependent matters of style, dressed up as universal rules. And in many cases they are not real rules at all, and never have been.

In questions of natural language they look at what people actually say, but in question of style, and they are mostly good stylists, or at least concerned about good style, they look at what good writers say and have said, and often find no support in the work of recognised stylists for the strictures they are discussing.

You mentioned Fowler in your first comment. I like his books because, although some of his advice on pronunciation and distinction of meaning is outdated, he is a great stylist himself, with a very good ear for good and bad writing, as shown by the examples he chooses. He also analyses and explains the structure and logic of language beautifully.