Language correctness, corruption, and doom

March 17, 2011

Robert Lane Greene, of The Economist’s language blog Johnson, wrote a guest post recently for the New York Times on a subject that crops up regularly in popular discussions about grammar and education: that the language itself is in terminal decline, and may be on the very brink of doom.

Greene sensibly argues against assuming the worst. That language is degenerating calamitously is a perennial lament from a subset of prescriptivists. These laments usually bypass historical evidence. Minimal investigation shows that for centuries critics have conflated languages’ mutability with decay and sometimes imminent destruction. As Greene puts it: ‘Change must be bad, they reckon, because the language they once learned in school was good.’

It just doesn’t add up. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this post, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper told me: ‘When correspondents write in to bewail the death of English, I like to tell them the Anglo-Saxons of 1100AD felt the same way.’

Declarations of doom are often an excuse to vent about what’s (mis)construed as good or bad usage, and sometimes to have a go at younger generations from whom the disparager feels alienated. Henry Hitchings wrote that purists are ‘heavily invested . . . in a fantasy of the status quo’. They want to see the rules they were taught upheld and enforced in perpetuity, whether or not these rules have grammatical validity, and they reject alternative styles because it’s simpler to have One Right Way – the way they’re most familiar with. But what’s correct varies with dialect and context: it depends on the correctness conditions.

‘Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules?’ asks Gabe Doyle, quite reasonably. It’s more interesting and worthwhile to learn what constitutes a grammatical error, and to consider how we decide. But alarmist dogma makes better copy than complicated truth, just as an emotive rant is typically more entertaining than a balanced assessment. Jonathan Swift’s tirade is among the most famous of the former, with its fixation on ‘decay’, ‘ruinous corruption’, ‘the maiming of our language’, and the ‘barbarous’ abuse of not pronouncing past tense -ed as a separate syllable. Honestly.

Fear not: grammar rules are not divinely ordained.

It’s an understandable conceit of each generation to claim special status for its own era: never more chaotic, never more exceptional, never more imperilled. The Austrian writer Hans Weigel exemplified this paradoxical position in his book Die Leiden der jungen Wörter (The Sorrows of Young Words):

Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before.

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Hoover, the ‘talking’ harbour seal

January 26, 2010

‘Imitation is as crucial to the acquisition of speech as it is to learning gesture,’ writes Christine Kenneally in The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language. As infants we mimic our parents’ or guardians’ language as part of a natural process of learning our unique version of it, going from babbling to building novel sentences in a remarkably short time. (Birds, bats and dolphins are also said to have a babbling phase.)

As we get older we remain impressed by skilled mimicry, be it impressions of other accents or the more peculiar ability of some animals to make sounds like we do. We are amused and intrigued by any creature that can mimic human speech despite the considerable anatomical differences. Videos of ‘talking’ cats and dogs abound on YouTube, to say nothing of birds and elephants.

A more surprising example is the seal. Kenneally’s book describes the case of Hoover, a harbour seal who became famous for his human impersonations:

Hoover didn’t ‘talk’ until he reached sexual maturity, but once he started, he improved over the years. He spoke only at certain times of the year (not as much in the mating season) and would reputedly adopt a strange position in order to do so. He didn’t move his mouth. Terrence Deacon [Anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley] recounts stumbling across Hoover while walking near the aquarium one evening. He thought a guard was yelling at him (‘Hey! Hey! Get outta there!’).

Harbour seals may seem unlikely mimics, but they have a wide range of vocalisations — especially among sexually mature males. You can read a short account of Hoover’s life story at the New England Aquarium website, which also has a short audio clip of Hoover ‘talking’. It’s a funny, slurring sound, like the gruff scolding of an ill-tempered janitor.

Evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch hosts a few more files of Hoover’s ‘speech’ on his page at the University of St Andrews. Fitch says Hoover’s ability is all the more interesting because ‘vocal learning of complex sounds’ has not been found in any non-human primate, and the animals skilled in such learning — such as song birds and cetaceans — do not use the same organs that we do.

Hoover died in 1985 but his legacy continues in his grandson Chacoda, aka Chuck, who seems to have inherited this remarkable ability.

Update: Another note on Hoover’s vocalisations, and accent, appears in Terrence Deacon’s book The Symbolic Species:

Opinions were mixed on where and how he learned these phrases. Some were convinced that he learned them from the staff, or was taught by them as he began to vocalize in ways that sounded speechlike; but the story that seemed to ring true was that he sounded just like the old fisherman who originally took him in, years before. I thought from the beginning that he had sort of a down-east, old-salt accent.