Monday, January 16, 2006

Phony Safires

Two times in as many weeks Language Hat has called William Safire to task for writing stunningly idiotic things. I mean, idiotic even for Safire.

In case that last sentence didn't clue you in, my dislike for Safire and what he represents borders on the irrational. Now I'm not talking about his political views, though those aren't my cup of postum either, as my father might say. No, what gets to me is his attitude towards language, which is what is known as prescriptivism. This is, more or less, the view that the actual rules of language exist on some platonic level, removed from the shadows-flickering-on-the-walls-of-the-cave rules speakers follow when they speak. You see, for you and me to speak properly we shouldn't follow our instincts, but rather abstract rules handed down from on high that run counter to our instincts.

I have a hard time convincing people that this is wrong, especially since most of the people I associate with are, like me, over-educated and have developed a reflexive elitism that is often quite justifiable. After all, people who have spent years studying some arcane topic tend to know more about that topic than other people. The difference is that language is not an obscure topic. Anyone who has mastered a language (a category that includes the uneducated, illiterate, and even many severely mentally challenged people) -- that is, anyone who can use language to express their own thoughts and understand those of others -- has developed the ability to follow rules so complex that even linguists have barely begun to discover what these rules are. It should come as no surprise, then, that when prescriptivists promulgate rules, they are usually inevented ones, which have a very shaky basis.

So what? Why should I care if William Safire invents a bunch of rules and uses his pulpit at the New York Times to spread them? Isn't that his right? Perhaps, but think of the damage prescriptivists are doing:

On the one hand, they are making people ashamed of how they talk, and adding to their insecurity about language, an insecurity that causes the word "grammar" to elicit so much fear as to drive people away from studying languages and learning about language.

But this pales in comparison to the harm prescriptivists do by perpetuating social and racial injustice. Think I'm kidding or overstating my case? Consider this: When prescriptivists criticize, let's say, double negatives as being inherently illogical, aren't they implying that people who use double negatives are themselves illogical? After all, if they just knew better, wouldn't they see that two negatives make a positive, and it just follows that you shouldn't use them? Now consider who uses double negatives: African Americans, as well as other Americans from regions and backgrounds that limit their economic and educational opportunities . But really, that's their fault -- they clearly have no grasp of logic. Well, tell that to French speakers. Or Russian speakers. Or Hebrew speakers. Or Ancient Greek speakers, if you have a time machine. Because after all, Pascal, Tolstoy, King Solomon and Aristotle were a bunch of idiots, who knew nothing about logic, or else they wouldn't have spoken languages with double negatives, right?

Whew. I'm tired now, and I haven't gotten to my point yet (and at this a British prescriptivist would yell "haven't got!"). Which is the following:

One commenter on Language Hat suggested that Safire might not even be writing his columns -- that it is common practice for well-known columnists to sign off on the work of underlings and publish it as their own work. Now, I don't know if this is true, and I certainly don't want to accuse Safire of being unethical -- only of being wrong and ignorant and the worst kind of snob. But it got me to thinking that it might be fun to try and write fake Safire columns. Not satires, but things that could pass as what Homestar might call "the for real deal." I haven't read much of Safire's writing, and I'm not going to start now, but I think I might try my hand at coming up with Safiresque (Safirian? That sounds like an Iranian Jewish name) ideas about language. When I think of some I'll post them. You kids at home can try it too; hell, this could even evolve into a meme, at which point I'll wash my proverbial hands of it.

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