Monday, May 03, 2004

Language as Signaling Mechanism

I’ve defended a mild form of linguistic prescriptivism in the past, but a distinct argument for linguistic prescriptivism has been running around in my head for a few weeks now, and Neal’s post below helped me finally pin it down. Neal said, among other things:
Ultimately, I had to concede to my wife that criticizing someone for thinking that “beg the question” means “induce one to ask the question” is little more than saying, “Ha, ha! I’ve read books on logic and you haven’t! I know the code and you don’t!”
This reminded me of something Bill Poser said about a month ago:
Prescriptive grammar has very little to do with maintaining the clarity and precision of the language. What it really has to do with is maintaining the dominance of the upper classes and enforcing social norms. It used to be that only the wealthy had access to the kind of education that would provide knowledge of the particular type of English enshrined in the prescriptive standard, so discriminating against people who did not command this type of English helped to preserve class distinctions and to keep the lower classes in their place by making them believe that because they spoke differently they were inferior. This isn't as true as it once was, but the idea persists. Prescriptive grammar is a tool of the kleptocracy.
Whoa, that’s harsh. The general message one might glean from Neal’s and Bill’s posts together is that many rules of grammar and style have no purpose but to keep certain people down while privileging the elite. (I should recognize that Neal’s position is not as extreme as Bill’s.)

I wonder if there might be a more charitable way of saying the same thing. Perhaps the rules of grammar and style perform a useful social function by providing signals about the educational backgrounds and effort levels of communicators. Consider the analogy to university education. One popular theory about such education is that it actually imparts useful knowledge to students and increases their productivity. That is, I hope, at least true to some extent. But another theory about education – one that I find increasingly plausible – is that it simply helps us to distinguish the more and less capable students. Someone who has graduated from college with a good GPA has (at least with some colleges) demonstrated a combination of native talent, work ethic, and persistence – all virtues that future employers value. Your degree is thus a signal of your productivity, even if getting the degree did not actually make you more productive.

For a signaling mechanism like education to work efficiently, there must be some cost of acquiring the positive signal, and the cost must be greater for the low productivity person than for the high productivity person. To put it simply, it must be harder for a low-talent person than for a high-talent person to graduate or get a good GPA. The valuable output of the signaling process is information about talent levels. I suspect that rules of grammar and style may perform a similar signaling role. To learn the rules, you need reasonably good instruction, and you must apply yourself to learn them. When you speak and write, listeners and readers acquire information about your education and work ethic.

It would be silly, of course, to judge a person ignorant or stupid on the basis of a single infraction of the rules. There are too many idiosyncratic rules for every person to learn every single one. I would not assume, for instance, that someone who uses “beg the question” to mean “induce one to answer the question” is uneducated. I might, however, infer (as Neal indicates) that the speaker had probably never studied logic. That inference might be buttressed by his reference to “ad homonym attacks.” The more errors (deviations from traditional usages) a person makes, the more confidence I have in my conclusions. This is similar to how I grade essays for style. I realize that style is unavoidably subjective, so I don’t subtract a standard number of points for each stylistic problem. Instead, I mark every stylistic problem I see, and then I make a holistic judgment of how badly written the paper was, taking into account the total number of red marks I see.

If my argument sounds elitist, that’s because it is. But it is an elitism grounded in information inferred from behavior, as opposed to irrelevant factors like sex or skin color. Most Americans do have the opportunity, if they apply themselves, to learn the basics of good writing and speaking. Indeed, learning to speak and write clearly, and in line with traditional rules, is probably one of the most accessible means of crossing class boundaries. Listeners should, of course, make exceptions for immigrants and others who cannot reasonably be expected to have fully absorbed the rules of the language. But the fact that a mechanism is imperfect does not imply that it has no use at all.

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