Field of Science

Language Wars

I was struck by a comment to a post a while back on Cognitive Daily:

It's "DOES the use of hand gestures." Please, pay attention; grammar matters. "The use of hand gestures" is the subject, and it is singular.

Grammar matters?

A certain segment of the population gets very worked up about "correct usage" of language. As a scientist, I understand the difference between "standard" and "non-standard" language, and why one might care, as an educator, about the standard. Language is most useful when everybody understands one another (cf The Tower of Babel). This is why the standardization of spelling was such an important -- and relatively recent -- achievement.

However, the people who say, "pay attention; grammar matters" seem to be concerned with something else entirely. I can't say for sure what this poster cared about, but most that I know believe that without proper language, one cannot have proper thoughts. Thus, if we could make everybody produce perfectly-diagrammable sentences, everyone would finally think right, too.

To actually prove this contention, you would have to do a controlled experiment. Find two people who speak with "poor" grammar and have similarly sloppy thinking, teach one the correct grammar, and see if that person now thinks more clearly than the uneducated speaker.

To the best of my knowledge, no such experiment has been done -- no doubt partly because scientists seem to as a group reject such thinking altogether. For one thing, you would have to define "correct grammar," which is a priori impossible to do. The only known way to determine if a sentence is grammatical is to querry a native speaker of a language. That's it. There are no other methods.

So, now suppose we have two people (for instance, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) who disagree as to whether a sentence is grammatical. How do we decide between the two of them? Typically, most people for whatever reason side with the wealthier and more politically powerful of the two (in this case, Henry Higgins).

That doesn't sound very democratic. So we could take a poll. Typically, you'll find that one judgment is more common than another. But now we have only defined a standard: not necessarily a "correct" judgment. Moreover, these differences in judgments often vary as a function of where you live. As I understand it, there are parts of the South where most people will agree that you simply can't refer to a group of people as "you" -- "y'all" is the correct term.

A war of words
If it is the case that there is no evidence that "correct grammar" helps people think more correctly, and that this is because there is no such thing as correct grammar -- and I assure you, there isn't -- then why do people get so hung up on it?

First, you might answer that most people live their lives just fine without ever thinking about correct and incorrect grammar. I suspect that is false. Much hay has been made about Palin's "mangling" of the English language, some of which is valid, but much of which is due to the fact that she speaks with a nonstandard dialect. It has been remarked by more than one Southerner that Yankees think they are dumb just because of their accent. If you've never done this, then I ask you, have you really never assumed someone with a West Virginian accent was dumb? If you haven't, then at least accept that even babies prefer people who speak with the local standard accent (note that somewhat older children may actually prefer a person with a locally high-status accent rather than their own accent).

I've heard it claimed that wars have been fought over linguistic differences, but I couldn't think of any obvious examples (please comment away if you have one). Still, I think the evidence is compelling that people really, really care about accent and language use, and this goes beyond a belief in the empirical claim that right language leads to right thoughts. This runs deeper. Hopefully we will some day understand why.


Eric Easterberg said...

Only peripherally on topic, but isn't it odd that, in the world of football, the Southern accent signifier is exactly the opposite? That is, a Southern accent is actually the one with prestige, especially when we are treated to the expertise of a retired coach. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer might be regarded negatively, but their accents actually seem to give them cred.

Anonymous said...

I doubt that grammar matters in that way: "sloppy grammar" does not equal "sloppy thinking." But good grammar is a social status marker. If two equally qualified (and gender- and race-matched) psychologists applied for the same job, the one with "bad" grammar (i.e. not the grammar of the dominant social group) would not get the job.

And, of course, I fixed the error in the post because I want to be accepted by the dominant social group.

Federal Jenny said...

Bad grammar drives me crazy, but bad punctuation drives me totally insane. When did it become acceptable to use an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun?!?

Furthermore, as a Southerner, I take offense at your suggestion that we don't accept the plural of "you" as "you" as correct. Of course we do - I would never write "y'all" in a formal communication (although I do say it). However, my friends in New Jersey are adamant that it's "yous guys."

At least you didn't say that "y'all" can also be used as a singular for "you," as some Yankees claim. That's just preposterous.