Society mirrors language but ideals block the view

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.”

Nietzsche (1873, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense“)

As a linguist I am often being asked questions of the sort: “What is the correct way to say X”? While this question is innocent, it assumes a rigid power structure in which I am the authority to decide on language-related issues. When I respond with an answer of the sort: “There is no one way to say X”, I get baffled looks and angry responses. “What do you mean ‘there is no one way to say X’?” they say, “You’re a linguist! You’re supposed to know the right answer!”. Well, I’m not supposed to – simply because there isn’t one. Language, contrary to common belief, is not a thing that conforms to the rules teachers and grammar books dictate; it’s alive, and it has been living long before teachers and grammar were invented.

Linguistics is a very new branch of science which sprouted from philology about 70 years ago in the 50’s of the last century. In a nutshell, the purpose of linguistics is to describe language as it is spoken in order to deduce and predict its inner structure. Naturally, a good linguist is one who does not let their ideals misrepresent language – just like any decent scientist would not ignore a good piece of evidence if it contradicts their personal beliefs.

Language, with all its complexities and wonder, is perceived today by most people the way it was perceived over a century ago – rigid, unchanging yet subjected to rules advocated by authority figures. This view, which dictates to people how to speak according to some standardized form, is called prescriptivism.

Prescriptivism is an old practice – it’s been around for centuries, if not more. It seems that it doesn’t matter which generation you happened to be born in, you would probably experience some sort of prescriptivism. Since the dawn of time people looked back to their (often imagined) collective past with awe – the ancient Greek people recited the Iliad and the Israelites looked back to their Exodus. But it was not until the rise of nationalism in the 19th century that language got institutionalized. Back then there was no French or Spanish or German – instead there were dozens of dialects in each country. When nations began to form, standard languages arose as a tool by the state to control and organize the masses into a big cooperative unit.

Prescriptivism is an old practice (Thomas Elwood ~1714)

It follows that standard languages did not emerge by the spontaneous merging of different dialects into one infused language. Instead, they emerged deliberately by the ruling class and became rapidly adopted by the bourgeoisie. The first adopters of this language variant did not have notions of “correct” or “incorrect”, but rather of “classy” or “tacky”. It was only when people began to forget that they are the ones who invented standard languages that they began to view it as “correct” and “incorrect”.

Once people switched to view their standard language as “correct” instead of “prestigious”, they put on a veil over the power structure of society. People who do not speak according to the standard language are not just “peasants”, but simply incorrect. Now, when the standard language dogma has been established, it is more legitimate to disregard people’s worth because of the way they speak. Blaming a person for being poor is heartless, but blaming them for speaking wrong is a legitimate accusation. Even a completely rational and thorough argument can be ignored if it said in “incorrect” language.

I would like to finish with a classic Zen verse which was written by Shenxiu, a patriarch of Chan Buddhism [1].

The body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.
Be always diligent in rubbing it—
Do not let it attract any dust.

By comparing the mind to a mirror, it is claimed that only by continuous practice can one overcome the illusions that trick their mind to see things as they really are. Language is self evident, and we have a certain impression of what it is, but is this impression a spotless reflection? most likely not. Our ideals of what language should be are like dust on a mirror – they obstruct what the mirror is reflecting, leaving us with a distorted impression that doesn’t feel right in our gut. We may discover that our intuitions about language are irreconcilable with our ideals about them. Many would resort to the socially acceptable approach of denying the intuitions and advocating the ideals, others would diligently rub the mirror to allow language to reflect without hindrance, and others would not advocate for the ideals nor rub the mirror – they would simply acknowledge the paradoxical nature of truths.


[1] The story behind this verse, as well as its various interpretations, is intricate and long. For more information, the reader is referred herehere and here.

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