Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘language

A few guidelines on when not to use “feminist”

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The word (and, by implication, the associated concept) “feminist” and its variations are extremely overused. A few, likely incomplete, guidelines for when not to use it:

  1. Never use the word to refer to someone who does not self-identify as feminist.

    Note particularly that many (including women, including those who see men and women as equal) see the word as an insult. For this reason, particular care should be taken with those who are already dead or will be otherwise unable to defend themselves against what can amount to an accusation.

    Even among those who do not, the use is often too speculative or commits the fellow-traveler fallacy (which I recommend keeping in mind through-out this post).

    A fortiori, never use the word about someone who died before the word was coined (preferably, became mainstream with a stable meaning)*. This is particularly important, because by associating it self with successful or important women from the past, many of which might have viewed it as absurd, feminism can create an unduly positive perception of it self.

    *The earliest mentions, in a somewhat current sense, appear to have been in the 1890s. A more reasonable cut-off might be the 1949 publication of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which arguably brought a change of character in the women’s right movements; and at which time there had been considerable changes in women’s opportunities and rights through e.g. WWII and various law changes in various countries, and the word had reached a greater popularity than in the 1890s. Beware that the spread of the word necessarily progressed differently in different countries.

  2. Be cautious about applying the word to someone who does self-identify as feminist, but is unlikely to be fully aware of the implications. Notably, every second young actress appears to self-identify as feminist, without having any actual understanding, instead being “feminist” because it is what is expected of the “enlightened” or because they have fallen into one of the traps of meaning discussed below. To boot, they give reason to suspect me-too-ism.

    More generally, a disturbing amount of supporters of feminism fall into the category of “useful idiots”, e.g. through declaring themselves supporters after uncritically accepting faulty claims by feminist propagandists. Obviously, however, a significant portion of these do qualify as feminists. (By analogy, someone who follows a certain religion based on flawed evidence should still be considered a follower, while someone who has misunderstood what the religion teaches often should not.)

  3. Never use the word because someone supports equality between the sexes. Very many non-feminists do to; very many feminists do not*.

    *Contrary to their regular self-portrayal, which has even lead to some grossly misleading dictionary definitions. Notably, the red thread of the feminist movement has been women’s rights, which only coincides with a fight for equality in a world where women are sufficiently disadvantaged. The inappropriateness of this self-portrayal is manifestly obvious when we look at e.g. today’s Sweden, where men now form the disadvantaged sex and feminist still clamor for more rights for women—but hardly ever mention rights of men or equal responsibilities for both sexes.

    Notably, I believe in equality and very clearly identify as anti-feminist. Cf. e.g. an older post.

    Equating “wanting equality” with “feminism” is comparable to equating “wanting freedom” with “liberalism” or “wanting [socio-economic] equality” with “communism”. (However, there is an interesting parallel between feminism and the political left in that both seem to focus mostly on “equality of outcome”, which is of course not equality at all, seeing that it is incompatible with “equality of opportunity”, except under extreme and contrary-to-science tabula-rasa assumptions.)

  4. Never use the word because someone believes in strong women, takes women seriously, writes fiction with a focus on women or showing women in power, or similar.

    None of this has any actual bearing on whether someone is a feminist or not. Indeed, much of feminist rhetoric seems based on the assumption that women are weak, in need of protection, unable to make their own minds up*, unable to make sexual decisions for themselves, and similar.

    *Or, make their minds up correctly, i.e. in accordance with the opinion that feminists believe that they should have. (For instance, through not professing themselves to be feminists, or through prefering to be house-wifes.)

  5. Never use the word because someone agrees with feminists on a small number of core issues, even if these have symbolic value within the feminist movement.

    For instance, it is perfectly possible to have a very liberal stance on abortion without otherwise being a feminist. (And feminists that oppose abortion, e.g. for religious reason, exist too, even though they might be considerably rarer.)

Addressing the issue from the opposite direction, it would be good to give guidelines on when the word should be applied. This, however, is tricky, seeing that there is a considerable heterogeneity within the movement. An indisputably safe area, however, is that of gender-feminism, which has dominated feminist self-representation, reporting, politics, …, for decades, and likely has the largest number of adherents once non-feminists (per the above) and useful idiots are discounted. The use can with a high degree of likelihood safely be extended to variations that are otherwise strongly rooted in quasi-Marxism, a tabula-rasa model of the human mind, and/or de Beauvoir’s writings.*

*With the reservation that we, for some aspects, might have to differ between those who actually apply a certain criticism or whatnot to the modern society and those who merely do so when looking at past societies.

I personally do not use it to refer to e.g. “equity feminism”, which is so contradictory to gender-feminism as to border on an oxymoron—and I strongly advise others to follow my example, for reasons that include the risk of bagatellizing or legitimizing gender-feminism through “innocence by association” and, vice versa, demonizing “equity feminists” through guilt by association. However, the case is less clear-cut, in either direction, than the cases discussed above.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 10, 2018 at 1:02 pm

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Abuse of “they” as a generic singular

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Preamble:
I had gathered ideas and individual paragraphs for this post for a few weeks without actually getting to the point of writing it. In order to finally get it done today, I have pushed quite a lot of what should or could have been parts of the integrated text into detached excursions at the end of the text and made some other compromises in terms of structure and contents.

One of the greatest annoyances in current English is the growing* tendency to abuse “they” as a generic third-person singular (including secondary forms, notably “their”). Below I will discuss some of the reasons why this abuse is a bad idea and give alternatives for those who (misguided, naive of the history of English, and/or unable to understand the abstractness of a language) oppose to use of “he” in the same role. An older article on “gender-neutral language” covers some other aspects, usually on a more abstract level (and some of the same ground; however, I have tried not to be too duplicative). Some other articles, including one on language change, etc., might also be of interest in context.

*While this has a fairly long history, I regularly saw people being corrected for committing this error even some five or ten years ago. To boot, cf. below, there are strong reasons to suspect that the main motivation has changed from simple ignorance or sloppiness to a deliberate abuse for PC reasons.

Below, I will largely discuss practical aspects. Before I do so, I am going to make a stand and call this abuse (when done for PC reasons) outright offensive.* It offends me, and it should offend anyone who cares about language and anyone who opposes political manipulation through newspeak. More: This is not just a question of good language or newspeak. The abuse of “they” is also a direct insult towards significant parts of the population, who are implicitly told that they are that easy to manipulate, that they and their own opinions matter so little that they deserve such manipulation, and that they need to be protected from the imaginary evils of “gendered language”. Moreover, this abuse is** often dehumanizing and deinvidualizing, in a manner disturbingly similar to what took place in the dystopian novella “Anthem”.

*I am normally very careful when it comes to words like “offensive”—unlike the PC crowd I actually understand the aspects of subjectiveness involved and how misguided such argumentation usually is. However, since “offensiveness” is used by them in such a systematic and, mostly, irrational and unjustifiable manner, I will not hold back in this case.

**At least if we were to apply PC “logic” in reverse, which, again, is something that I would likely not do, had the PC crowd not gone to their extreme excesses.

Now, discounting the evils of PC abuse, per se, the worst thing about abusing “they” is the risk of entirely unnecessary confusion and misunderstandings*: In a very high proportion of the cases I encounter, additional context or even guesswork is needed to connect “they” with the right entity/-ies; often this choice is contrary to what would be grammatically expected; occasionally there is so much ambiguity that it is impossible to be certain what was meant. Consider something like “My friend went with Jack and Jill to see their parents”: Unless they are all siblings (or went to see multiple sets of parents), this really must mean that they went to see the parents of Jack and Jill; however, in a modern PC text, it could just as easily be the friend’s parents. Or take something like “Monopoly is played by two to six players, one of which is the bank. They [the `bank’] handle most of the money.”: Without already knowing the rules, the second sentence is impossible to understand when “they” is abused (and stating something untrue when it is used correctly).

*There are situations where ambiguities can arise even when using correct grammar, especially with a sloppy author/speaker; however, the proportion is considerably lower, the probability that the ambiguities are resolved through context is higher, and the added confusion caused by the uncertainty whether a given author/speaker abuses “they” is absent. (Note that the argument that “if everyone spoke PC this would not be a problem” is flawed through failing to consider the great number of existing texts as well as the necessarily different adoption rates in different countries and generations.)

A few days ago, I encountered a particularly weird example, in the form of an error message, when I was trying to clean-up unnecessary groups and users* on my computer:

*In Unix-like systems, “users” (accounts) can be assigned “groups”. With extremely few exceptions, every user should correspond to at most one physical user. (Some users are purely technical and do not have any physical user at all.) A group, however, can be assigned to arbitrarily many users and, by implication, arbitrarily many physical users. As a special case, it is common for every user to be a member, often the sole member, of a group with the same name as the user name. Below, this is the case for the user “gnats”.

/usr/sbin/delgroup: `gnats’ still has `gnats’ as their primary group!

Here it is impossible to delete the group “gnats”, because the user “gnats” belongs to this group; however, this fact is obscured through the incompetent error message that uses “their”, giving the impression that the group is meant… In many cases, say with the user “gnats” and the group “audio”, this would not have been the end of the world, but when the names coincide, it is a horror, and interpretation requires more knowledge about the internals of the system than most modern users will have. This example is the more idiotic, because the pronoun is entirely unnecessary: “[…] as primary group!” would have done just fine. Even given that a pronoun was wanted, “its” would be the obvious first choice to someone even semi-literate, seeing that the user “gnats” is an obvious it*—regardless of whether the physical** user behind it is a he or a she.

*Similarly, a bank account remains an “it”, regardless of the sex of the account owner.

**As case has it, “gnats” is one of the users that do not have a physical user at all (cf. above footnote), making “it” the more indisputable.

The use of “their” instead of “its” is just one example of the many perverted abuses that occur. A very similar case is using “they” instead of “it” for an animal*. Mixing “one” and “they” is yet another (e.g. “one should always do their duty”, which would only be correct if “their” refers to some people other than the “one” ). A particular extreme perversion is using “they” when the sex of the person involved is actually known (or a necessity from context), as e.g. in “my friend liked the movie; they want to see it again”.**

*Whether “it” is more logical than “he”/“she” for an animal can be disputed, but it is the established rule. Going with “they” over “it” gives only disadvantages. (Even the pseudo-advantage of “gender neutrality” does not apply, because “it” already had that covered.)

**As aside, there might be some PC-extremists that actually deliberately use such formulations, because they see every sign of sex (race, nationality, religion, …) as not only irrelevant in any context, but as outright harmful, because “it could strengthen stereotypes”, or similar. Not only would this be a fanaticism that goes beyond anything defensible, it also severely damages communications: Such information is important in very many contexts, because these characteristics do have an effect in these contexts. (And it is certainly not for one party do selectively decide which of these contexts are relevant and which not.) For instance, if someone cries, the typical implications for a male and a female (or a child and an adult) are very different. Ditto, if a catholic and a protestant marriage is terminated. Etc.

Assuming that someone absolutely does not want to use “he”, there is still no need to abuse “they”. Alternatives include:*

*What alternatives are usable when can depend on the specifics of the individual case. I can, however, not recall one single abuse that could not be resolved better in at least one way. Note that I have not included variations like “he or she” or “(s)he” in the below. While these are better than “they”, and can certainly be used, they are also fairly clumsy and the below works without such clumsiness. (I have no sympathies at all for solutions like using “he” in odd-numbered chapters and “she” in even-numbered ones. They bring little value; do not solve the underlying problem, be it real or imagined; and, frankly, strike me as childish.)

  1. Use a strict plural through-out, e.g. by replacing “everyone who wants to come should bring their own beverages” with “those who want to come should bring their own beverages”.
  2. Using “one” (but, cf. above, doing it properly!), e.g. by replacing “everyone should be true to themself” with “one should be true to oneself”.
  3. Similarly, rarely* using “you”, e.g. by having “you should be true to yourself” as the replacement in the previous item.

    *Cf. another older article why “you” is usually best avoided (for completely different reasons).

  4. Using “who” or another relative pronoun, e.g. by replacing “My friend is nice. They came to help me.” with “my friend, who came to help me, is nice”.*

    *But in this specific example, the sex is known and it would be better yet to use “he” or “she” as appropriate. This applies equally in any other examples where the sex is known.

  5. Avoiding the pronoun altogether, e.g. by replacing “every student should bring their chosen book” with “every student should bring a chosen book”, or “someone asked me to describe the painting to them” with “someone asked me to describe the painting”.
  6. Using the passive, e.g. by replacing “they* brought the horses back to the stable” with “the horses were brought back to the stable”. (If there is fear of information loss, we could append a suitable “by X” at the end of the replacement, just making sure that “X” is not “them”.)

    *Assuming that this is intended as a singular. If “they” is actually used for a plural, it is perfectly fine.

  7. In many cases, it is possible to use either “he” or “she” as a semi-generic singular from context. For instance, when generalizing based or semi-based on a man/woman, “he”/“she” can often be used accordingly without losing much genericness and without upsetting any but the most extremist of the PC crowd. For instance, “If a beginner like you cannot succeed, they should still try.” would be better as (male counter-part) “[…], he […]” resp. (female counter-part) “[…], she […]”.

    (Of course, when all of those we generalize to belong to a single sex, the appropriate of “he” and “she” should be used, analogously to the Thalidomide example below.)

Excursion on “it” vs. “they”:
Using “it” rather than “they” (as a replacement for “he”) would have made much more sense, seeing that it actually is a singular and that it actually is in the neutral gender*. Many of the arguments against “they” would still apply, but if someone really, really wanted to use an existing word as a replacement, “it” really is the obvious choice. I could have had some understanding and sympathy for “it”, but “they” is not just idiotic—it is obviously idiotic.

*“They” has some (all?) characteristics of a neutral gender in English, but whether it actually is one is partly depending on perspective. In English, it might be better to consider it a mix-gender form; in other languages, there might be different words for a third-person plural depending on the grammatical genders of the group members; whatnot.

The somewhat similar (but off-topic) question of whether to use “it” or “they” for e.g. a team, a company, or a band is less clear-cut. I would weakly recommend “it” as the usually more logical alternative, as well as the alternative less likely to cause confusion; however, in some cases “they” can be better, and I probably use “they” more often in my own practical use.

Excursion on “everyone”, etc.:
Errors that originate in ignorance or sloppiness are far more tolerable than those that originate from PC abuse. The most common (relating to “they”) is probably to take “everyone” to be a grammatical plural (logically, it often is; grammatically, never), resulting in sentences like “everyone were happy with their choices”, which is almost OK and unlikely to cause confusion considerably more often than a strictly correct sentence. In contrast, a PC abuse would result in “everyone was happy with their choice”, which is ripe with possibility for misunderstanding.

Excursion on PC language in general:
It is not uncommon that other attempts to “be PC” or “gender-neutral” in language cause easily avoidable problems. For instance, parallel to writing this post I skimmed the Wikipedia article on Thalidomide, which among other claims contained “Thalidomide should not be used by people who are breast feeding or pregnant, trying to conceive a child, or cannot or will not follow the risk management program to prevent pregnancies.”—leaving me severely confused. Obviously, if we look at “breast feeding or pregnant”, this still necessarily* refers only to women**—but what about the rest of the sentence? If a man tries to conceive a child with his wife, does he too have to stay clear of Thalidomide?*** If the author of the sentence had left political correctness (and/or sloppiness) at home and spoken of “women” instead of “people” where only women were concerned, and then of “people” where both sexes were concerned, there would have been no problem present. This is the more serious, as such pages will inevitably be used for medical consultation from time to time—no matter how much their unsuitability for such purposes is stressed.

*There are rare cases of men lactating, but I have never even heard of this being used for breast feeding. If it has happened, it is too extraordinarily rare to warrant consideration here.

**Implying that speaking of “people” would be at best misguided and unnecessary, even for this first part. However, since no actual confusion or miscommunication is likely to result, this alone would be forgivable.

***Later parts of the page make clear, very contrary to my expectations, that men are included, “as the drug can be transmitted in sperm”. (I still suspect, however, that the risks are smaller for men than women, due to the smaller exposure from the fetus point of view.)

Excursion on Wikipedia:
Wikipedia, which used to be exemplary in its use of language (and strong in other “encyclopedic” characteristics) has degenerated severely over the years, with abuse of “they” being near ubiquitous. Unfortunately, other language problems are quite common; unfortunately other PC problems are quite common, including that an entirely disproportionate number of articles have a section of feminism, the feminist take on the topic, the topic’s relation to feminism, whatnot, somewhere—even when there is no particular relevance to or of feminism. (Including e.g. many articles on films with a section on how the film is interpreted using “feminist” film analysis.)

Excursion on duty to correctness:
Human acquisition and development of language is to a large part imitative. When people around us use incorrect language, there is a considerable risk, especially with young people, that the errors will be infective. For this reason, it could possibly be argued that we have duty to be as correct as possible (within the borders of our own abilities). When it comes to e.g. teachers, TV, news papers, … I would speak of a definite such duty: They have the opportunity to affect and, possibly, infect so many people that it is absurd to be sloppy, especially seeing that many of them have the resources to use professional checkers, e.g. copy editors. (Of course, sadly, these also have other duties like proper research, “fairness in reporting”, and whatnot, that are neglected disturbingly often.)

Excursion on logic of language:
Much of language is illogical or arbitrary, or seems to be so, because of remnants of long-forgotten and no longer used rules; however, much of it is also quite logical and a great shame today is that so many people are so unable to see patterns, rules, consequences, whatnot, that should be obvious.* Failing to keep numbers consistent is one example. Others include absurdities like “fast speed”, “I could care less”, “in the same … with …”, “try and”. That someone slips up on occasion is nothing to be ashamed of—I do too**. However, there are very many whose language is riddled with such errors, and there appear to be a very strong correlations between such errors and low intelligence, poor education, and simply not giving a damn.

*Not to be confused with the many language errors that arise from e.g. not remembering the spelling of a certain word, having misunderstood what a word means, not knowing the right grammatical rule, … These are usually easier to forgive, being signals of lack of knowledge rather than inability to think. Other classes of errors not included are simple slips of the pen/keyboard and deliberate violations, say the inexcusable practice of abusing full stops to keep the nominal length of a sentence down, even at the cost of both hacking the sentence to pieces that cannot stand alone and making it harder to understand.

**I have a particular weak spot for words that sound similar, e.g. “to”, “too”, and (occasionally) “two”: Even being perfectly aware of which is the correct in a given context, I sometimes pick the wrong one through some weird automatism. The difference between a plural and a possessive “s”-suffix is another frequent obstacle.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 27, 2018 at 7:41 am

The abominable over- and misuse of “you”

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An ever recurring annoyance in today’s writing is over- and misuse of “you”. The “Freshly Pressed” entries on WordPress, e.g., are usually full of the word. Software literature is another great source of examples—the more absurd because software developers need to be of above to noticeably above average intelligence, and those who might actually benefit from “you” are best kept away from the field.

What is wrong with using “you”? Nothing—when the reader is validly addressed directly. This, however, is almost never the case. It is far more common to abuse “you” through-out a text as e.g. a highly sub-optimal means of attaching actions (believes, emotions, whatnot) to a subject. In these cases, there are a number of issues:

  1. The result is unnecessarily wordy and hard to read, compared to more adult formulations. Compare

    However, if you want to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, you need to package your application correctly.

    (genuine example) with

    However, to use features such as hot redeployment on a full application server, we need a correctly packaged application.

    The second text is shorter, easier to understand, and stylistically better. Consider the effect not merely on individual sentences, but on the length of books: This is a roughly 15 % drop in length (more in terms of words; less in terms of characters). Admittedly, this sentence is not representative, but even shaving off just a few per cent can be valuable for a hard-working professional.

    As an aside: The fact that I often am unnecessarily wordy, even without over-using “you”, is a matter of personal incompetence in this area—not a sign of problems with non-“you” texts in general.

  2. “You” is often condescending, misleading, illogical, or entirely ridiculous. A particularly atrocious example is the common “in this chapter you will learn”: Possibly, but the reader may also merely be refreshing something he already knows—or even be a reviewer with superior knowledge… Even if not, the statement can be faulty, e.g. because the reader is merely currently getting an overview, contemplating individual points, or is slow on the uptake. A far better formulation is “in this chapter we discuss X” or “this chapter deals with X”.

    I have even often seen “you” (the reader) used where context demanded “I” (the author)… A typical example would be a traveler describing his emotions or subjective impressions during certain events of a journey. Obviously, it should be “When I saw Mount Everest, I was filled with humility.”, not “When you see Mount Everest, you are filled with humility.” or any similar formulation.

    Rule-of-thumb: Does the text work when taken from the perspective of an actual reader who takes “you” as a direct reference to him? If not, “you” is inappropriate. (The reverse conclusion does not necessarily hold.)

  3. “You” polarizes the author and his readers; “we” unites them; other formulations provide neutrality.

  4. “You” can be accusatory, even to the point of raising the issue of guilt or fault with innocents. Consider an oral example: “When you come late, you hinder the rest of the team.” Unless the counter-part actually did come late, this formulation is entirely and utterly unacceptable: Not only will most feel accused, but a third-party who over-hears the discussion can come to entirely incorrect conclusions. If the discussion is intended to be general, it should be kept general: “When someone comes late, he hinders the rest of the team.”

  5. As can be seen by the previous item, “you” introduces unnecessary ambiguities: Is the author/speaker discussing the counter-part or a generic someone?

Rule-of-thumb: Try to replace every instance of “you” with an alternate formulation using “we”, a generic pronoun (e.g. “someone” or “one”), a sentence with an implicit subject (this sentence is an example), or a passive. Only allow the “you” to stand on those rare occasions when it actually is the best alternative. (Do not follow guide-lines that try to ban the passive outright: The passive is very valuable and the extreme anti-passive stance that many naive teachers take is highly misguided—they parrot and misapply an insight that they have not actually understood. Excesses of passives should be avoided, true, but very many uses are legitimate and beneficial, and bending backwards to eliminate them does far more harm than good—just like the positive effects of a pinch of salt on a soup are no reason to empty an entire salt-shaker into the pot.)

To expand on the implicit subject: This may seem to be just as bad as using “you” on a casual glance, because the implicit subject may seem to be a “you”. There are at least two crucial advantages, however: Firstly, there is no unnecessary overhead. Secondly, the implicit subject could in most cases be something else, e.g. a “we” or a more abstract entity. (For example, a “Try to […]” could be seen as “We should try to […]” rather than “You should try to […]”.) This resolves the problems with e.g. an accusatory or condescending tone.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

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That pesky German language and the quirks of the human mind

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After close to 14 years in Germany, I should be able to write correct German (barring the odd slip of the keyboard that we all make even in our native languages). Reality, alas, does not quite agree: I know most of the rules as well as the natives, and with enough proof-reading I can reach a near-native level, differing mostly in that my style, choice of words, whatnot, can be strongly influenced by Swedish and English. However, the extensive proof-reading is absolutely necessary: My first drafts tends to contain errors at several times the rate of my English or Swedish writings, because the “text generating” part of my mind makes many unthinking choices that are simply incorrect—even when the “text reading” part of my mind knows that they are incorrect… For instance, reading the notification email for a comment I sent earlier today, I found that I made a back-reference to a woman with the masculine “der” instead of the feminine “die”—a blindingly obvious error to any semi-proficient reader. A particular common error of mine is using a dative or accusative in constructs where a nominative is called for, e.g. “X is Y”. (The two former cover the English objective case, while the latter is the subjective.) Presumably, the presence of a verb toggles an internal “objective” switch irrespective of what verb is used.

This is a particular nuisance when I comment on German blogs: If I do not proof-read several times, there will usually be at least one error of the “a ten year old should know better” kind; if I do, the effort of submitting a comment grows to be several times what it is in Swedish or English.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm

My favourite word

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I have repeatedly heard “cellar door”w called the most beautiful word of the English language. Few people would argue that there is any particular merit to its meaning; others would protest that it is, in fact, two words. Yet, others make the case that the pure sound and flow of the pronounced word would make it stand-out.

They have a point—with the right pronunciation. Obviously, among the countless dialects of English, not all yield the same result. In my ears, even using a too rhotic pronunciation would break the word.

Looking at my native Swedish, however, there is very similar word of excelling beauty: Pärlemor.

With a similar flow and many almost-matches in vowel and consonant sounds, it is equally pleasing phonetically. (As a rough pronunciation guide, join together “pair”, the “le” of “lemon”, and “moor”.) In a twist, it actually works quite well with the Swedish rhotic pronunciation.

When we go beyond the pure sound, however, there is no comparison: On the one hand, something boring and mundane, often even ugly. On the other … mother-of-pearl. (Both in part and as a whole: “Pearlsmother” would be the literal translation.)

Mother-of-pearl is a material of beauty in its own right and the source of even greater beauty; and that beauty is salient through the “pearl”/“pärle” part of the word. Even the way that it creates valuable pearls from an intruding irritant has something poetic and symbolic about it. Further, “pärla” (the base form of the noun) is also a verb, meaning to purl or to sparkle, “en pärlande bäck”—“a purling brook”, “ett pärlande vin”—“a sparkling wine”. In a way, the word it self flows from the lips in a way that makes me think of water flowing through a shallow bed, breaking over small rocks, and glittering with reflected sunlight. My associations to water are strengthened both by the aquatic nature of oysters and by the story “Bäckahästens pärlor”, which I encountered as a child. (I believe this story to be “The kelpie’s pearls” by Mollie Hunterw. “Bäckahäst” literally means “brook horse”, similar to the Scottish “water horse” each uisgew.)

Now, when I hear “pärlemor”, my mind is filled with images of pearls and mother-of-pearl, purling water, sparkling wine, … When I hear “cellar door”, well, in a best case scenario, I see a door—in a worst case, it may be the hatch to an earth cellar. Indeed, as “pärlemor” is my favourite word, “mother-of-pearl” may well be my favourite English word: It brings me many of the same associations as “pärlemor” and is not without “phonetic beauty” of its own.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

On language change, prescriptive and descriptive grammar, and related issues

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Language is ever changing. New words are invented and old ones are lost, altered, or gain new meanings. The rules of grammar bend over time—usually in the direction of simplification. These changes are sometimes good and sometimes bad—and more often than not, they replace an ultimately arbitrary set of rules with another equally arbitrary set. Only one thing is certain: Change is unavoidable.

In light of this, descriptive grammar is often considered the “right” way, while prescriptive grammar is frowned upon. (This, it self, being an example of a similar change in another area: Prescriptive grammar was once more popular.) I find this highly unfortunate, for several reasons:

Firstly, I consider the opposition between prescriptive and descriptive grammar to be a sign of flawed thinking: One can legitimately be given value without discarding the other. Certainly, linguistics should be concerned both with describing and investigating language as it is and with trying to detect “higher” rules, suggesting changes that increase the logic or reduce the ambiguity of a language, or even with creating new languages. An acceptance and respect for the inevitability of change does not mean that prescriptive grammar is a dead-end.

Secondly, not all changes are beneficial. On the contrary, many make the language less expressive and nuanced, increase ambiguity, and cause unnecessary misunderstandings between members of different generations or native English (French, Spanish, …) speakers from different countries. Most reduce the backward compatibility of language over the centuries, making texts from the past harder to understand: In the case of my native Sweden, the changes over the last hundred-or-so years have been so drastic that even Swedes can have trouble understanding an older text—and the same fate could befall English over the coming hundred years.

Notably, there are many changes that do not result from a deliberate enrichment or a creative use of language, but from sheer ignorance, thoughtlessness, or sloppiness. I have for instance seen absurd statements like “Petrified with fear, he ran away.” or “The runner literally massacred his opponents.”—both cases where a word (“petrified”; “literally”, unless the problems lies with “massacred”) is used to signify the opposite of what it actually means.

In many cases, the changes are unnecessary and could have been avoided with little extra effort in early tuition. Alas, nowadays many teachers have themselves never learned the rules of the language.

In yet other cases, the changes can have a component bordering on the malicious. A good example of this is the words “they” and “their” when used as a generic singular due to a linguistically ignorant political agenda (but not when used out of carelessness). Here we have mechanisms like politically correct teachers in the US telling their students that “he” is sexist, resulting in the English language being objectively worsened world-wide due to their leverage. This to such a degree that I regularly see “they” used when the sex is actually known and a generic singular does not make sense in the first place. (“I saw my cousin. They had a new job.”) In many other cases, a generic singular is called for, but undue confusion is caused by “they”. (“If someone wants to eat, they must work”: Who? The someones parents?) This is the worse because the thinking behind proposing “they” is faulty—an issue that I have discussed elsewhere.

Another driving force behind changes is the wish for the writer to have it easy: Conscientious writing puts the focus on the reader. It strives to ensure that the resulting text clear in logic and composition, that there are no confusing errors, that ambiguities have been detected and clarified, etc. Too many modern writers put themselves first: Instead of spending a few minutes extra on a text, they write it willy-nilly and put the burden of understanding on the readers, who each have to spend the same few minutes extra in understanding (or misunderstanding…) it. This attitude goes hand-in-hand with ignoring nuances between words, grammatical constructs that disambiguate who does what to whom, and the internal logic of the language.

A particular issue with a too relaxed attitude towards language change is that there is always some offset between actual use and “correct” use. People will still drive too fast even if the speed limit is raised—and it is the same with language: If one set of rules and word meanings is prescribed, people will deviate from these. Change the rules to adhere to actual use today and the result will be that the use drifts away by roughly the same amount as before; change the rules again and the use will drift away again; etc. By setting a prescriptive base-line that is only altered slowly over time this continual drift from one set of rules to another can be slowed in a corresponding manner; take a descriptive laissez-faire approach and we have a plenitude of new or aggravated disadvantages without any new advantages. In both cases, the distance remains; only the latter causes a continual and largely negative drift.

Note: This text is partially intended as a response to a previous discussione. I have preferred, however, to write it on a more abstract level without detailed reference to that discussion, taking the opportunity to write down some long-standing thoughts of mine.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Unfair argumentation methods X: Meaning and (ab)use of “racism”

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The long promised article on “racism”—or rather a link to it. Again, a post grew out of the scope for a good blog entry, making me turn into an article for my website.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 20, 2010 at 8:49 am