Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Don't take the 'brary' outta my library!

Sometimes linguists really do go a step too far. The other day on the television, there was a news item on a professor who had the audacity to encourage incorrect spelling, treating it as "language change" rather than laziness of the uneducated masses. He argued that "as long as the words are spelt as they sound, there shouldn't be an issue." So, taking that line of logic, "library" could just as well be spelt as "liberry," and "opportunity" could do very well to drop a "p."

As a linguistics graduate, I can see where this professor is coming from. In linguistics, the first thing we learn is that concepts such as 'correct' spelling and 'upper class' dialects are all results of arbitrary historical change. That is, the Queen's English could just have easily become one of the less respected accents if history had taken a different course. The fact that the Queen's English appears elegant is nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the Queen's accent - rather, it has all to do with how we subjectively perceive and value the accent. In the same way, this professor has taken this way of thinking and applied it to spelling as well. His argument: why should any particular way of spelling a word be valued over an equally valid way of spelling it, particularly if the alternative is closer to the pronunciation of the word?

The problem with this argument, however, is that English spelling has BEEN standardized, and to say that people are free to manipulate it in their own fashion is, in my mind, the same as saying that I have the freedom to pronounce "library" as "loobary." But to what ends? Isn't the point of language to foster communication? If we haphazardly decide to change spelling and pronunciation just because we feel like it, or because we are too ignorant or lazy to learn the standard, we are putting our ability to communicate (or 'mutual intelligibility') on the line. For goodness sakes, if every person spoke their own personalized version of English, while we might feel a little like language pioneers, we would also feel quite alone not having anyone with whom to speak.

So, here is my point. Yes, language change is inevidible (and shall I go as far as to say desirable?), but it MUST happen systematically across a group of speakers so as to preserve mutual intelligibility. If 'library' is going to become 'liberry,' the change mustn't remain a surface variation which shows it's face among a select few of the population. It must be used be everyone to become valid at all. Perhaps that professor should keep this in mind the next time he marks 'langwige' as correct.


Anonymous said...

Hey Heather!

Yay for linguistics blogs :). I'd disagree with you for the sake of disagreeing, there can always be changes made on language - I think chaos is a nice place to start =P. Au pair sounds like an awesome idea, I had heard of it years ago, but never had the guts to sign up. How's everything going? The family? Language learning? Singlehood :P?

Jenny (UWO)

Heather Broster said...

Hey, a comment! Yay! :D Yeah, I'm really excited about it, and who could pass up the opportunity to learn Italian, the language of love?! (No good for an eternal singleton like me, but oh well! :P) Things are going well...we'll be off to Cardiff for a visit tomorrow, and soon after, I'll have a week's worth of work in Birmingham. Should be fun! How's your job going?

Anonymous said...

I'd be curious to know what this professor thinks of netspeak and the ways in which it has changed our language already. For example. LOL, as much as it abbreviates "laugh out loud' as also now commonly pronounced 'lol' as a word, not individual letters. Does he support this?

Heather Broster said...

Well, I'd say most modern linguists would label this as "acceptable" language change. The professor I saw on TV is an extreme example of a pro-change linguist, so yes, I would think he would embrace the use of LOL in spoken language with open arms. It is interesting, though, how we have begun to take words originally used only in the written form and given them a phonetic form. Usually, it happens the other way around....

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