The Questionable Quest for Linguistic Purity

This post makes another detour from my original topic. Roughly a month ago, after I wrote my last post about romanticism and the place of translation technology in university curricula, I was in for another surprise – which eventually connects to the same train of thought.

Within a week, I saw two articles that lamented about the deterioration or even the eventual death of the English language. I’m not a native speaker of English, nor am I a specialist of its history, and I don’t know how often such articles are published – but I definitely wasn’t used to seeing such pieces about English coming from high-profile news sources. That said, I am always ready to admit that this is due to my ignorance about the history and the current goings-on of English.

One of these articles is not today’s news, though, and many of my readers are probably pretty familiar with it. (It just came up on my Facebook wall.) In 2010, Gene Weingarten was in mourning for the English language in the Washington Post under the title ‘Goodbye, cruel words: English. It’s dead to me.’ It sparked a debate – even started a meme –, and it was heavily criticized by Steve Huff in the Observer, as well as many others.

That put paid to it, one could say. But on May 27, 2015, Jonathan Jones, in his blog in the Art and Design section of The Guardian, published a piece called ‘Emoji is dragging us back to the dark ages – and all we can do is smile’. It actually prompted me to sign up for a Guardian account and write my first – and, for the time being, last – reader comment.

The reason I decided to write more about it is this: not only is Jonathan Jones’ rant useless – that wouldn’t merit a mention –, it is also false, destructive and dangerous, and I think it is morally wrong on the Guardian’s part to publish such content without inviting corrections from experts of the field.

Apart from being useless, false, destructive, and dangerous, this article is also very Romantic. I mean, it’s rooted in the Romantic era, just like the separation of art and science. At the same time, it surprises me greatly, because I thought this way of thinking was spawned by nationalist movements in continental Europe, and I haven’t seen similar consequences in English-speaking countries before.

As a matter of fact, I am quite resigned to see a lot of such articles in my country – Hungary –, where a swarm of so-called ‘language cultivators’, or linguistic purists, most of them without any training in linguistics, are bragging about the purity and the defense of the Hungarian language, and they are getting formidable space in the media. In many cases, they even get to use the title of a ‘linguist’. But there’s a reason for that, and I didn’t think the same reason existed in Britain or in the USA.

Language was a core factor of the identity of European nations in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Enlightenment philosophers (with Johann Gottfried Herder as an excellent example) believed that the language we speak influences the way we think. The same thought is reflected in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, one of the precursors of modern cognitive linguistics – but Enlightenment thinkers drew different conclusions. They were quite quick to translate this thought into moral action.

If language determines our way of thinking, then the bond within a group of people who speak the same language must be much stronger than the language itself. Hence the Romantic notion of a ‘nation’, a community that shares a common language, folklore, literature, and a common way of thinking – a culture in short.

Human beings are competitive. Just like there is a competition between states, countries, there emerged a competition between national cultures. In a competitive Romantic mind, there are developed cultures and backward ones, barbaric cultures and sophisticated ones.

Every nation wanted their cultures to come out on top from this competition. And – like Enlightenment people thought – if language determined a nation’s thinking and culture, it was paramount to work on their respective languages. In Central Europe, that was when large-scale literary translations started. For example, in the 19th century, almost all Hungarian poets, writers, or playwrights tried their hands at translating Shakespeare’s plays.

This consciousness about language brought about the large-scale reform of some languages, with Nynorsk and perhaps Hungarian as good examples from the mid-19th century.

It also gave birth to the language norm – rules and regulations on how a language must be spoken and written. Practically every country in continental Europe has an authority that decides on spelling rules. Some countries even have language laws, ruling how language must be used publicly – in media and in commercial street signs –, and what language(s) must – or must not – be used in public administration.

When the advocates of the nation come to power, and the national thought becomes political, it also becomes repressive. A nation’s leaders – quite naturally – will want a nation-state, while they already live in a state with traditional borders. These borders were not drawn along the boundaries of areas where common languages were spoken – they were rather subject to the geographical reality and also the power struggles over the centuries. When a country had a dominant language, that is, the majority of its population spoke one specific language, the majority was prone to form a nation and grab the power over the entire country.

If language is at the core of the identity of a nation, it will also be at the core of the identity of the members of that nation. In a nation-state, the speakers of the majority language are privileged, while speakers of minority languages are underprivileged. Since the beginning of the 19th century, up until the very end of the 20th, Europe has seen a lot of friction and wars that were connected to this.

Hence my surprise – to my knowledge, neither Britain nor the US has a government-sponsored norm of English. There are implied standards (like Standard English) or influential centers (like Oxford or the Merriam-Webster dictionary), but neither legal rules nor a central authority that regulates language. Because this sort of centralization is missing from the English-speaking world, I – apparently incorrectly – assumed that the ‘language cultivation’ or ‘linguistic purity’ movement was also absent or took a different nature.

I think this explains why the Guardian blog post is Romantic. But I must also explain why I think it’s useless, false, and destructive.

Useless. That’s what protesting against change in language is. Demanding a particular use of language is useless as well. Influencing the way people use language is, to quote a favorite phrase of a friend of mine, ‘not as simple as that’.

Although everyone has an individual grasp on language, no language makes sense without communication partners. Everyone we listen to and everything we read influences the way we speak and write. Everyone we talk to and everyone we write for will be influenced by the way we use language. This is such an immensely complex web of effects and counter-effects that it’s really difficult to predict how a certain person ends up speaking or writing. We know there is convergence, otherwise understanding wouldn’t be possible.

Predicting language use could be more difficult than computing a weather forecast. Engineering language use might then be just as difficult as engineering tomorrow’s weather. Can we do it? No, we can’t. Does it make sense to hold someone morally responsible for their language use or for corrupting others’ language use? No, it doesn’t.

It is possible to influence the way people use language – to a limited extent, on the long run. This is what linguistics calls language planning, which might form part of the language policy of a government or another. The term was coined by Norwegian-American sociolinguist Einar Haugen (1966), who also divided language planning into ‘status planning’ and ‘corpus planning’, using the Norwegian language reform as an example.

Status planning is concerned with how much a language is spoken, and draws up action plans when a language becomes in danger of extinction. Languages such as Norwegian, Hungarian, Irish, or Welsh were saved by large-scale reconstruction and promotion campaigns in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Corpus planning deals with how a language is spoken – what things people speak –, and sets up action plans to introduce phrases in the vocabulary (or eradicate others). Status planning and corpus planning are usually deeply interconnected: status planning can never happen without corpus planning as the detailed action. Language planning mostly works through subtle changes in media, public administration, and education. The subject has extensive literature and a lot of reports are available on how it works.

One thing is certain: true linguists never tried to influence language use through angry public demands and libelling.

False: The Guardian blog post cites linguist Vyv Evans who, according to a BBC article, seems to claim that Emoji – a system of visual symbols – is a new language. It’s true that Emoji, a complex system of pictographs created in Japan from conventional emoticons, is much more sophisticated than original smileys used to be. It is also true – and pointed out by Evans – that people often express complex messages using Emoji symbols alone. However, Vyv Evans calls Emoji a ‘visual language’, which, similarly to the sign language that deaf people use, is not a separate language but another visual representation of a language that is otherwise written or spoken. Unfortunately, the blogger misreads and misquotes Evans, and becomes frustrated over Emoji eventually replacing written English. But – no matter how sophisticated emoticons or Emoji have become over the decades, they still aren’t suitable for universal communication: they don’t do more than visually represent a very limited subset of language. In addition, they are never used independently from the speaker’s native or chosen language. There’s an easy experiment to test this: when you receive a text or a chat composed exclusively in Emoji, call the person and ask them to clarify. (Don’t text or write: call.)

Disclaimer: the following two paragraphs are quoted almost verbatim from my own comment to the Guardian post.

Funnily enough, Emoji is not at all a new development: its precursors – emoticons or smileys – have been around for more than 30 years. Even Emoji is in its late teens: according to Wikipedia, Shigekata Kurita created it in 1998 or 1999. Emoticons and Emoji both emerged because of a new form of communication: instant messaging (the sort you see in texting and in chat programs). Instant messaging is written communication (almost) at the speed of speech. As a result, it does resemble spoken conversation from several aspects. At this speed, we rely heavily on intonation, facial expression, and body language in addition to the actual words we speak (or type). Without emoticons or Emoji, we end up in stupid conflicts that we can avoid if we can express our emotions (as it happened to me many times at the dawn of e-mailing).

Emoticons and Emoji make up for a fundamental and inherent flaw of written communication: the inability to convey emotions fully and efficiently (usually provided for by intonation or body language). They augment writing, rather than displacing it. Emoji is not even a self-contained system of code, let alone a new language: it’s a useful addition to the code we use when we write – it’s actually essential for efficient communication in certain situations.

Dangerous and destructive: The Guardian post seriously misrepresents the study of linguistics, connecting it to the popular but false view that language can be ‘corrupted’ or ‘destroyed’ by new forms of communication. Linguists don’t judge such changes; they aim to learn as much as possible about them. Linguists don’t publish false statements to support a political agenda. The obvious falsehood in this case is the claim that Emoji could be a separate language or a self-contained form of communication.

From what I see, the blogger deliberately misreads a claim made by a scientist. The claim itself isn’t even scientific because it’s not supported by the sort of rigorous experimental results that science requires. Although I believe that Jones’s frustration is genuine, I think it’s morally wrong to support it by misrepresenting expert opinions. It’s destructive on two accounts: first, it hurts the reputation of an entire field of research and its representatives; second, it creates unnecessary tension by making up a conflict that doesn’t exist, by suggesting bad intentions and neglect where there are none.

The Guardian blog post is in the same league as denials of climate change or the anti-vaccination movement. It suggests an assumption that anything the world can be regulated, improved, or destroyed by engineering, which is as good as evading the truth of the immense complexity around – and inside – us.

For the record, I am a great fan of Shakespeare’s plays, and for a few years now, I’ve been able to enjoy them in the original language, since screenings of performances by Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre became available in my city. But I have never found that they could conflict with other forms of communication, which are necessary and unavoidable in certain situations.

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