Saturday, 5 May 2012

The argument from linguistic regularity

The argument from supposed "linguistic regularity" is one of the key arguments language perscriptivists, mavens and their ilk use when trying to impress upon others the correctness of their view about language usage.  An example would be the word "innit" which comes in for much bashing and hand-wringing.  As with other terms which are derided or frowned upon, it is not surprising to find the term generally used by a groups which are also derided or frowned upon -namely young people, specifically inner-city young people.  It is important to remember that this is even true of favourable and less favourable accents in English.  Despite the language being perfectly understandable and used widely, it is considered somehow inferior, either funny or just unclear and weird. Brummies and  Scousers will understand this kind of attitude well.
 
So back to the example.  "innit" or so the argument goes, is not good English because it doesn't make sense!  Innit is a tag question and as such should repeat the verb that precedes it, (or "do" in many cases):

You are, aren't you?
he is, isn't he
He went, didn't he?
You haven't been saying "innit" have you?

You like him, do you?
He went, did he?
You like him, you do!

So this regularity is presented as evidence that "innit" as an abbreviation of "isn't it" is unacceptable. We say "you want to go, don't you?" not "you want to go, isn't it?" That doesn't make any sense.  And so here we have an example of the argument from linguistic regularity.  However, as with most of these arguments, it is usually pretty easy to point out that "correct" language isn't all that reliable or regular either.  In the case of tag questions we have this one.
I am, aren't I?

Why not use the same form of the "be" verb here?  Why not say "I am, amn't I"?  Obviously it sounds weird, because we don't say it, but it much better fits the supposed "rule".   The second problem is that we (or more precisely Americans) have no problem applying one tag to all questions.  The word "right" can be uniformly applied to every sentence, right?  It doesn't seem odd, right?  It is something we're used to, right?  It's also pretty easy and not something English learners would have much trouble with.  French uses "n'est pas" in the same way and Japanese "ne" and according to the BBC these are called invariant tags.  Perhaps, therefore, if innit annoys you it is best to think of it as one word, like right, right?

The problem , I would argue, is that rules grew out of usage, not the other way round.  Like noticing people opening their umbrellas when it rains and assuming that the umbrella opening causes rain, we have perhaps got the relationship between rules and language the wrong way round.  Certainly we view written language as being more important, serious and accurate than spoken language despite the fact that written language has existed for a fraction of the time that spoken language has. 

English is not a regular language.Its plurals are odd and irregular (sheep, mice, children, wives,roofs, potatoes, cellos, babies, boxes, fungi), Pronouns are odd (I-me but you-you, I-we but you-you) spelling is weird (comb, bomb, tomb, finger singer), some verbs conjugate many times whereas others hardly change at all (eat-ate-eaten, look-looked-looked, put-put-put) some bjects look singular and yet are plural (glasses, jeans) and others look plural and yet are singular (the news, maths, physics), someone will write to you (if you're british), but they won't email to you.  And all of this is accepted with complete indifference. But should someone utter "innit" then call The Daily Mail because the world is possibly coming to an end.

 
 All living languages are like this so, why not just relax and enjoy the variety? Status Quo bias means we ignore the massive amounts of weirdness in our native language and only notice those new things we don't like. Before you get upset about the way someone else is using language have a look at the roll call of history' mavens and see how valid their complaints seem these days.

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