Tag Archives: sociolinguistics

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

What’s missing from this sample text?

A set of subjects, n = 180, were surveyed using a predetermined questionnaire. Statistical analysis of the responses revealed a statistically significant pattern of association of low-frequency polysyllabic lexemes with greater intellectual value.

It’s not short on words, nor on syllables per word, nor on grammatical complexity. It’s an imposing and impressive display. But who chose and surveyed the subjects? Who predetermined the questions? Who conducted the statistical analysis?

It’s like the Great and Powerful Oz. You’re supposed to pay no attention to whoever’s behind the curtain, making it happen.

What you’re seeing is the effect of a language ideology, the ideology of objectivity – an underlying belief in the association between detachment and authority. It’s a belief that humans are messy, subjective bags of feelings, and that to achieve real, authoritative, reliable, unquestionable truth, you remove people: these facts were not worked out by fallible humans; they were just… revealed. It’s one reason so much academic writing is so hard to read.

It’s not the only reason, of course. There are other ideologies at play too. The effects of one of them are described in the example text above (not quoted from a real study, however): the ideology of mental effort. We know that complex ideas take extra mental effort, and so we assume that greater mental effort is an indicator of greater intellectual value.

Complex syntax is equated with complex thought, and, as the example says, long and uncommon words are associated with rare and rarefied ideas. If something is easy to read, how impressive can it be, really? And, more to the point, if you make the reader sweat to figure out what you’re saying, they might not notice that what you’re saying is really fairly trivial. Once again, watch the Great and Powerful Oz, and don’t look behind the curtain!

This is not to say that everyone who writes that way is consciously trying to be the Great and Powerful Oz. Most authors, academic or otherwise, write in a way that’s considered appropriate for the type of text, and questioning why it’s “appropriate” might itself seem inappropriate – isn’t it obvious that in a research paper you don’t say “really fun,” you say “highly enjoyable”? We seldom stop to look at what’s driving our assumptions about the intellectual value of the way we phrase things. The real “man behind the curtain” is language ideology itself.

But there is no language use without language ideology: we believe that certain qualities go with certain kinds of language. It’s part of how we understand language in its context of usage. And our ideas about language are always ideas about the people we envision using that language. We don’t all agree all the time; there can be competing ideologies, for instance, about whether colloquial speech is a mark of unintelligence or of honesty. But we never come to language without baseline assumptions about what it says about the people who use it – even if it’s language that pretends they’re not there at all.

And from time to time, we can all benefit from pulling back the curtain.

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
Continue reading

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading