[DWJ] timetravel/and other things

Elizabeth Parks henx19 at gmail.com
Tue Jun 24 12:24:22 EDT 2008

Colin says:

The analogy with music is better, and will actually make one of my
points: the octave is a natural interval, implied by physics; but how
you divide it up is to some degree arbitrary, and different cultures do
have different scales and different ideas of tonality. For most people,
what you're brought up to sounds right and anything else sounds
certainly strange, and often wrong. But from a broader perspective, it
is easy to see that that 'wrong' is not absolute but within a largely
arbitrary set of rules and norms - and over time the norms change and
what was once 'wrong' becomes quite acceptable.

But here I feel like you're making -my- point for me: that's exactly
it.  There's no problem with language evolution, or with musical
evolution, or new influences or etc. What I do object to is the
linguistic equivalent of someone making me listen to a concert when
they cannot technically perform scales.  In other words, there's a
difference between innovation and ignorance.  The two may inform each
other, but are not interchangeable.  And it's all right to hum off
key, or to write songs that integrate "errors" that don't quite work.
It's all right to write messy emails and e.e. cummings-influenced
poems that don't work.  I would not, however, hire someone who had
never written or performed music before to make an advertising jingle
for my store, any more than I would put someone with very little grasp
of language in charge of my signs or written advertisments.  I love
lolcats, which someone else linked, but I think they're funny because
they're on purpose.  That makes a  huge difference.

I don't agree that grammar is all arbitrary, either.  Some of it is,
admittedly; some of the spellings that were standardized in English
are, and some of the Latin grammar that was imposed as a whole on
English doesn't natively fit it, no (split infinitives, right?).
There is a certain historical value to it, perhaps, or at least I find
it somewhat endearing.

Deborah wrote:

I had a conversation with my boss recently in which I said
"Language is living, except for the grammatical forms I care
about keeping static."

In other words, people who insist you can't start a sentence with
"however" are ridiculous and pedantic. But people who insist that
you can use "lay" and "lie" interchangeably are evil demons
corrupting the beauty of the English language. Everybody has a
set of hypocrisies about language, and I've just shown you one of

and I say:

And I think part of what we're not saying clearly here is how much we
are discussing grammar and how much we are discussing language.  When
I talk about grammar, I only kind of mean "grammar;" more, I mean that
I wish more people had a sense of -language.-  I am (as you might
guess from my membership on this list) a reader, and have been; I have
read thousands of books, mostly in English, modern and antiquated and
somewhere in between, and am more concerned with things that violate
my sense of language than actual grammatical laws.

I do think that language is more mathematical than people give it
credit for--I keep thinking back to a part in one of Steven Pinker's
newer books (The Stuff of Thought, I think) where he discusses this
but  I can't quite put my finger on what I'm trying to remember.
Something about the way that children, during language aquisition,
mis-use rules in logical ways.  Perhaps, though, law is a better
comparison than mathematics for language: a semi-logical system that
evolves historically with reference to culture, that changes with
culture and technology and foreign influence, but that we base on
things that seem to have some reason for being.  So no, I wouldn't say
that mixing up (you're/your) is a sin on the level of murder (though
it might be worse than eating meat on a Friday), any more than I would
literally call fashion police to come and fix your sartorial issues.
I have an uncle who builds costumes for theatre, and I imagine that a
great many people he sees on the street distress him slightly--not
because it is morally wrong to wear terrible, misfitting clothing, but
because perhaps he knows how much more is possible?  I'm thinking this
through as I write it, so I might recant that part later, but I do
sort of feel as though many people are grammar color blind, which
doesn't make them bad, exactly, just somewhat visually painful to
those of us who are not.

I really want to throw the term "grammar atheist" in here somewhere,
but I am running out of time ;)

lizzie, hopefully somewhat less cranky than last night ;)

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