4.17.2009

Double-Edged Parody

It is undeniably true that communication is a fundamental tool of human happiness. The value of the twin abilities to use language for the end of self-expression, and to understand language for the end of interpersonal sympathy, cannot be overestimated.

And yet, I look around and see vast inequalities in verbal and written ability. It is true that the historically unregulated field of language has produced a few giants -- poets, orators, and philosophers have mastered the tool of communication; but they constitute a tiny minority. Most human beings wallow from day to day, scraping by on the same 3,000 words, overmatched by the tremendous energy and pace of the dynamic, ever-changing system of language. A large majority of people suffer the ongoing injustice of an unregulated langage quietly, precisely because they do not have the tools to express their outrage effectively.

It's time to begin the revolution. All men and women are brothers and sisters -- that fact is self-evident. Consequently, it would prove a universal benefit to bring the unregulated, shifting structures of language under the control of reason and into the circle of human sympathy, that all may share in the benefits of communication equally. I propose ten solutions:
  1. Abolition of copyright laws on linguistic productions, and the application of all linguistic invention to public purposes.
  2. A heavy or progressive tax on those who insist on using new language [new language being that which is not described in Strunk & White].
  3. Abolition of all right to inherit interesting verbal or written ideocynracies from parents or other extended family.
  4. Immigrants shall be forbidden to use their native languages.
  5. Changes in usage, semantics, and other linguistic categories will be under the sole authority of the state.
  6. Centralization of the means of communication--telephone, texting, email, etc.--in the hands of the state.
  7. Extension of state-owned literary projects, the renewal of awkward and aging linguistic structures, and the improvement of grammar in general in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal obligation of all to remain silent (8-10 hours per day). Establishment of linguistic armies, especially for teaching Strunk & White.
  9. Combination of grammar lessons with state-owned literary projects; gradual abolition of all the distinction between regional dialects.
  10. Combination of education with efforts to stabilize national language. Abolition of genre known as children's books. Free copy of Strunk & White for all children.

For comparison.

8 comments:

Wishydig said...

And yet, I look around and see vast inequalities in verbal and written ability.that's where it falls apart for me. i don't see inequalities in verbal ability. i see different systems getting along remarkably well actually.

and literacy -- the ability to read and write -- isn't the same as language competence and proficiency.

the economic issue -- really kinda boring to me. sorry.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Perhaps on "inequality" I'm in a middle ground here--for (and I'm borrowing this from Nathaniel who's drawing on Burke), I do believe the depth of a person's language, and linguistic experiences, does influence their perception, appreciation, interaction, affections for reality. As N puts it, when the ecologist wanders into a forest, they see more than you, simply because they are equipped with a language that provides more differentiation. I guess, to oversimplify, I believe there are different degrees of "getting along."

And let's get rid of all that Strunk and White. Too much emphasis on clarity. Let's make it messy, go with something a bit more agonistic.*

*attempt at self-deprecation since I use this in my classes

Wishydig said...

that's adorable. i've run into some strict sapir-whorf supporters before.

Casey said...

But... have both of you missed the fact that this is a parody? I borrowed language from Marx's critique of unregulated capitalism to construct what I hoped would be an obviously unwise critique of the unregulated system known as "language."

Michael: I deeply appreciate your response because where my parodic critique "falls apart for you" is precisely where the progressive critique of capitalism falls apart for me: let me quote the conversation between the wise teacher Don Juan and his pupil, Carlos Castaneda:

DJ: "Do you think your very rich world would ever help you to become a man of knowledge? -- in other words, can your freedom and opportunities help you to become a man of knowledge?"

CC: "No!" (emphatically)

DJ: "Then how could you feel sorry for those [apparently underprivileged] children? Any of them could become a man of knowledge. All the men of knowledge I know were kids like those you saw eating leftovers and licking the tables."

---

So I guess I want to know why you look at a derelict in the hills of West Virginia and don't feel sorry for them, whereas you look at a poor person in Central America and do feel sorry for them. That seems like an interesting parallel to me, but you're rejecting it pretty adamantly.

I know I've mentioned before that I have no recollection of ever seeing a Corgie until after I met Gretchen and after she told me her favorite dog was a Corgie. I've seen hundreds of them since then... my world is richer because my vocabulary is richer. And when you apologize for being bored by the economic argument, I feel a bit betrayed... because what I'm seeing is a coincidence of structures between language and economics: I'm a little stunned that you can't (won't?) see a parallel between Esperanto and Strunk & White-prescriptivism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the New Deal and LBJ's Great Society (not to mention Obama's bailout project), for instance.

I think I understand your lack of interest as a refusal to accept the parallel: if that's the case, offer me one more comment clarifying your epistemology, clarifying why you believe that attempts to control language are unfruitful, but attempts to control markets can be fruitful. Do that even if it bores you.

Santos: because this was a parody, I was arguing directly against Strunk & White and Geithner & the FDIC... or at least that's what I was trying to argue against.

---

So I guess this effort fell flat, huh? It felt like genius in the moment of its conception.

Wishydig said...

no i get it i get it. and it's a nice satire/parody of arguments. i can even see the merit in the economic half.

remember that my view of government is pretty moderate. i'm more libertarian than you might think -- especially on fiscal issues.

so i really shouldn't take up the argument that language regulation will never work but economic regulation will. because i kinda believe that neither is all that effective. this really isn't a cop-out. i really think that government should protect those things that government is designed to... govern. rights. benefits. services. justice (small 'j' not big 'j'). fiscal policy, but not fiscal tides.

but tell me how i can get past the analogy if i see it failing in this way:

you say that equal wealth must be meted equally by means of government -- and i agree that wealth is not meted equally.

you say that language 'ability' should be meted equally by means of prescriptivism, but i see that language 'ability' is already meted equally.

language hierarchies are not the product of linguistic features but of arbitrary social factors. so

a) language policy is not going to affect language -- there will always be dialects and they will constantly shift, and

b) the social hierarchy that relies on language as a gatekeeper for power could rely on other social castes/categories. a single language wouldn't equalize power. and sociology is not in my area of expertise.

re: corgis

it's not the language that made you see them after you learned the name. let's say that you saw one and looked at it intently enough to notice its color shape ... its features, and you had not name for it. it became one of those dogs that looks like "that". you could notice it because of the attention not because of the language.

but yes. categories help us to organize and notice. what i reject is the idea that -- as N puts it -- the expert sees more "simply because they are equipped with language that provides more differentiation." it's not that simple. not nearly that simple.

Wishydig said...

oh yes-- the wealth/knowledge issue.

i don't care for financial wealth as a necessity. so we're in agreement there. but it's simply true that some people have more of that wealth than others. a lot more.

should that change? should the government control that? i don't really think so.

Casey said...

You said:

...you say that language 'ability' should be meted equally by means of prescriptivism, but i see that language 'ability' is already meted equally.Try this: "You say that satisfaction should be meted equally by means of economic regulation, but I see that satisfaction is already meted equally."

Or, "You say that justice should be meted equally by means of economic regulation, but I see that justice is already meted equally."

And again: I'm not sure this is a fair parallel -- but it really seems structurally interesting to me. If there is some bit of data that I'm missing that would destroy the parallel, I'd like to hear it. So I guess I'm just suggesting in economic terms what you suggest pretty unabashedly when speaking of language: regulation is largely unnecessary and ineffective.

But that last comment really settled my nerves. I see that you understand my point... which is all I can ask, and all I feel inclined to ask.

Casey said...

One more thing: I can't even remember why I was insisting on the parallel -- whether it was to introduce skepticism into the language argument, or to make you take the laissez-faire argument more seriously.

Both seem interesting to me these days, but I can also see the dubiousness in both.