Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Linguistic Normativity, Idiolectic vs. Social

On the view I like (which is similar to Lewis's view, in "Languages and Language" (1975)), languages are individuated very finely: so, they're different when there even is the tiniest difference in lexicon, phonology, semantics, etc. The languages spoken by individual speakers are idiolects, or better, micro-idiolects.

This is rather counter-intuitive, of course, because we seem, at least prima facie, to speak the same language as those in our speech community. But closer inspection suggests that we belong to heterogenous speech communities, and we all speak different, but strongly overlapping, and largely mutually interpretable languages. This leads to something like an illusion of a common, shared, language. While we may share fragments (overlapping parts), we generally never share exactly the same language with any other speaker.

Normativity concerns "oughts". The abstract view of languages here leads to two notions of normativity related to language.

Idiolectic Normativity

For my own idiolect, there are norms specified by the idiolect I do in fact cognize: these dictate phonology, syntax and use. Let's call this idiolectic normativity. If I mispronounce one of my own words, or garble some syntax, or produce a spelling error (my idiolect is equipped with an orthography too), then I have made a linguistic error relative to my own idiolect. These would usually count as performance errors.

Since these are deviations from the pronunciation, syntax, etc., norms of my idiolect, they are errors. They're not sins or anything like that. They're, for the most part, harmless errors.

Collective Normativity

On the other hand, I belong to various speech communities, and there is no shared common language. For speakers $s_1, s_2, \dots$, there are idiolects $L_1, L_2, \dots$. These are, to some degree, overlapping and mutually interpretable. However, clearly there are further norms in play in conversation with other speakers of language in my speech community. For example, perhaps one might argue that one "ought" to obey the principle
"same words; same meaning"
in conversation with others. Perhaps one ought to match a certain dominant form of pronunciation of other speakers. Perhaps one ought to agree with one's interlocutor on "temporary baptisms" of new words. Perhaps one ought, if need be, to accept and revise meanings assigned to technical vocabulary by relevant experts. (That is, treat certain word-meaning pairs as authoritative.)

How should we understand these "collective" norms?  These norms (better: proposed norms) are the topic of heated arguments about "prescriptivism" in linguistics. Are they primarily linguistic norms, as idiolectic norms are? Or are they social co-ordination norms? It seems to me that these norms are social co-ordination norms, rather than linguistic norms per se.


An example would be accents or dialects.

My accent when I was very young was a working-class Birmingham accent, "Brummie" (for those who don't know the UK). But this accent gradually faded when I attended secondary school, from age 11 to 16, and by age 16, my accent had become similar to what it is now (roughly, grammar-school, "BBC English"). Certainly I had no intention of my accent undergoing this change. But it certainly occurred for social reasons; for Birmingham accents are regarded as extremely ugly in the UK (along with West Country accents) and there was occasional negative pressure on me because of this. And, in fact, it improves social co-ordination, in somewhere like the UK, because it hides one's class background.

The normative question is this: ought one to do this? Are there good normative reason for shifting one's idiolect like this?

First, when I used to say, in my younger self's Brummie accent,
Oim gooing out
instead of,
I'm going out
then I wasn't making a mistake. That was my idiolect then, and "Oim gooing out" is precisely what was specified as the correct pronunciation! Still, if I were now to say,
Oim gooing out
at, say, a Governing Body meeting at Pembroke College, then my UK colleagues will laugh at me (US and other non-UK colleagues will likely not understand me). Of course, I might also jokingly say this (as I have done with a colleague also from the Midlands). But, overall, it would reduce social co-ordination to return to my youthful idiolect.

Collective Norms Concerning Language are Social Co-operation Norms

So, it seems that such norms are social ones, rather than linguistic ones. They concern social co-operation and social conformity. In sociolinguistics, one can study such norms and how they interact with the linguistic norms of speaker's idiolects. But it doesn't seem to be a specifically linguistic norm to speak one language rather than another. 

This isn't to deny that there are such norms, some defensible, some not. For example, the norm of revising, if necessary, one's idiolect to accept an authoritative sound-meaning pair from an expert seems very reasonable. In such a case, one is not linguistically misusing a word; rather, one is, in some sense, socially misusing the word. (Perhaps even "misusing" is not right here.) The linguistically correct meaning of "disinterested" can be anything you like: you can use it to mean "bored" or "hungry". But the socially correct meaning of "disinterested" is "unbiased" or "not influenced by considerations of personal advantage", because this is the meaning assigned to it by relevant experts (that is, legal and journalistic professions) within the large, and heterogenous, speech community of English speakers.

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