Linkage: roasting Naomi Wolf on fry

Excellent post on language: a feminist guide making a few important points to Naomi Wolf in response to a recent article in which she restates the tired and tiresome old trope that certain features of the vernacular are “damaging” to speakers—in this case, young women—and that they need to stop using them for their own good. The money shot, perfectly expressing what I try to tell people on what may well be an equally tiresome basis:

It misses the point that negative attitudes to the language of subordinate groups are just manifestations of a more general prejudice against the groups themselves.

Have a read: A response to Naomi Wolf.

Got a fair amount of vocal fry myself, by the way. Never been suggested to me that my voice imperils my status.

On punctuation

There is within me a great, raging conflict, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, that keeps me awake at nights—neurological fuck-ups notwithstanding—and it concerns the matter of writing.

As a sociolinguist, albeit of the dismal, failed variety, I know that there is no such thing as “correct” or “incorrect” language use; that we acquire our habits of speech from our social environment; and that to assert that certain forms are truer, more accurate, or better is to impose a distasteful and discriminatory social elistism that sets the particular patterns and habits of the privileged few as an unjustifiable standard, and then uses them as a stick with which to beat people who never had exposure to these norms and cannot therefore be reasonably expected to reproduce them.

As an editor, however, I know that there is a right way to do things, and that you just did it wrong.

The sociolinguist wins, almost all the time, but there is an interesting issue around punctuation where the waters are a bit murkier. Speech is, of course, punctuated; but the mechanisms of punctuation are very different to those of writing: pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues such as (in English) tone and intensity. Written punctuation is a very different matter: it belongs entirely to the realm of literacy, and literacy is a secondary skill that supervenes upon language use and is learnt rather than acquired.

We learn a great many skills as children, some formally (such as arithmetic), other less so (such as wedgie technique). In the context of formal learning, it does not seem as egregiously unjust to propose certain favoured norms, as it is no longer the case that the naturally-acquired habits of a few are being imposed upon and in contradistinction to the habits of the majority. We all must learn the norms of literacy and, as long as the proposed norms do not surreptitiously support or reinforce the spoken behaviours of the elite, then I cannot find it in myself to object too strongly.

Punctuation, then, seems a clear position where the editor in me can flex his muscles a little. Spelling, less so: we may have standardized spellings, but these could be seen to be imposing certain pronunciations over others. But punctuation is so arbitrary and independent of lexical content that here, at least, I feel I may be entitled to allow myself a little prescriptivism.

Does this mean, then, that I decry the grocer’s apostrophe—as more than a few people think I should?

Well yes, and then again, no. I cannot deny that I wince when I see it but—cursed egalitarian that I am—I rather feel that in this class-bedevilled society certain groups of people have access to higher-quality education than others, and that members of that group with access to only the poorest level of schooling are more likely to go on to be grocers than, for instance, Old Etonians. I don’t like to see the grocer’s apostrophe, but I find it very hard to lay the blame at the door of the individual who has written the sign. The putatively terrifying deficit aside, we are one of the richest nations on the world and, if we are to promote cross-dialectical norms in even this one small matter, it seems a piteous failure of our society if we cannot manage to educate everyone about it.

  1. In fact, of course, “you just did it wrongly.” Case in point, however: both forms are equally understandable, and the insistence on the “correct” use of the adverbial form just results in a cumbersome and ugly locution, not to mention ruining some of the effect by terminating an humourously over-emphasized phrase on an unstressed syllable.
  2. Though when the sign was written by a member of exactly that elite who do insist that the uneducated emulate the forms of the educated, the matter is maybe slightly different.

On kvetching, klutzdom, and kibitzery

There is something wonderfully satisfying about Yiddish loan-words to me. As a mother-tongue monolingual, the consonant conjuncts they offer are meaty and enjoyable, and they seem to have an pleasurable specificity in meaning: providing that satisfying feeling of having found exactly the right term that you required. But the problem with them, as a Brit, is lack of exposure. Whilst these words may be common in American English, they are less frequent in British—I was well over thirty before I actually discovered that the initial sound in chutzpah, which I had only ever seen written, was not “tch.” Consequentially I only use a few of them, and then with care, because for many I am uncertain of precisely those specifics of inference that I so relish. This is a shame, because I would love to have a few Yiddish epithets that I could apply to myself: I was recently described as a mensch, which I had to look up, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it means an honourable or decent person; especially pleasing since the person using the term is in no small way responsible for my continued employment. However, I think that there are three that can almost certainly be applied to me with some level of accuracy.

Professionally, though I am no longer strictly an editor, I cannot stop myself from providing editorial input, which almost certainly makes me a kibitz. But, to be fair, the result is higher-quality books, so it’s also this that makes me a mensch.

I may, also, be a kvetch. I certainly am when ill—of course I am, I have a Y chromosome—and when cold, but it is possible I am also so in my wider life. Not for no reason does this blog have a category entitled “Rants.” But this is where a knowledge of the detail of the semantics is necessary. Can one only kvetch about insignificant or trivial matters? Or can one kvetch about great and important affairs? I fancy to myself that it is these for which my ire is usually reserved: in my personal life, when neither cold nor ill, I like to think I am relatively easily satisfied: as long as you give me good book, somewhere soft to fall over, and plenty of lime in my gin and tonic, I’m quite a happy chap. So I am uncertain whether I’m a kvetch, though I am certainly capable of kvetching.

But there can be little doubt that I am a klutz. I spent a significant portion of the first twenty years of my life training my fingers to be really remarkably precise and rapid—nowadays my playing is rusty and awkward, but at the age of twenty-one I could knock a piano about with not unimpressive skill. However all that seems to have been at the expense of any other level of spatial awareness or precision; I suspect that we all have a finite quotient of dexterity available to us, and I squandered all mine on the Waldstein sonata and Schoenberg’s opus 33a. My absurdly underlong limbs seem to crop up with regularity upon this blog and one might presume that, giving me as they do a fairly limited range of contact with the external world, I would be compact in my effect upon my surroundings. Yet this is not the case. My blast radius is vast: I merely need to sit in a chair one side of a room to cause widespread devastation upon the other. To be frank, even if you’re simply reading this, I’d move the family china a safe distance away. I can only suppose that I exude a field that disrupts gravity in my proximity, and there is no reason not to speculate that it may be transmitted electronically.

So there it is: a kvetching, kibitzing klutz I am: confessions which amply satisfy the K requirement of this blogging challenge; though they are, I suppose, nothing to kvell about.