Posted by: mattcolvin | November 3, 2017

Linguistic Cynicism

In an article for Unravelling, John McWhorter writes:

No linguist says that people should ignore the fact that it is preferred in some settings that you say “Billy and I went to the store” rather than “Billy and me.” What the linguist is saying is that those rules are not based on any kind of logic or any kind of scientific principle, and the reason that’s important is because it means that when you hear somebody using one of these prescribed [sic: he means proscribed, i.e. prohibited] constructions, they’re not doing something that’s dirty, broken, or wrong.
Yes, if somebody is saying “acks” instead of “ask” when making a public speech, that’s unfortunate. They should say “ask” just like they should wear underwear, just like they shouldn’t be using a cane today, just like they shouldn’t be wearing a waist coat, just like in 1950 they would have to have been wearing a suit. Fashion is arbitrary, just like things with language.


It’s delightful to see a radical descriptivist like McWhorter committing howlers of diction (prescribed for proscribed). But it’s even more delightful that he reveals his presuppositions so blatantly. For him, the rules of formal English grammar and morphology are “fashions.” By this he means not merely that they are conventions, but that they are arbitrary conventions. Violations of prescriptivist rules are not “dirty, broken, or wrong.” They are simply the way language is developing. They are natural.

Nature! But which nature? Diogenes the Cynic (404-323 BC) thought that a life “in accordance with nature” meant that we should all urinate in public, disregard rules of commerce by eating food in the marketplace without paying for it, have sex wherever we want, etc. He deliberately showed his contempt for all social conventions: “Thus do I trample on the pride of Plato!” The result was that he acted like a dog (κύων, κύνος > Cynic). But his philosophical opponents, the Stoics, taught that we ought to pursue life in accordance with human nature, not the nature of dogs.



Diogenes in his pithos outside the temple of Athena Nike, being taunted by Athenian women. Painting by J.W. Waterhouse.

Linguistic descriptivists who decry the artificiality of prescriptive grammar are the spiritual heirs of Diogenes. They see a new linguistic development and say, “See? This is according to the nature of language.” But is it? It is in accordance with human nature for language to develop in an unregulated, wild manner? Human beings are natural gardeners. Pure descriptivism bids us leave the garden untended: no pruning of solecisms, no weeding of ugly forms, no cultivation of graceful constructions shaped and defended by rules or pedagogy or the framework of traditional models. Instead, just admire all linguistic developments: they all have equal integrity and beauty, right?

In a recent interview, McWhorter remarks on the recent usage of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” — as in, “Trump is literally Hitler”:

The fact that literally can mean both itself and its opposite is — admit it — cool! The way literally now works is a quirky, chance development that makes one quietly proud to speak a language.

No, it isn’t cool. It’s a sign of a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts (not merely the words!) of literal and figurative. I’m sure it’s fascinating to a descriptivist from a certain point of view to see how this sort of thing can happen, much as a chemist who knows all about oxidation reactions might be delighted by the rusting of a vintage sportscar’s bodywork. But if we ask, “Does this sort of development help people communicate precisely and elegantly?” the answer is surely, “No.” Any word that “can mean both itself and its opposite” has lost much its usefulness for expressing its original meaning.



  1. I haven’t read McWorther, so I am not in a position to comment on his work. I just want to make a comment about language. Changes in language are not ‘natural’ in the sense that, for instance, going bald is natural. Changes in language happen because of changes in usage, as with, for instance, the Old High German Sound Shift. I find some changes in popular usage irritating, such as the use of ‘me’ instead of ‘I’, but if the meaning is clear, I usually suffer in silence 🙂

    • “Changes in language happen because of changes in usage…”

      Yes, that’s right. It is how languages evolve. The issue between prescriptivists and anti-prescriptivists like McWhorter is not a debate about whether languages change, or about whether such change is driven by usage. Everyone agrees about those things.

      The debate is over whether the usage should be controlled by humans in a deliberate manner, by means of formal rules and standards of style, register, and so forth. The anti-prescriptivists oppose such things as artificial, arbitrary, and unnatural. My point in this post is that this anti-prescriptivist position is making unwarranted false assumptions about what is “natural” for humans to do with their languages.

  2. Thank you for your response. Just a quick reply for now. Some standard terminology is established by law, and any desired changes in the law need to be made via due legal process, whether we like it or not! I haven’t worked out yet how to copy and paste, but I’ll write here as briefly as I can about something you may already be aware of.
    In 2013 the following German word was dropped after an EU law change:

    (law delegating beef label monitoring)

    This really got me on the funny bone because I think it is hilarious that the Germans came up with such a long word in the first place,that the use of it became a legal requirement, and that it was finally dropped because of a change in EU law. Whether or not such standardization of language is natural is a matter for debate I suppose. I don’t think its natural! However, I do think it is necessary in many contexts.

    • I agree that it’s inappropriate for the State to determine the norms of usage. That’s not the purpose of civil government.

      • To elaborate on this a bit: it is appropriate for language norms to be shaped by authority, but the authority of government is not authority of the appropriate sort.

  3. I think it in inappropriate for the state to determine the norms of colloquial usage, but I think it is appropriate for accepted standard language to be established in several professions, such as the legal and medical professions. Of course I know that ‘accepted standard language’ means different things to different people, and if I were still teaching (I’m retired) I would probably get into a lot of hot water if I were legally required, for instance, to learn and use a whole set of new pronouns to reflect gender identities!

    • Yes, that’s more the sort of authority I had in mind: guilds and experts. I would add that norms should be enforced with sanctions appropriate to the sort of norms they are.

  4. I heard it suggested that one reason progressivism is not manifesting itself in France in the same way that it is in the United States is because — well, because in France they don’t like their language messed with.

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