Book Review: Punctuation..?

So the good folks over at Userdesign asked me to review their newest volume, Punctuation..? and I was happy to oblige. Linguists rarely study punctuation (it falls under the sub-field orthography, or the study of writing systems) but what we do study is the way that language attitudes and punctuation come together. I’ve written before about language attitudes when it come to grammar instruction and the strong prescriptive attitudes of most grammar instruction books. What makes this book so interesting is that it is partly prescriptive and partly descriptive. Since a descriptive bent in a grammar instruction manual is rare, I thought I’d delve into that a bit.

User_design_Books_Punctuation_w_cover
Image copyright Userdesign, used with permission. (Click for link to site.)

So, first of all, how about a quick review of the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive approach to language?

  • Descriptive: This is what linguists do. We don’t make value or moral judgments about languages or language use, we just say what’s going on as best we can. You can think of it like an anthropological ethnography: we just describe what’s going on. 
  • Prescriptive: This is what people who write letters to the Times do. They have a very clear idea of what’s “right” and “wrong” with regards to language use and are all to happy to tell you about it. You can think of this like a manner book: it tells you what the author thinks you should be doing. 

As a linguist, my relationship with language is mainly scientific, so I have a clear preference for a descriptive stance. An ichthyologist doesn’t tell octopi, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong!” after all. At the same time, I live in a culture which has very rigid expectations for how an educated individual should write and sound, and if I want to be seen as an educated individual (and be considered for the types of jobs only open to educated individuals) you better believe I’m going to adhere to those societal standards. The problem comes when people have a purely prescriptive idea of what grammar is and what it should be. That can lead to nasty things like linguistic discrimination. I.e., language B (and thus all those individuals who speak language B) is clearly inferior to language A because they don’t do things properly. Since I think we can all agree that unfounded discrimination of this type is bad, you can see why linguists try their hardest to avoid value judgments of languages.

As I mentioned before, this book is a fascinating mix of prescriptive and descriptive snippets. For example, the author says this about exclamation points: “In everyday writing, the exclamation mark is often overused in the belief that it adds drama and excitement. It is, perhaps  the punctuation mark that should be used with the most restraint” (p 19). Did you notice that “should'”? Classic marker of a prescriptivist claiming their territory. But then you have this about Guillements: “Guillements are used in several languages to indicate passages of speech in the same way that single and double quotation marks (” “”) are used in the English language” (p. 22). (Guillements look like this, since I know you were wondering;  « and ». ) See, that’s a classical description of what a language does, along with parallels drawn to another, related, languages. It may not seem like much, but try to find a comparably descriptive stance in pretty much any widely-distributed grammar manual. And if you do, let me know so that I can go buy a copy of it. It’s change, and it’s positive change, and I’m a fan of it. Is this an indication of a sea-change in grammar manuals? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Over all, I found this book fascinating (though not, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended!). Particularly because it seems to stand in contrast to the division that I just spent this whole post building up. It’s always interesting to see the ways that stances towards language can bleed and melt together, for all that linguists (and I include myself here) try to show that there’s a nice, neat dividing line between the evil, scheming prescriptivists and the descriptivists in their shining armor here to bring a veneer of scientific detachment to our relationship with language. Those attitudes can and do co-exist. Data is messy.  Language is complex. Simple stories (no matter how pretty we might think them) are suspicious. But these distinctions can be useful, and I’m willing to stand by the descriptivist/prescriptivist, even if it’s harder than you might think to put people in one camp or the others.

But beyond being an interesting study in language attitdues, it was a fun read. I learned lots of neat little factoids, which is always a source of pure joy for me. (Did you know that this symbol:  is called a Pilcrow? I know right? I had no idea either; I always just called it the paragraph mark.)

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Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten
In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?
Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/11507&gt;.