Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 39

39: MARK HALPERN

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ resumes (again not sure at what intervals).

Some critics of mainstream linguistics explicitly reject the non-prescriptive approach to language adopted by linguists (see the Introduction). One such writer is the Australian journalist Mark Halpern.

Halpern’s views are partly grounded in a belief which he knows is shared by very few indeed, at least among those who think seriously about language, but which he nevertheless regards as clearly correct: namely, the belief that most linguistic change is deliberate and a matter of choice, because linguistic features (he believes) depend on the conscious minds of speakers or writers, especially when they are actually changing. He contrasts this view with a diametrically opposed ‘straw man’ view which he mistakenly attributes to mainstream linguists, the idea that grammatical and other structures ‘have a life of their own’ and do not depend at all upon the minds of language users. Halpern apparently fails to discern the actual viewpoint (intermediate between these two extremes) adopted by (most) mainstream linguists, according to which linguistic features are indeed epiphenomena of human minds rather than independent entities but are mostly not accessed by the conscious minds of native speakers of the language in question in the absence of explicit study – and which are liable to systematic change without conscious decisions being made and indeed without there necessarily being any awareness of a given change while it is in progress. This mainstream viewpoint, of course, is well supported from evidence and argumentation.

Halpern exemplifies mainly with vocabulary changes, the study of which requires much less understanding of linguistic theory or descriptive techniques than that of changes at more heavily structured linguistic levels such as grammar. It is true that some vocabulary changes are deliberate or semi-deliberate, or at least readily accessible to the conscious minds of language users without study. In these respects, linguists will disagree with Halpern less than he suggests they would. But he is mistaken in extending this observation (albeit implicitly and without exemplification) to grammatical and other structural changes.

Furthermore, Halpern regards many of the vocabulary changes which he cites as very unwelcome and as constituting degradation of the language in question (in this case English). He berates linguists for refusing to accept this prescriptivist folk-linguistic stance (which of course is very widely shared).

More next time (when pos)!

Mark

For my book Strange Linguistics, see:
http://linguistlist.org/pubs/books/get-book.cfm?BookID=64212

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

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One Response to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 39

  1. John Cowan says:

    If someone had told me 40 years ago (when I was 18) that one day I would be pronouncing can’t with a diphthong, Boo! with a central vowel, and saying something as blatantly ungrammatical as My bad by way of apology — all the while living in the same general area and using the same general accent of English — I would have thought they were an idiot. These changes just crept up on me without any decisions on my part at all.

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