02 September 2014

I just want to shout, "WHO?!"

I know I´ve touched before on words that aren´t words becoming words.  This post here was over four years ago!  I was young and foolish then.  "If it acts like a word we might as well let it be one," I said.  I guess I´ve become more of a prescriptivist in my old age.  I´m aware of this now because Michael asks me about once a week if I consider myself more of a prescriptivist or descriptivist.  I always tend toward prescriptivist but, I of course know that language isn´t unchanging or frozen.  I just like rules, and grammar, and knowing how to speak correctly.  I know that modern English isn´t what it was 500 years ago and language is always evolving, but come on!  We can´t lean too far descriptivist, either.  We can´t just take a jumble of sounds and say, this is what this means now.  And quite frankly, sometimes I really just say "huh?"--I sincerely didn´t understand what that jumble of sounds that you just made was supposed to mean and I refuse to start using said jumble in the way that you say, on a stupid whim!  "Turn down for what" doesn´t mean anything.  It makes no sense!  It´s not even a clever reference to anything.  I´m not doing it.*

I know I lean prescriptivist now because when people speak or write incorrectly IT MAKES ME ANGRY.  I understand the difference between stylistic choices and just plain wrong.  I do.  "Supposably" is never a stylistic choice.  Capitalizing the first letter of random words in a sentence "for emphasis" is not stylistic.  It´s not fancy.  It´s just plain wrong.

When I was younger, I liked cultural and geographical linguistic anomalies--I liked how they marked a person to be from a certain place--how they implied a history and a culture.  I still do.  I used to really, really wish I had a typical New Orleans accent.  I wish my accent gave me away as a New Orleanian.  I wish it were so plainly stamped on my forehead.  I love this city and with pride would wear that stamp.  But I don´t have it.  I try to use some New Orleanian phrases sometimes, but I do so very intentionally--despite it sounding wrong in my head.  "I´ll go by her house tonight."  "Yeah, you right."  These have a history.  They´re cultural--stylistic, even.  It´s different.

I remember moving to Natchitoches when I was 15, and never having heard anyone ever before use "could" so liberally as they did.  "I might could do that."  "She might could´ve come."  "I used to could play the piano."  I hated it.  Hated it hated it.  It was like nails on chalkboard for me to hear "could" thrown about this way, and yet I was forced to hear it daily.  But you know, they wore me down, in time, all those country-talking kids.  When I would go home to New Orleans my friends started to say I sounded country, and I kind of liked sounding different, and I started using "could" in the way I had hated.  I thought it was funny.  Like my own personal secret joke.

Fortunately, it´s fallen out of my vernacular, but when I hear someone else say it (which is rare in New Orleans), I smile fondly at the memory of my time in small-town Louisiana.

I live in New Orleans again, but this time as a conscientious adult.  I pick and choose very carefully the local-speak I let into my diction.  I´m in an environment that is flooded with incorrect English, I try to just let the mistakes wash over me and I try to let it go--but I have to tell you.  My latest pet peeve that I cannot let go is "they have" or "they got" instead of "there is" or "there are."  For example, instead of "There are a lot of cars on the highway today," I too often hear "They got a lot of cars on the highway today."  I just want to shout WHO?!  WHO has a lot of cars on the highway today?!  All day long I shout in my head WHO?! and the only reason I don´t correct people is--not because I think that´s a jerk thing to do--oh no--it´s because I don´t even think they know they´re making this mistake.  They wouldn´t understand my question.  It wouldn´t be a simple fix.  It would take time and explanation, but I´m on the edge.  I´m on the verge of verbalizing my internal WHO a thousand times a day.  I feel it coming.  They´re not going to win me over on this one.  I hate it.




*I tried to understand it.  I really did.  I even listened to this song in its entirety in hopes that hearing more lyrics would clarify the meaning.  THERE ARE NO OTHER LYRICS.  It just says "turn down for what" over and over again.  I´m not doing it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

From Dr. Hall:
Whew! This girl is living in language-hell. Better check her blood pressure!

I must say that this is wonderful, gracefully written rant. I love hearing these curses from a once-lovely and articulate descriptivist who has gone over to the dark side of prescriptivism, where her language-world is now dominated by what is "right" and "wrong." What happened to that spirit of tolerance, Chela? Of sympathy and understanding when you would hear those pathetic bumpkins and buffoons open their mouths?

Nevertheless, I really do like your examples: they illustrate perfectly your frustration with the peabrains and simpletons of this world. However, you might could have chosen other examples, based on age-group and occupation.

It is not your fault these dimwits share a city and a state with you. They are everywhere, butchering the language you love. There is no way to teach them all--or even to kill them all. You and Michael should lock your doors. Don't let anyone in. Schmucks and nincompoops not allowed. Turn down for what.

Anonymous said...

From Andrew:
It's remarkable that I haven't been around for one of the times when Michael has asked you that, and if I were, oh the conversation...! This comment will barely approximate it.

So you of course know that I have huge respect for your thinkery, but I do feel like in this case your arguments for prescriptivism, like many people's, are more emotion-based than anything - while I can agree that a lot of popular idioms/memes are the linguistic equivalent of record scratches - obnoxious and meaningless - at the same time I would be afear'd to use anger alone to justify an -ism.

It's hard to talk about logic and language, though, because while they're very rule-governed, they're also totally arbitrary systems of signs and we are more likely to notice the arbitrary and call it irrational when we don't recognize or like it. Your objection to "they got" - WHO?! - could just as easily be leveled against "it's raining" or "so they say" - and in Spanish even, we have "hay," a riff on the third-person singular conjugation of "haber," which used to mean "to have" in the possessive sense - to which a speaker of Old Spanish might very reasonably say "QUIEN?!" (Even "there is" has a hint of the arbitrary - WHERE?!) So I'd say you're right not to pick that fight, even as your blood boils, because 1) you understand what they mean, so there's no real problem, just an aesthetic problem, and 2) you wouldn't be affecting any change, only signaling what your different usage already does: that you and the person saying "they got" live on the fringes of one another's linguistic communities. And while your more academic, professional, and newscasterly usage will always be rewarded with overt prestige, the contrasting usage gets rewarded with covert prestige in the form of a sense of belonging in the community the speaker cares about. So your question would probably just make them more stubborn.

Anyway, that is plenty for one prissy descriptivist comment lightly peppered with neologisms and archaisms for subtle effect, but we should wax eloquent about all this when we next hang!