Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Living language - a craigslist conversation

As a poetry lover I'm a big believer in a living language, and tend to err on the side of flexibility when it comes to neologisms, new grammar patterns, and the casting-off of grammar distinctions that don't add a lot to the meaning. For example: who/whom? Who cares? The context should make it transparent anyway, so as far as I'm concerned, let it wither; perhaps we can use those valuable brain cells to concentrate a bit harder on Auden's love poetry. As for ending sentences with prepositions, its avoidance can sometimes cause sentence structure to become really lame and twisted, so it actually seems like a destructive rule to me. English's loss of thee/thou does make me a bit sad, since there was a genuine emotional shade of meaning that was lost and is impossible to convey as succinctly today with the vocabulary we have. It might also be nice to have two different "we"'s - one that encompasses the person being addressed, and one that excludes them. (On that note - the use of "their" for a gender-neutral pronoun despite its purported plurality - I say why the hell not. None of the other solutions have caught on, and chanting "his or hers, him or her, she or he" is just so annoying.)

Of course some standardization is useful for efficient communication, especially in environments like business where people from a wide variety of backgrounds need to interact smoothly and seamlessly with each other. But I suspect there's a natural linguistic marketplace going on there - people will adapt to the "prestige" dialect to the extent they have to in order to gain status, if they want to. But we should never lose track of the overwhelming fact that language is a tool that people use to communicate. The communication is sacred. Humans expressing their ideas to one another is marvellous - the tool they use to do it is irrelevant except insofar as it aids that communication.

So, a craigslist conversation:


Converse vs. "Conversate"

Reply to: anon-71362946@craigslist.org
Date: 2005-05-02, 11:37PM EDT

I met a man at a friend's party. An absolutely gorgeous black man--tall, sexy, well-travelled, etc. We emailed a bit and made plans to meet up again. He called me while I was at work and left a message. In his incredibly deep, sexy voice he said he loved meeting me and was looking forward to "grabbing a drink and conversating a bit." I was instantly turned off. I just can't "conversate" with someone! I can converse, but I can't "conversate." I know that I'm being picky, but I'm an editor and language is very important to me. It's just not sexy people. Not sexy. Now I'm seriously considering whether or not I should call this guy back. Stupid? Perhaps, but it's how I feel.

my post:

Converse vs. Conversate (Shakespeare did it)

Reply to: anon-71430204@craigslist.org
Date: 2005-05-03, 12:25PM EDT

So the issue here seems to be that a man used a word that was not part of Standard English, and the woman who he was talking to thought it was evidence of mental deficiency because he either didn't know or care that the word was wrong (although he seemed, otherwise, intelligent and charming). It's a rather interesting story that speaks to a lot of our philosophical assumptions about language: it's either correct or not.

But if you go back and read a Shakespeare play - do people talk like that now? Not only vocabulary but basic grammar is completely different. Is our language today the end result of centuries of stupid people making grammatical mistakes? Or is it a complex cultural evolution of linguistically creative people, adapting their living language to their changing technology, culture, and even just phonetic fashion?

I notice that "conversate" is listed here as a "neologism":

Of which Shakespeare had thousands:

This article by an anthropologist on Ebonics may also be relevant:

My favorite quote from it:

"Are ebonics and other dialects of English simply incorrect, sloppy speech? American schools, particularly in the northern United States, have treated AAVE as a form of language requiring remediation by speech pathologists or special-education teachers. But linguists have known for some time that non-standard dialects, such as AAVE and Hawaiian Creole, to name another example, are consistent, legitimate varieties of language, with rules, conventions, and exceptions, just like standard English. These dialects do not carry the prestige of standard English, but they influence and enrich the standard language, keeping it vibrant and constantly evolving. Examples from black English abound: in an article on ebonics, the New York Times cited Richard Nixon's use of "right on!" "Rip-off," "chill out," and "dis" are other popular borrowings. Hawaiian gives us "aloha," and Hawaiian Creole expressions permeate travel brochures as well as the English of the islands. Furthermore, we know that all speakers of a language are able to adapt it to fit changing social circumstances. Given sufficient exposure to new situations, all language users can switch between prestige and non-prestige forms, between formal and informal ones, between intimate and polite ones, without explicit instruction or conscious translation."

So perhaps this gentleman's cultural adaptation to "prestige" English hasn't encompassed "conversate" yet. Or perhaps he thinks it sounds cool (it does sort of roll off the tongue, hey?) and just plain enjoys saying it, being a linguistically playful individual, and recognizes its side benefit of screening out up-tight, close-minded people who are unimaginative and inflexible enough to judge him for it, despite the multitude of other positive markers of his character.


Blogger P. G. said...

Hear hear! (He says, endorsing the obviously correct position on language while dodging the equally obviously correct, but more challenging, position on moral duty to maintain health.)

7:38 PM  
Blogger MJ said...

Did she respond??

6:19 PM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

Nope, no response. The conversation on the board quickly turned to a picture that some girl posted of her ass. I think it was a lost cause ;)

8:00 PM  
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