Re: Common Errors in English

Subject: Re: Common Errors in English
From: Bruce Byfield <bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com>
To: Dick Margulis <margulis -at- fiam -dot- net>
Date: Sat, 21 Feb 2004 18:47:21 -0800

Dick Margulis wrote:

There is a transcription error, analogous to a miscopied bit of DNA.

This analogy is worth expanding on. Contrary to what was once thought, some evolutionary theorists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, suggest that it is not merely transcription errors - that is, mutations - that give a competitive advantage that are preserved, but any that are neutral in their effect.

I suggest that most of what a hardcore prescriptivist would call errors are of this neutral sort. Perhaps they mildly handicap the successful transmission of information (or cause people to think less of the person responsible), but they can usually be deciphered or worked around. Minor coinings or variations are usually the same. In all of these cases, the survival or disappearance of these innovations does very little to affect the language as the whole. They come and go, and leave micro effects, but their macro effect is almost negligible.

In other words, when you make the analogy in terms of actual genetics, the matter isn't one or all or nothing. Transcription errors happen all the time during reporduction, but the vast majority of them don't affect a species' survival one way or the other. In the same way, errors are made with language all the time without influencing the language's usefulness or longevity.

It is fair to ask whether this is a type of linguistic change that is either worth preserving, worth resisting, or even worth noticing.

For me, the question is more whether anything the average person can consciously do has any effect on whether a usage is preserved or resisted. Occasionally, very successful writers can lend their prestige to a usage, and once or twice comedy has killed an especially ridiculous usage. Yet even large, influential groups, like the French Academy have been unable to influence the process of linguistic change very much. While you might want to avoid certain usages as a matter of personal pride or integrity, to think that anyone can seriously influence the process seems naive.

One argument is that by democratically accepting everything anyone utters as being part of the language, we promote the rapid proliferation of mutually incomprehensible new dialects that will evolve into new languages.

I don't know that there is any evidence that linguistic drift is happening any faster now than in the past. In fact, if you compare the addition to the language in the last century, I suspect that it is much slower than, for example, in the Elizabethean era.

Anyway, as I said, the idea that we can do much to promote or discourage the process seems a grandiose pretension to me. It's like the Church decrying Galileo's discovery that the earth revolved around the sun. As Galileo is supposed to have said on his death bed, for all the Church could do or say, "nonetheless, it moves."

Bruce Byfield 604.421.7177

RE: Common Errors in English: From: David Locke
Re: Common Errors in English: From: Dick Margulis

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