Friday, March 25, 2016

Big-Endians and Small-Endians; or, Standing on Principle

I'm so far behind with everything -- reading, writing, thinking, you name it -- that it isn't funny.  Maybe in the course of the great cycle of life, I'll get so much farther behind that I'll catch up and it'll be funny again.  For right now, though, I'm not happy.  But I'll live.  And some things have crunched together that might be worth discussing.

First, a local acquaintance was griping on Facebook about other people's language atrocities:
As far as I'm concerned, "begrudgingly" is the new "irregardless." You don't. Need. The prefix.
I had some fun pointing out some other linguistic anomalies that are firmly enshrined in standard English, such as the double plural in words like "children" and "brethren."  (You don't. Need. The Double Plural.  But you're stuck with it.)  Then I linked to a linguistics blog post which showed that redundant double negatives like "irregardless" are deeply rooted in the history of English, and to a Language Log post about the curious phenomenon of this kind of word rage among English speakers.  Most other commenters agreed with my acquaintance, of course, though another differed, winning this rebuttal from him:
Sure, it's a word: one that, if you use it, I and many others will identify you as un- or under-educated. That it has become commonplace does not make it any less ill-used. Where's your self-respect?
The curious thing is that many people who make these errors are not in fact un- or under-educated, so if my acquaintance jumps to "identify" them as such, he's mistaken.  The post on "irregardless" I linked to earlier found the word used in official publications "such as the official text of the U.K. Contagious Disease Act (Horned Cattle) of 1880," for example.  A commenter under that post suggested "Also, the 'in/im/il/ir' prefix isn’t always negative. Sometimes it’s an intensifier or has no meaning at all, as in 'irradiate.'" That's probably what is going on with "irregardless," and something similar is probably involved with "begrudgingly." I once vented here about consistent confusion of "peak," "peek," and "pique" in a novel by an academic and published by a university press, and I and other educated writers make such errors all the time; sometimes we correct them, but we still make them.  More important, just because a word or spelling or other usage rubs you or me the wrong way doesn't mean it's wrong.  Language obsessives are often mistaken about the "errors" they fulminate about.  Here's an example I find instructive; read the comments for more. Their (our) fury has nothing to do with the errors even when they're genuine errors; I wonder where it does come from.

Yesterday I spoke on a GLB panel to a class in the School of Education, and one of the other speakers mentioned that he belongs to a group, founded he said by a couple of English comedians (is one of them Ricky Gervais, maybe? I must ask him) that aims to give atheists and secularists the kind of "community" that religion normally provides to believers.  He mentioned that the meetings he attends don't have the religious foolishness (not his word; I'm paraphrasing because I don't remember his exact term) that religious services have; you just get the community.  I'm ambivalent about "community," but this could be an interesting movement to investigate, a subject for further research.  But I wondered again where all those silly bits in religion supposedly come from.  This speaker was a student in the sciences, and I believe he thought, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that scientifically oriented and trained people won't have irrational values, because those come from religion, so if you're a scientist you are by definition rational.  Not so, alas.

I considered mentioning the proverbial resistance to new theories, even or especially in the "hard" sciences, that has nothing much to do with rationality.  New grand theories become established, not by persuading the old guard, but by being taken up by the new guard, who must wait for the former to die off.  The advent of Relativity Theory is a famous example of this.  I decided it wasn't the time or place to mention this, or to point out that sexism, homophobia, and racism are deeply entrenched in the sciences, both as content and as personnel policy.  Maybe I was wrong about that, since the other speaker, a young woman studying a physical science, was complaining about the homophobia among older male scientists in her department, which kept her closeted there.  Gay issues are irrelevant to her field, which deals solely with inanimate materials, but that's all the more reason why bigotry can't be defended as somehow rational there.  Highly educated and even non-religious people harbor a lot of bigotry, which they rationalize and express in moderate terms; education itself doesn't have much of an effect on such attitudes.  It may even exacerbate them.

So: I'm currently rereading Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia, by Emily Toth, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2008.  As the title indicates, Ms. Mentor writes an advice column for aspiring and confirmed academics; it's highly engaging and entertaining, but more important, she looks at angles in conflicts in a hothouse environment like academia that would not have occurred to me. She reminds her readers from time to time that professors are apt to have been the Good Students, the rule-followers both in certain kinds of decorum and in the use of language, and one of the letters she answers involves a university Dean who pronounces the word "collegial" with a hard G.  This habit divides the faculty, reports the questioner, "with the more sycophantic members following his pronunciation while the rest of us bravely resist.  Who is right, and do you have any suggestions?"

Ms. Mentor notes that a soft G in "collegial" is preferred in American English, "but it is linked both to soft-G 'college' and to hard-G 'colleague.' ... There are also British speakers who prefer "collegial" with a hard G as an assertion of imperial privilege and differentiation from rude colonial Americans."
In short, Dean Titan may merely be a harmless Anglophile.  But that would be far too dull an explanation for Professor Stickler [her pseudonym for the questioner] and his ilk.  There must be a better reason!  There must be Meaning! There must be a reason to take up sides!

After all, taking sides puts everyone in a category, and academics love to categorize.  Whole subject areas are built on classifying, polarizing, separating, labeling, and dating.  Subtle and unsubtle distinctions are the bread of life.  If you are not a Platonist, perhaps you're a Freudian, a Marxist, a Whig, or a dendrophile.

But Professor Stickler's cohorts seem to have reduced it all to one question.  Are you Dean Titan's toady?...

Ms. Mentor confesses that she cannot get excited about their feud. She is far more engaged by the feud that took place between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians in Gulliver's Travels: some 11,000 people suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end."

One would think (if one didn't know better) that academics would be more likely than the canaille to be aware of regional differences in pronunciation.  But it's often academics, no less than journalists, who are infuriated by such differences, and denounce Americanisms, for example, as signs of the Linguistic Apocalypse.  The case of the fictional Small-Endians reminds me that it's not enough to stick by your principles -- you must also have good ones.

These anecdotes point to why I don't believe that getting rid of religion will eliminate irrationality and bloody conflict over "imaginary" practices and beliefs.  A similar fantasy is that if everybody just mixed "racially" so that we were all the same color, we'd all get along.  Of course not: we'd just find other differences to fight about, and language is already popular as a club with which to beat other people over the head.  The difference between the educated and the un-educated is not that either group is more rational or more prone to irrationality.  The educated simply have other -- not better, not even more sophisticated -- rationales for their irrationality.  The highly-educated (in their way) Ultra-Orthodox Jewish males who spat on little Orthodox girls for dressing "like whores," and who rioted when they got in trouble for it, comparing their Jewish critics to Nazis, have their counterparts in the early-modern scientists who refused to accept female students or lab-workers because the girl cooties would throw off the results of their experiments, and in twentieth-century Nobel Prize winners who don't want women in their labs because you fall in love with them and they cry when they're criticized.  They can also appeal to science which 'proves' that women have female brains that aren't suited to scientific work.

And so on.  Mistaking custom for nature is so deeply rooted in human nature that we will probably never get rid of it as long as we're human.  But we can resist the mistake, and try to avoid mistaking it for truth.  There are no shortcuts, however, and those who think that irrationality can be escaped or outgrown by getting rid of religion are dangerously wrong.