Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In this week's New Yorker, Joan Acocella has a nice piece summarizing the competing philosophies of language analysis known as the "prescriptivists" versus the "descriptivists".  The otherwise fine article is glaringly lacking an important piece of analysis: Google.

Language is a form of collective memory.  We use a word or a grammatical form because it *communicates* which implies some sort of an agreed upon form, i.e. memory, between transmitter and receiver.  The state of a language is encoded in the distribution of usage throughout the population.

It used to be the case that there was only one of two ways to measure this collective memory.  Either, one, you listened to a sampling of the language around you or, two, you used a reference source which usually claimed to have done this sampling for you.  Both measurements are prejudiced.  To a large degree, the argument between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists falls along these measurement lines.  Either you listen to what's around you which is biased by the circles you inhabit (which you admit as a descriptivist) or you believe in a reference which is biased by the writer's opinions (which you may or may not admit as a prescriptivist).

But now there is a third way.  You Google.  Not sure how to spell something?  You type in your pathetic phonetic attempt and Google politely asks you if you meant to spell it differently.  There's no arguing prescriptivist or descriptivist with Google -- Google is impartially telling you what the collective memory has to say about this.  Google is *both* prescriptivist and descriptivist.  It is both prescribing a usage and describing the mode of the sample.

Google of course also has biases --  toward the young, wealthy, and techy.  But compared to one's everyday selection bias or the bias of a dictionary (especially the dictionary's temporal bias), it is the paragon of impartiality.  I argue that from now on Google and its inevitable successors will define the language much more than the dictionary did and in a way that is de facto fair.

Anyway, to consider the issue of modern language usage as this New Yorker article does without considering how Google shapes the modern landscape seems to me to be exceedingly antiquated.

1 comment:

physicalplant said...

Very well put.

Speaking of biases, I particularly appreciate this because I have developed a bias against Joan Acocella. I so often find her pieces supercilious, dismissive, and generally anti-fun.

Anyway, thanks for the thoughts.