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Arbitrary and archaic – or are you a SNOOT? | WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.9

Arbitrary and archaic – or are you a SNOOT? | WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.9

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Published by Mackenzie Hawkins
We miss out on the controversy because, when we turn to The Dictionary, we don't feel like we are being bossed around.
We miss out on the controversy because, when we turn to The Dictionary, we don't feel like we are being bossed around.

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Published by: Mackenzie Hawkins on Jan 23, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 Arbitrary and archaic
 – or are you a SNOOT?
Arbitrary and archaic – or are you a SNOOT?WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.9
“Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography revealsideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?” We miss out on the controversy because, when we turn to TheDictionary, we don't feel like we are being bossed around. We are looking forguidance; we accept what we find there; and we move on with our lives. TheDictionary is impersonal – or so it seems – and the entries and preface (have youever read a preface to a dictionary?) are written in such a way as to accentuate thatperception. But imagine a dictionary personified, a walking, talking, “this-is-correct-English” know-it-all. “There are lots of epithets,” writes David FosterWallace in his essay
 Authority and American Usage
, “for people like this –Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, theLanguage Police.” Wallace prefers to call them SNOOTS, a highly colloquial termthat he defines as “the sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincingdespair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE – 10 ITEMS ORLESS or hear
used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8Motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of 
.” Such aSNOOT would probably stir up some feelings of resentment. We might even say,“You know, you are really arrogant and obnoxious and who gave you the authorityanyway to tell us what words or spellings or pronunciations are correct and whatare incorrect?” The troubling thing is that no one did. That’s the problem withdictionaries, or at least it became a problem in America in the ’60s, a time whenacademic linguists were able to drive home the fact that dictionaries, usage guides,and grammar texts are written by people, by SNOOTS, by – and this was thecatalyzing factor – just a handful of privileged white males. “In brief, the samesorts of political upheavals,” Wallace writes, “that produced everything from KentState to Independent Counsels have produced an influential contra-SNOOT school
for whom normative standards of English grammar and usage are functions of nothing but custom and the ovine docility of a populace that lets self-appointedlanguage experts boss them around.”In the “Usage Wars,” it’s the bossy Prescriptivists, who prescribe what “good”English should be, versus the go-with-the-flow Descriptivists, who as linguistsdescribe how English is actually used. For example, we have two 18
centuryPrescriptivists to thank for our strict rule against double negatives. They decidedthat double negatives, such as the Spanish
 No hay nada
, were illogical because twonegatives should make a positive in language just as in mathematics, even though,as any linguist will tell you, thousands of languages use the double negativewithout confusion, including Old English and every single nonstandard dialect of English. “Once introduced a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matterhow ridiculous,” writes linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, best knownfor his book 
The Language Instinct 
. Pinker, a die-hard Descriptivist, argues thatour brains are hardwired for language; that our ability to communicate verbally isinstinctual, selected and honed by evolutionary forces. That’s why no one – unlessthey are debilitated in some “profound Oliver Sacksish way” – has to be told not tosay
 Apples the eat boy
The child seems sleeping
. According to Pinker, we don’tneed rules, like the arbitrary prohibition on double negatives, because the reallyimportant rules are hardwired into people’s neocortex. “When a scientist considersall the high-tech mental machinery needed to order words into everyday sentences,prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential decorations.”But can decorative rules have real-world consequences? Just because something is“decorative” does not necessarily make it “inconsequential.” We might, forinstance, have learned about consonant weakening – how the “t” sound requires anextra energetic puff of air and how, over time, it is a natural process in human

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