One of many hats I wear is that of a lexicographer. In 1990 I began maintaining the Jargon File, still available on my website and released as three paper editions in 1991, 1993, and 1996. At the time, I was a bit nervous about what I might learn if a “real” lexicographer ever showed up to critique the work. Would I be told that my efforts were amateurish, shoddy, and marred by methodological error?
Somewhat to my own surprise, the answer turned out to be not just “no”, but “hell, no!”. As professional lexicographers became aware of my work, not only was it never panned but they actually praised it and adopted it. Rather than tediously multiply examples I’ll jump straight to the top of the lexicographic food chain; I have been assured by editors of no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary that they consider the Jargon File a high-quality and reliable source.
One one level I found this praise a bit disturbing. What kind of parlous shape was the field in that a rank amateur like myself could make such an impression? It seemed to me in some vague way that standards ought to be higher. But as I learned more about the behavior and working methods of actual lexicographers, and how they evaluate work like mine, I began to understand in more detail why they considered the Jargon File authoritative, and that evaluation began to make sense in a larger context.
Furthermore, I learned that the question of linguistic authority has interesting nuances that most non-lexicographers don’t appreciate — and which, for complicated historical/political reasons, often go unadmitted by lexicographers themselves.
The question at the bottom of everything I’m going to write about in the rest of this essay is “Who controls the norms of language?”. That is, how do we judge whether a lexical or grammatical usage is correct or incorrect?
There is a belief, widespread among non-lexicographers, that this sort of question is archaic and disreputable: that lexicographers have abandoned making normative claims and merely survey the drift and trend of popular usage in a completely non-judgmental way.
This belief is false. It does not describe the actual behavior of lexicographers when they make dictionaries. Rather, it corresponds to an extreme of one position about the source of linguistic authority, which I’ll call the populist position: correct language is what a perceived majority of speakers is using.
For contrast, I will now describe the other major positions about linguistic authority. Some of these are, for English-speakers anyway, mainly of historical interest. Others are still very much alive among lexicographers, though often semi-covertly for reasons I’ll describe later in the essay. The history of lexicography can be modeled as a sort of tug-of-war between these positions about linguistic authority.
Please note that in some cases I’ve had to invent terminology for this discussion. All lexicographers would recognize these positions, but not necessarily label them exactly as I do. They tend to show more as revealed preferences than conscious, articulated theory.
For starters, there’s the elitist position: correct usage is what the King and his court, or more generally the wealthy upper class of the language’s speaking population, is speaking.
Related, but distinct, is the academic position; correct usage is defined by elite grammarians and lexicographers. In some languages this elite is formally constituted as a language academy; in English, it’s a looser network of communicating scholars that now includes, in a minor and particular way, myself.
Finally, there is the functionalist position; correct usage is that which increases (or, at least, fails to decrease) the language’s utility as a functional tool of communication.
Now let’s consider the justifications attached to these positions.
The elitist position is justified very simply: in a society with a really dominating power elite, you’d bloody well better consider their language “correct” unless you want to spend your life on the outside looking in, on your knees eating mud. The elitist position in this crude a form tends not to survive the impact of industrial revolution and political democratization on language groups.
In the history of English, however, the elitist position retained a lot of appeal until relatively recently, because it gave the middle classes a way to better themselves, an aspirational target along with upper-class clothes and manners. One might think of this as the Pygmalion effect after George Bernard Shaw’s play (later recast as the musical “My Fair Lady”) which both affirmed and satirized the aspirational use of elite language through the interaction between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Until well into the twentieth century it was quite powerful and retains some force even in the anti-elitist climate of roughly 1960 to the present day.
The justification for the functionalist position is just as simple: language is a tool for conveying meaning. Changes that increase its capacity to convey useful distinctions are good. Changes that decrease its capacity to convey useful distinctions are bad. Changes that have neither effect are neutral.
The justification for the academic position is somewhat mixed. In many societies at many times, academic grammarians and lexicographers have viewed it as their job to codify and explain elite speech, both to outsiders and (even more importantly) to the children of the elite itself. Their job was to be maintainers of the elite language construct and even to reinforce its differences from common speech.
As the prestige of elite speech has fallen, academic grammarians and lexicographers have justified normative control in different ways. One that is still important in (for example) French is a program of purging the language of foreign elements. In English, with its egalitarian societies and tradition of gleefully mugging other languages for their vocabulary items, academic grammarians have fallen back on essentially functionalist arguments for their normative privileges.
A near archetype for this sort of thinking in English is Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”: all their prescriptions about speech are justified by arguments about concision, efficiency, and clarity that are functionalist rather than elitist. Significantly, this book premiered in 1918, two years after “Pygmalion”. Both the book and the play were reactions to the fact that the the elite/aspirational rationale for language norms was losing its force.
The justification for the populist position is even more mixed. At the bottom of it, for most people, is the belief that popular usage always wins in the end, so why fight it? But this isn’t actually even remotely true; as far back as Middle English, academic grammarians imported Latin and French words into English wholesale, and they often displaced more popular “native” words. The anti-populist effect of class stratification has been taken over in our time by mass media, especially television and movies, which have enormous power to ratify minority usages and pronunciations and make them normative.
The widespread belief that the populists not only do always win but should always win — that no other sources of linguistic authority are legitimate — is essentially a political fashion of the late 20th century, a reaction against earlier elitist thinking. It is, at bottom, also rather fraudulent!
Crowds don’t write dictionaries, editors do — or, at least editors filter them in critical ways. And yes, this is even true of wiktionaries and works like the Jargon File, not to speak of the really authoritative traditional sources like Oxford’s or Webster’s. Linguistic populism often reduces to a sort of cowardly academicism in which grammarians and the compilers of dictionaries suppress their own, inevitable normative role. In extreme cases they may suppress it from their model even of their own behavior.
What, then, is an honest lexicographer to do? And how is he to represent what he does?
The answer, in the early 21st century, is simple: Most grammarians and lexicographers are functionalists pretending (sometimes even to themselves) to be populists. The functionalist prescriptivism of Strunk & White rules actual behavior in making dictionaries and grammars, even as the rhetoric of descriptivism owns the public relations about how the dictionaries are made. And almost everyone else falls for the pretense.
I am unusual only in that I refuse to pretend, either to myself or to others — and I take heat for it, notably in discussions of loaded terms like “hacker” and “cracker” where I consistently maintain that a usage can be both popular and incorrect. I do so on the functionalist grounds that confusing these terms destroys a useful distinction and violates the norms of the speech community that invented “hacker”.
To a working lexicographer, these are both excellent arguments. However, lexicographers often, perversely, refuse to cop in public to the fact that they give weight to such arguments, because it’s politically difficult and involves them in distracting disputes with loud and clueless people.
Now, it would be oversimplifying to say that all lexicographers are closet functionalists and nothing but. In fact, what they tend to use is a weighted sum of all the sources of linguistic authority which varies in interestingly contingent ways. Here’s an example:
In most dialects of English, the pronouns of second-person plural and second-person singular address are both “you”. There are dialects in which “you” is used as a second-person singular and “you-all” or “y’all” is used as a second-person plural. In a third category of dialects, “you-all” or “y’all” is used for both singular and plural second person.
A truly extreme functionalist would say that the you-y’all usage should be preferred over both others because it makes a useful speech distinction that is otherwise unavailable. In fact, for this reason I myself often use “y’all” in informal contexts despite the fact that my birth dialect (educated East Coast Middle American) rejects this usage.
Most lexicographers and grammarians would not go so far as to call this “preferred” or “correct” — the fact that you-you is both majority and elite usage prevents them. However, the functionalist program become clearer when you compare their reactions to the other two; y’all-y’all is more likely to be ignored and condemned when noticed than you-y’all.
For a simpler example of where functionalism completely overrides populism, consider that the aggressively populist culture of Internet email and forums still repeatedly slams people who confuse “lose” and “loose”, or put apostrophes in plural forms with terminal s. There is a widespread sense that no amount of popular adoption can make these usages correct, and that sense is justified.
Now we’ll return to the question of why the OED editors consider the Jargon File authoritative. It took me a while to figure this one out, but the answer turns out to start from the following question: supposing you are in fact a lexicographer with a primarily functionalist program, how do you know which distinctions are important?
Part of the answer turns out to be this: for technical jargon and slang, you consider the purposes and behaviors of the originating speech communities to be normative. Geometers own the meaning of the term “trapezoid”, surfers own the meaning of the term “hang ten”, and people setting themselves in opposition to these meanings, whether deliberately or by mistake, are simply screwing up no matter how popular the erroneous usage may become elsewhere. The application of this principle to the terms “hacker” and “open source” is left as an easy exercise for the reader.
But even if you have this as a rule, it’s difficult to interrogate an entire speech community about what distinctions and lexical items it considers important. It’s especially difficult when you know that you lack the technical competence to do the interrogation, even if you could round up enough suspects.
So, when a core member of a specialist community drops a lexicon in your lap, and it exhibits signs of even minimal scholarly care for documenting facts and being up-front about things the editor(s) don’t know, and it becomes clear that the members of the speech community themselves largely consider it correctly descriptive, that’s actually about as good as it ever gets; you are likely to seize on it with glad cries of glee.
And that’s how I first became an authority…