≡ Menu

Ben Zimmer and How I Do Language

Chicago Style Q&A: New Questions and Answers – Shop Talk interviews linguist Ben Zimmer today, and I love what he has to say about how historical evidence of colloquialisms and metaphors rarely convinces a Grammar Bully to back down on their insistence of “proper” usage of language:


The first thing to recognize is that what we think of as “new” usage is very often not that new at all, thanks to what Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky has called The Recency Illusion. We tend to think of stigmatized language patterns as artifacts of our current age, when in fact they can reflect long-standing usage among established, respected writers. But just because you can find Alexander Pope writing “Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same” in 1708, that’s not going to assuage those who insist that literally should only be used, well, literally, rather than emphatically or hyperbolically. I often point to such historical evidence in usage disputes, but I doubt that I’m convincing anyone who has already decided that a particular point of usage is simply wrong.


(Side note: Academic linguists are “descriptivists” as opposed to “prescriptivists” – which means that most linguists see language as a living, changing thing. Prescribing to the notion that there’s one right way of expressing language is to show one’s ignorance of the subject and one’s own prejudices.)

Mr. Zimmer goes on to talk about how Big Data is influencing language, which of course it would. It may actually normalize language a bit, as we might tend to adopt the same terms as a whole, the more we interact with each other online. It’s an interesting read.

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 3.13.02 PMOn a fun note, my friend Eric Rice linked to a “Dialect Quiz” that showed I basically can’t decide where the heck in Pennsylvania I’m from. I scored only at 53.8% similarity to speakers in Philly. That was the highest correlation, so I guess I’ll take it. It means I still have 46.2% of my Poconos-speak left in me. No wonder people look at me funny sometimes.