Normative Language and Spontaneity

In an interview (in French) with Bruno Guglielminetti (site not yet updated with the interview), copy-editor François Hubert discussed the “quality” of the French language on blogs (by which he means the grammatical, typographical, and spelling correctness of blog posts in French).

This concept of language quality, as described by Hubert and many others, is an important component of French language ideology. While speakers of other languages often complain about the poor quality of other speakers’ speech (and, especially, writing), normative language seems to be a more important part of the language ideology for the French language than, say, the language ideology for the English language.

The insistence on normative language, on the part of French-speakers, seems to have very important effects on both non-native speakers of French and native speakers of French. For instance, many non-native speakers of French will refrain from using the language with native speakers because they fear the native speakers will judge them negatively. While this does happen with learners of other languages, it seems especially debilitating for people trying to use French across language communities. In fact, insistence by Hubert and others on the “quality” of written French might be one of the motivating factors for my blogging mostly in English.

Of course, Hubert has the right to his opinions on the matter and his preference for normative language could be interpreted as a part of his job as a copy-editor (my wife is also a copy-editor…). Yet, even those who work on prescriptive grammar in other languages may be more open to non-normative language. For instance, comments by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style in their Questions and Answers monthly column often display a much more tolerant attitude to non-normative language than many French-speakers with minimal interest in language issues.

There’s a strong tendency in language sciences (my wife and I are both in the field) to adopt a much more neutral view of language prescription. Some language scientists may talk in private about their preference for «un bon français» (“a good French,” as close to the standard register as possible) but the general agreement is that any language variety is as good as any other in linguistic terms.

In this specific interview, Hubert was mostly discussing blog entries and their spontaneity. Pinpointing a known phenomenon linking mistakes with online communication (“What? There’s a ‘Preview’ button?”), Hubert sets up a model opposing spontaneity to quality.  Hubert himself not only sends his blog entries in a word processor to check for typographical mistakes (a spell-checking browser makes this much easier to do) but he even prints out some of his entries before posting them. Thankfully his advice to bloggers is less extreme as it centres on rereading posts before submission and going back to older posts in order to revise them for posterity’s sake.

None of this is inappropriate advice, but it leads us to think about the blurring line between oral and written communication. Hubert’s argument is that, if we care about communication so much, we should revise our texts as they might remain available for a long time. Bloggers often take another approach to revision: readers are like an open-source community of copy-editors. Blogs with active readership communities often attract comments on language issues. Simple typographical mistakes are usually spotted by some astute reader quite early on and deeper issues are sometimes solved by the community. “Given enough eyeballs, all typos are shallow.” This is especially true if the author of the entry is perceived as somewhat condescending to her or his readers. Nothing will motivate someone to write a comment than showing the mistakes the author has made!

This all has to do with not only spontaneity but the “release early, release often.” Bloggers do revisit older entries, if need be. Not necessarily by editing the original entry but by posting a follow up. Blog étiquette seems to have it that entries should be left untouched as much as possible. Otherwise, comments on those entries cease to make sense. And when bloggers are trying to get to publishing quality, they might in fact use the power of the community as an editing team. As such, a blog entry is like a recorded conversation. You don’t change the conversation but you can use it to go further. In such a context, normative language makes fairly little sense. As long as you can post quickly and the gist of your ideas can be understood well-enough to enable readers to ask questions, heavy revision of every single entry is contrary to the very principle of blogging.

IMHO, such emphasis on revision and “language quality” is a reason why so many people have difficulty with writing. Nothing prevents someone from writing more abruptly than thinking about peculiarities of written language. Except if those peculiarities are what this person is writing about, of course!

One thing that few people seem to discuss extensively is the fact that younger people are in fact writing inordinate amounts of text online. Of course, those with a prescriptive and normative view of language will just say that what is written online by a thirteen year old has no value because of the “poor quality of the language.” Yet those teenagers who are instant messaging their way to becoming extremely fast typists are really writing. They are putting ideas into written form. And they develop ways to be as efficient as possible in their writing while still being understood by their interlocutors. More than a skill, it’s an important social change. Writing is not what it was when only a precious few scribes were able to use it for specialized communication and archival (like accounting and religion). Scribes of old have been responsible for a number of changes in language. Why can’t millions of teenagers have more of an impact on written language than a few dead scribes?

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

2 responses to “Normative Language and Spontaneity

  • The Word « Disparate

    […] by enkerli on September 15, 2006 Speaking of language change and digital life, Radio Open Source is preparing a show about "Language Evolution in the Digital Age." […]

  • blork

    I struggle with these issues. I think I lean towards prescriptivism, but not all the way. I think it depends on many different factors, so it is impossible to make any universal declarations about the correctness (or not) of language usage.

    In my case, I identify myself as a writer. It’s what I do for a living. In particular, I am a technical writer, so for me, accuracy and understandability are key. As such, I tend to default to prescribed norms regarding usage, spelling, grammar, etc.

    At the same time, I am quite happy to see the language evolve, as long as it evolves in a way that makes sense. Some things are just wrong, and I don’t believe that the simple fact of their being adopted into common usage makes them right. Ultimately, by doing so, you end up with less understanding instead of more (see my blog post about “try and” vs. “try to.”

    I also acknowledge that there are different kinds of writing that serve different purposes. Kids writing on their blogs pretty much have carte blanche as far as I’m concerned — it is more important that they write and express themselves than that they be perfectly normative in doing so.

    Then there is literature (as in, creative literature). I would hate to have a prescriptivist go through my favorite novels, changing things here and there to suit the rules. But if a novelist breaks the rules is is because he or she has made a concious decision to use their creative license, or is it because they don’t know how to do it correctly? Ulitmately, does it matter? (Personally, I think “yes,” but I am open to debate the issue.)

    Wow, this comment is longer than many blog posts, so perhaps I’ll just leave it at that.

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