Archive | June, 2015

The progressive prescriptivist

23 Jun

If you ever wondered what “Mx” meant – as in the courtesy title, “Mx Pat Smith” – you can now look it up. Stan Carey at Sentence First writes that the dictionary for which he works, Macmillan, has created an entry for it for the first time.

Mx is like Ms, but whereas Ms is a title that is non-specific about marital status, Mx is a title that is non-specific about sex. It’s intended for trans people, intersex people and others who would prefer not to be specific, at least in formal correspondence, about gender.

Although it’s completely new to me, Mx appears to have been invented, according to a well-researched post by Nat Titman, as long ago as the late 1970s. The lexicographer Jonathan Dent attributes its first use to a US magazine in 1977, and observes: “The early proponents of the term seem to have had gender politics as their central concern [and] saw the title as one which could sidestep the perceived sexism of the traditional ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’.”

But the key here is that, whoever invented it and whenever it happened, it was invented: that is to say, it was consciously proposed as a new word in the hope of introducing it into the language. Mx has no roots in Middle English, nor was it naturally appropriated from 18th-century Persian. It is a suggestion, a proposal, an innovation; in other words, it is prescriptivist.

In its identification of a point of weakness in the language and its determination to do something about it, it is almost Fowlerian in spirit; indeed, it calls to mind Fowler’s quote in Modern English Usage:

What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the most modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.

Exactly the same was true, 114 years ago, about Ms. As the linguist Ben Zimmer notes in the New York Times, when the term was proposed, it too was an innovation – another artificial construct designed to bridge an obvious gap in the language. Just a few years after the publication of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, an anonymous resident of Massachusetts wrote in the Springfield Sunday Republican:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill … Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.

And so he went on to propose the use of Ms as a simple, embarrassment-avoiding alternative: “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

A few years ago, there was an interesting discussion on You Don’t Say about the politics of linguistics: specifically, whether prescriptivists were rightwing and descriptivists leftwing. Left-of-centre commentators pointed out that prescriptivists spent much of their time being explicitly conservative: defending old usages and deriding new ones. Right-of-centre commentators objected to the what they saw as the hypocrisy of political correctness, which they perceived as the “prescriptivism of the left”. What the invention of Mx, and the success of Ms, suggest is that the linguistic-political divide is more complex than simple left-and-right.

In the decades that followed the proposal of “Ms”, the term provoked political debate. It was mocked as modish, or defended as equitable: a classic left-right disagreement. But that debate did not take place between prescriptivists and descriptivists; it happened between two different schools of prescriptivism, conservative and progressive – one group who wanted to preserve the language, the other who wanted to improve it. Engineering change and enforcing traditions are both equally alien to descriptivism, which, in its purest form, simply observes popularity and usage regardless of antecedents.

The procedure by which words get into a dictionary, of course, remains a descriptivist one: Macmillan would not have considered Mx for inclusion simply on the basis of one magazine editor’s decision. Usage, and evidence of usage, is the only measure of success or failure for an innovation. Prescriptivism proposes, descriptivism disposes.

But that process is not as easily projected onto the left-versus-right political map as it might seem – for example, modern linguistics might have waited indefinitely for a non-sexist alternative to “chairman” if a progressive prescriptivist had not suggested “chair”. Descriptivism can be laissez-faire as well as inclusive; prescriptivists can innovate as much as they preserve.

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Lines below the line

2 Jun

They always tell journalists never read to read the comments, but sometimes it’s worth it. In between all the routine messages that get posted under news articles on the web – the rude, the facetious, the rambling, the diatribe on a different subject posted to the wrong piece by mistake – occasionally you find something fascinating.

Like this. It’s posted in the comments of a fine poem on climate change, “Doggerland”, written in the Guardian by Jo Bell. It’s from the author herself, and it’s not really a comment at all: in fact, apparently as the result of an oversight, it’s a very slightly different version of the same poem.

The published poem itself reads as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.28

Bell’s message, posted quite soon after publication, is sent simply to address a technical problem. “Thanks for publishing my poem but the line breaks are wrong – it should look like this. Perhaps it does in print!”, she writes, and posts the poem again underneath as a guide.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 18.07.49

A Guardian editor responds quickly: “Sorry about that Jo. It’s been restored to the correct format now.” But neither of them appears to have noticed that the poem that Bell reposted was not quite the same one.

The first two verses are identical. But whereas the third verse in the published version begins:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading uplands sixty fathoms back; saw nettled deer tracks
pooling, inch by sodden inch, into a whaler’s channel

Bell’s posted version reads:

Pilgrim felt his feet transparent on the deck, a sailor
treading high ground sixty fathoms down. He sickened for
the nettled deer track, brimmed into a whaler’s channel

They make for an interesting comparison. It seems a good choice to leave out ‘sickened’ in the published version. It’s an emotional word that tips the hand of the poem too early: the published version saves the surprise of Pilgrim’s conversion to the last verse. ‘Pooling, inch by inch’ is a good addition, providing a sense of the geological slowness of the sea’s rise, the sense that ‘time is water’. On the other hand, ‘sixty fathoms down’ in the posted version is much easier to understand that ‘sixty fathoms back’, which is an odd adverb to use for a measure of depth.

There are changes in the next verse too. The published version reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shift and shiver; saw the caverns filled, the railways rivered
and the Pennine mackerel flashing through lead mines

Whereas the one posted in the comments reads:

…water, time. At neap tides he felt England’s backbone
shiver; saw the caverns full and railways rivered
Pennine mackerel flashing through the lead mines

Here the rhythm of the posted version emphasises the internal rhyme, shiver/rivered, better than in the published one: the shorter 12- and 11-syllable lines in the former are 14 and 12 syllables in the latter.

It’s hard to pick a favourite between them: I’d almost prefer a hybrid version of the two. And the posted poem isn’t a perfect guide to the line breaks for the editor, of course, because some of them aren’t even the same lines.

On the assumption that no one at the newspaper would have dared to rewrite a poem, the question then becomes which one is the earlier version and which one the later – or, to put it another way: which is the work in progress and which is the poem?