Archive | July, 2017

Shock treatment

25 Jul

Well, never mind the Paris Accords – thank goodness this has been settled, years in advance. A decisive example of international cooperation. Wait, hang on, what’s this?

Ah.

We have seen so many examples of claim quotes being used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian story is not about a fact, it’s about a claim; not about a decision but a prediction. So the headline cannot stand like this, without any attribution at all.

Yes, the source of the assertion eventually appears in the standfirst, but that’s too late: a headline containing a claim must signal the existence of that claim within itself.* This is a highly sensitised part of British newspaper culture: there is a huge difference, to UK readers, between QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP TO DIVORCE and QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP ‘TO DIVORCE’. The former is a categorical assurance, a truth on which the newspaper is staking its reputation. The latter is clearly nothing of the kind: a secondhand claim at best, and one from which the newspaper is distancing itself by punctuation.

It puts one in mind of the hoary “that’s what …” construction beloved of US beat reporters and long studied by Fred at HeadsUp, in which a striking, apparently declarative opening sentence is only fully contextualised in the succeeding paragraph.

There’s no way a man could have blown up an airliner using explosives hidden in his briefs.

That’s what defense attorney Anthony Chambers is claiming in his latest court filing involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a homemade bomb in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009.

Or:

Monica Conyers doesn’t have a good enough reason to take back her guilty plea and her sudden claim of innocence doesn’t cut it.

That’s what the federal government argued in court documents filed Monday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Conyers is fighting to have her guilty plea withdrawn.

Which in turn raises a wider question about how long a newspaper should be allowed to keep its readers on the hook before revealing the contested or partial nature of what it’s saying. I would suggest – whether we’re talking about a headline or an opening paragraph – not very long at all.

 

*Especially because, on many news websites, it is only the headline, without the standfirst, that appears on the homepage.

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Nation shall prescribe unto nation

11 Jul

‘I’d have gone for “visionnaire” myself. I’m glad we didn’t get “auralooker”:

Historian Nick Kapur’s fascinating Twitter thread about the BBC’s Advisory Committee On Spoken English and its influence on modern speech reveals just how close we came to referring to anticyclones as “halcyons”, but also offers an illuminating insight into what prescription in language really means.

Because of course, there is not one kind of linguistic prescriptivism: there are two. One opposes all language change and all neologism, and attempts to conserve current norms as an eternal standard. But the other seeks to deliberately modify language: not to reject new words, but to invent them, and to influence speech and writing to go in new directions – such as the campaigns to popularise Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about here.

The story begins, he relates, in 1926, when Lord Reith sets up a committee to help resolve one of the many problems a pioneer national broadcaster has to solve: how should you pronounce certain words on air? (This group, the Advisory Committee On Spoken English, still exists today, doing very similar work to help BBC broadcasters). Then in 1935, faced with the question of what to call users of the new media of the day – television –  a new sub-committee was set up, not just to advise on pronouncing words, but to invent some new ones. Led by the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith – an eager language reformer – the Sub-Committee on Words generated the alternatives listed above to start the debate (although it eventually rejected all of them and recommended “televiewer”, subsequently shortened to “viewer”.)

After that, the sub-committee remained active, and widened its remit to mass-produce new words for broadcast far beyond the new industry’s immediate needs, eventually becoming so extravagant and implausible in its inventions that an exasperated chairman of governors closed it down in 1937. But by then it had created several terms – “roundabout” for the road junction, “serviceman” for members of all the armed forces, “art researcher/art historian” to replace the German word “kunstforscher” – that are now commonplace in modern English.

The impression descriptivist scholarship frequently gives is that language is an unknowable stew of errors, localisms, homophone confusions and misreadings, prone to unpredictable change. The emphasis, or the cultural preference, often seems to be bestowed on the unwilled variations to language, not the willed ones. But Kapur reminds us that English is also highly susceptible to the approaches of those who have a design on it, from Edwardian grammarians like Fowler to equalities campaigners to spelling reformers like McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. There are words and conventions in many registers of modern English that were created deliberately by people who wanted to see them catch on and took the opportunity to make it happen.

Sometimes, of course, prescriptivism is institutional, and benefits from that privilege. It might be justifiably argued that the BBC’s committee, as a quasi-official body proposing usage for the nation’s only broadcaster, was in a very strong position to succeed, particularly as it was inventing terms for then-unnamed phenomena. But the Academie Française, which is attempting to do for French today almost exactly what the BBC committee did for English in the 1930s – and from a similarly state-sanctioned position – is greeted with widespread indifference and derision for its efforts.

And in any case, innovative prescription does not need an official platform to succeed. This blog has discussed at length the extent to which Fowler’s suggestions have influenced modern formal and legal English, but Fowler himself was no state official, nor did his books bear any government imprimatur (although Churchill is said to have recommended Modern English Usage to his staff after it came out). His books were a success because, then as now, there is a sustained public appetite for advice on how to engage with formal English. (Indeed, given the existence of a generation of professional linguists who consider it their role to observe rather than advise, the field for such material is possibly clearer today than it was then.)

This is not to say the process is easy: frequently, big innovations just don’t catch on.  There is no doubt that some of the committee’s ideas, like some of Fowler’s, are much worse than others: for example, one member apparently felt it desirable to create a shorter term for “inferiority complex” (“inflex”), and another proposed “yulery” as a collective term for Christmas festivities. The point is not that Fowler or the committee were always “right” about what they proposed; the point is – at least sometimes – that they were successful.

Usage remains the timeless, and the only, judge of current English. But usage does not simply adjudicate on terms that have risen up unbidden from the demos; it also sits in judgment on peri-statal prescriptions and private linguistic entrepreneurialism. Due process is afforded to all new words, whether they are accidents or designs. Linguists say that language is a democracy, and it is: a democracy in which, among other things, anyone is free to prescribe and see what happens.