Sunday, November 17, 2013

Grammatical norms and social discipline

My nephew Alex wrote me a note on Facebook:

I found this sentence in the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem that I thought you might appreciate (context: a short history of social normalization and standardization): "On commence par les normes grammaticales, pour finir par les normes morphologiques des hommes et des chevaux aux fins de défense nationale, en passant par les normes industrielles et hygiéniques."

To which I responded:

And the grammatical norms that are established in contemporary English as the beginning of this disciplinary process necessarily have nothing to do with how people actually speak the language. Necessarily, because it's not about helping people to speak correctly but about establishing arbitrary authority that people must obey without thinking through the grounds of that authority for themselves. The grammatical rules that are part of public discourse can thus become shibboleths people use to celebrate their own conformity with arbitrary power and to discipline those who do not conform to such power.

Hey, I can still talk the talk!

(Why post this here? Because if I leave it on Facebook, it will disappear down my timeline. If I post it here, it will disappear down my blog, but I will always be able to find it again.)


Dominic Rivron said...

?power mine for the taking is eh :)

Andrew Shields said...

I suspect that Canguilheim really does mean that "the rules of grammar" *in general* have this disciplinary effect.

But I mean something else: I don't think the rules of English grammar as such are disciplinary. With Canguilheim's help, I can now see that the grammar pet peeves that generate memes (like "use a comma, save lives" and all those) are a form of arbitrary power — nowhere near as openly sinister as the arbitrary power of indefinite detention, of course, but still arbitrary.

And *necessarily* so: the arbitrary nature of the "rules" that get enforced in public discourse is actually what makes such enforcement powerful. There's nothing someone who has not learned linguistics can do about them.

And perhaps the necessity of the arbitrariness of power in such contexts can be extended to climate change and evolutionary biology: the climate-change denialists and the creationists not only can but must make arbitrary claims that cannot be dismantled without expert knowledge. The claims need to be as arbitrary as possible, or they will not have the desired enforcement effect. And one person pointing out that the claims are wrong cannot counter such an application of arbitrary power.

All this is a long way of saying, "But that's not the kind of violation of grammatical rules that I'm talking about." :-)