The Problem of Defining Genocide
Stéphanie Giry has an article in the New York Review of Books, The Genocide That Wasn’t, discussing the application of the term genocide to the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Giry outlines the problem that occurs when the generally accepted definition of a term clashes with the legal one and points out that genocide has become the ultimate crime in the eyes of the world public.
In this case, the Cambodian people, and most others around the world, consider what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people as genocide. But because the actions of the Khmer Rouge were not directed against an ethnic or national minority, the crime doesn’t fit the legal definition of genocide. Instead, the Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of crimes against humanity, which is perceived as a lesser crime. (Even though the penalty is the same, life in prison.)
Analogous cases where popular definitions of terms conflict with technical ones are common, but the moral stakes here make this case a special one.
A New Scrabble Champion
One may wonder at the detail and effort that fivethirtyeight.com put into this article on the national Scrabble championship, but really it’s no more silly than the amount of analysis that goes into football (soccer or the other one), baseball, or hockey.
Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad
I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.
Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.
In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.
Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.
This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.
The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.
Or you can download it from here.
In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…
We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.
Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat
“Weird Al” Yankovic has a new video that’s making the rounds. It’s Word Crimes, a parody of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. It’s very clever (despite the “cunning linguist” chestnut; that ancient pun was only mildly amusing upon first hearing and just plain not funny subsequently; no self-respecting comedian should use it), but it’s also very wrong. Many of the “errors” that Yankovic descries are not wrong at all.
The things that Yankovic doesn’t understand about English:
- Less used to modify count nouns is perfectly acceptable
- I could care less is correct; it’s an idiom and doesn’t have to be logical (hint: acceptable usage is never determined by logic)
- Innovative abbreviations are okay; what’s important is that the message gets across
- Whom is dying; using who in its place is okay in most contexts
- Good can be an adverb too
- Literally has a figurative meaning too
In short, Weird Al is exposing himself as a peever, someone who doesn’t understand that:
- Language changes
- There is no single “correct” style that works in all cases; different contexts call for different styles and diction
- Use determines what is “correct,” not arbitrary rules or logic
There’s a place for artful, well-written English prose, but this kind of peeving has never led to better English, and when it’s wrong—as in this case—it tends to lead to stilted, poorly written prose.
Still, it’s an amusing and well-constructed parody.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton