Friday, June 01, 2012

"Tacit Conventions"

Your middlebrow likes nothing more than to argue about language.  This seems to be especially true in English.  At least since Dryden began re-writing his published works to make their English follow the rules of Latin, and likely long before, speakers of our language have squabbled over what is right and what is wrong in grammar, syntax and vocabulary.  In classrooms and at family dinner tables, not to mention general-interest magazines, debates over language are notoriously fierce, frequent and self-righteous.

During the 20th century, the argument came to be described as a debate between "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" positions.  Dictionaries are a common causus belli.  In our youth, Webster's Third New International was pilloried as a spineless capitulation to living and letting live, while the first American Heritage was regarded as a crypto-fascist effort to crush free speech.  Just recently, The New Yorker's Joan Acocella offered an entertaining attack on descriptivism.

The problem, as Stephen Pinker points out in Salon, is that these two polar positions don't really reflect the thinking of the people who study language scientifically.  He writes:
The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.
(That "Gregorian calendar" business is a touchy matter, living as we do on the borderlands of Byzantium.  It is a convention, by no means tacit, over which the Orthodox have a lively internal argument.)

Pinker has many more analogies where those came from:
Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of "isn’t" over "ain’t","dragged" over "drug", and "can’t get any" over "can’t get no" did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa. 
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here. 
You get the point, and it is a good point.  The "rules" of language are neither (pace Noam Chomsky) natural laws like gravity nor universal moral laws with a self-authenticating power.  But they are laws, of a sort -- like traffic regulations -- which one follows, more or less faithfully, because  things go more easily when everyone works together.

Pinker's essay is interesting, and worth a read.  But it also raises a question for us here at the Egg, especially as we put off work on that pesky annual exercise, the sermon for Trinity Sunday.  Apart from driving and language, what other human enterprises depend upon Pinker's "tacit conventions"?  Specifically, we wonder sometimes, and with great hesitation, about the obvious dependence of Christian theology upon such human factors as history and culture.  While we are, at least nominally, committed to dyophisitism, it is hard to imagine that, had Chalcedon gone differently and Monophyisitism won the day, our life, ministry or preaching would be deeply changed.   More to the point, we are deeply attached to the doctrine of the Trinity, but had the Arians won (as they nearly did), God would still be God, and we wonder whether the Church would be essentially different or only conditionally different.

Theology likes to believe that its conclusions are necessary, and therefore true, statements about God.  This is the most prescriptivist position imaginable.  Its opposite, we suppose, is the post-New-Age "spiritual but not religious" position, in which beliefs can be evaluated according to no criteria but one's personal sentiment. But if, in theology as in language, the dichotomy is false, then the game would change a bit, wouldn't it?  We wonder what the world of ecumenism, much less interfaith relations, would look like if theologians -- and especially the unlearned faithful, who are often most zealous defenders of doctrinal difference -- learned to view doctrine as a body of tacit conventions, indispensable in their way but ultimately conditional and even changeable.

1 comment:

mark said...

Thin ice.