On advising descriptively

Some nice people retweeted my post about being a humble prescriptivist, and I had some interesting reactions in the comments and on Twitter, but Peter Sokolowski had one that I wasn’t prepared for.

Jonathon Owen held up Robert Hall’s Leave Your Language Alone as an example of the kind of pure descriptivist that I was referring to, and Sokolowski tweeted:

After thinking it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that there really are two ideas of “descriptivism.” When writing my post I was thinking of the Robert Hall kind, which is the kind that most linguists talk about and aspire to – although I would agree with Sokolowski that we only wind up as hypocrites, loudly declaiming prescriptivism as we prescribe left and right. I think Sokolowski was thinking of a different kind of prescriptivism, as described by Jesse Sheidlower in an article that Sokolowski tweeted last year:

Descriptivism involves the objective description of the way a language works as observed in actual examples of the language. Descriptive advice — almost an oxymoron — about the acceptability of a word or construction is based solely on usage. If a word or expression is not found in careful or formal speech or writing, good descriptive practice requires the reporting of this information.

This kind of “descriptive advice” (I saw how you ducked “prescription” there, Sheidlower) is a venerable tradition with a long history in second language instruction. Most second language learners aspire to speak and write like native speakers, so it makes sense for their teachers to study the speech and writing of native speakers. As Battye, Hintze and Rowlett tell us, it was applied to instructing native speakers on “good usage” by Claude Favre de Vaugelas in 1647:


These are not just laws I made for our language based on some personal prerogative of mine. That would be reckless, some would say insane, because what authority, what basis do I have for claiming a privilege that is the sole right of Usage – the power that everyone recognizes as the Lord and Master of modern languages?

Vaugelas’ point – the reason people bought his book – was not to base these laws on all usage, but on “good usage,” le bon Vsage, which he explicitly defined as the usage of the members of King Louis XIV’s court. His book contained “descriptive advice” for people who were already literate in French – and thus presumably upwardly mobile – and wanted to write like courtiers so that they would fit in better, and maybe even be admired, at court. Write like these people and you’ll get ahead.

Somewhere along the line Vaugelas’ bon Vsage became Sokolowski’s “standards of good English.” The goal is still to write like these people and get ahead – Sokolowski tweeted, “I bet [Hall’s] kids speak good English.” I bet, but I doubt they needed any descriptive advice to do it. They spoke good English because they were raised as members of the elite. Sokolowski’s job as an editor at Merriam-Webster is to describe the writing of the elites and make prescriptions (aka descriptive advice) that upwardly mobile people can follow when they want to fit in.

The main difference between France in 1647 and the United States in 2013 is that there’s no explicit reference to a court. There are still elites, and people are still striving to fit in with them, but the old court all went to the guillotine, so nobody wants to name the new court. Instead they just handwave in the direction of “standards.”

If we’re using this definition of “descriptivist” – someone who describes the way elites talk and sells that descriptive advice to strivers – then my descriptivist chemist is not accurate. I think that’s a perfectly valid definition of “descriptivist” and I’m not judging (even if I am teasing a little) – I may be looking for a job doing that at some point.

I think it is important for linguists to be clear when we are actually attempting to describe language objectively as scientists, when we are advising descriptively, when we are humbly prescribing language with a political goal in mind, and when we’re being the kind of crotchety traditionalists that Vaugelas thought were insane back in 1647.

Illustration: Joseph M. Gleeson

Just so stories in French negation

Just So stories were named by Rudyard Kipling in his book of the same name, which contained stories like “How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin.” In that one, the rhino’s skin starts out tight, but after he takes it off to swim, a man put crumbs in it to take revenge for the rhino eating his cake. When the rhino put his skin back on, it itched so much he loosened it up with all his scratching. Presumably something similar happened with basset hounds.

These stories can be fun, especially for kids who ask “why?” and won’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. They’re entertaining, but they’re not science and they’re not history. Even if they’re broadly consistent with a scientific theory, if they’re not based on actual data, they’re just fiction.

This is different from the normal simplification that happens in scientific explanations. We know that the Earth is not a perfectly round sphere, that it bulges out a little at the equator. Sometimes it’s enough to think of the world as round, and nobody needs to worry about oblate spheroids.

The main difference is that scientific simplification removes distracting detail from the raw data to allow the bigger picture to be seen more clearly, but Just So stories add detail that doesn’t exist in the data, and may actually create a picture that doesn’t exist. This is why, as science, they are so dangerous.

Linguistics is certainly no stranger to Just So stories. The most famous may be the old chestnut that the Eskimos have a hundred (or a thousand, or…) words for snow. This has long been used to illustrate the effect of environment on language, even though Geoffrey Pullum famously showed it to be false in 1989.

Just So stories are also found in the history of French negation, the subject of my dissertation. There is a story that you will find in almost every article or book discussing the evolution of negation. Here’s the version from Detges and Waltereit (2002):

As a standard example of grammaticalization, consider the French negation ne … pas. A lexical item, the Latin full noun passus ‘step’, has turned into a grammatical item, the Modern French negation marker pas.

(3) a. Before grammaticalization: Latin
non vado   passum
NEG go:lsG step:ACC
'I don't go a step'

b. After grammaticalization: Modern French
je ne vais   pas
'I don't go'

Reading this, I assumed that Detges and Waltereit have some attestations of non vado passum in Latin. That’s the way science works, and history. We do experiments to collect data, and we base our stories of the past on documents and artifacts. In historical linguistics we have what people wrote, and we have reconstructions. Because the reconstructions are less reliable as evidence, we mark them with asterisks.

I was all ready to repeat this story as I told the history of French negation. In fact, one of my professors suggested that I look for evidence of pas being initially restricted to verbs of motion, then gradually used with a broader and broader range of verbs. I did look, but I discovered that it’s just a story. We don’t have any evidence that anyone ever wrote non vado passum, other than linguists talking about grammaticization.

What I did find was this excellent three-part opus on Romance negation by Alfred Schweighäuser, published in 1851-52, digitized to PDF by Google Books and extracted for your convenience here (section 1, section 2, section 3). In section 3 (Part 2), he takes you on a very thorough tour of all the expressions that have been used to “supplement” negation in Latin and its descendants over the years. After spending some time discussing ne … pas, he concludes:

Observons toutefois que cette modification apportée au sens du mot pas est antérieure aux plus anciens monuments de la langue. Si haut que nous remontions dans le cours des siècles, les textes ne nous montrent jamais cette négation explétive que privée de l’article, et jointe indiféremment à des verbes de toute signification.

Let us note in any case that this modification made to the sense of the word pas is earlier than the most remote works of the language. No matter how far back we look across the centuries, the texts only show us that negation shorn of its article and combined indifferently with verbs from any semantic field.

One thing I find remarkable about this is that these aspects of language change were known and studied 161 years ago. And yet it was only a year later, in 1853, that P.L.J.B. Gaussin gave us our first citation of non vado passum:

Nous avons encore à parler d’une dernière modification que quelques mots subissent : elle a lieu lorsque, par suite d’un emploi très-fréquent, ils ne deviennent que de simples formes grammaticales. C’est un fait que nous aurons l’occasion de vérifier en polynésien ; nous en trouvons d’ailleurs de nombreux exemples dans nos langues d’Europe : on connaît l’origine des négations françaises pas et point ; on a d’abord dit non vado passum ou passu, je ne vais d’un pas ; non video punctum, je ne vois un point. Pas et point, par un usage devenu de plus en plus général, n’ont plus été par la suite que de simples signes grammaticaux.

We have yet to discuss one last modification that certain words undergo. It happens when, in the course of very frequent usage, they are transformed into simple grammatical forms. This is a fact that we will have the opportunity to confirm in Polynesian; we also find many examples in our European languages. We know the origin of the French negations pas and point: people first said non vado passum or passu, I am not going one step, non video punctum, I do not see one point. Pas and point, by virtue of more and more general usage, have become nothing more than simple grammatical signs.

Schweighäuser and Gaussin perfectly illustrate the difference between history and Just So stories. Schweighäuser combs through Latin and Old French texts in detail to find all the different ways that the words are used. His wealth of detail is perfectly appropriate for his task, but the story could be told to outsiders in a compelling way by simply omitting some of that detail. There are many examples of this kind of semantic broadening with other constructions; those could have been used instead. But Gaussin doesn’t do that. He just makes stuff up.

It is obviously silly to single out Detges and Waltereit for this Just So story, since it came from Gaussin, and has been handed down ever since. But other than a brief mention in 1907, it was dormant until Lüdtke (1980) revived it. It seems to have been most widely propagated by Paolo Ramat in 1987.

Looking back on this, I appreciate my professor’s invitation to re-examine this story rather than simply repeating it. We should do that with all of our standard stories, to find out which ones are supported by the data, and which are Just So.

Two changes in French negation

I realized today that I hadn’t yet blogged about my dissertation, the Spread of Change in French Negation. That’s too bad, because I like my dissertation topic. It’s fun, and it’s interesting.

You may see here, from time to time, posts about my dissertation research. I’ll try to make them accessible to anyone, not just the specialized audience that I wrote the dissertation for. If you have a reaction or a question I hope you’ll comment or send me an email. If there’s anything you don’t understand, please tell me, because I mean for this blog to be easy to understand.

When I studied French in high school, I learned the standard line: that to negate a sentence you put ne before the verb and pas after it: Je sais becomes Je ne sais pas. But then my teachers were smart enough to show me a movie that aimed for authentic language. Diva, the 1981 action film, features a moped chase in the Paris Métro, and a pair of grumpy hitmen. One of the gangsters is a man of few words, but he repeatedly takes the time to say that he doesn’t like whatever’s at hand. And in one scene with cars, he says, “J’aime pas les bagnoles.” In case our French wasn’t good enough, we had the subtitle: I don’t like cars.

I laughed, I repeated the line, mimicking Dominique Pinon’s terse delivery. Then I realized: what happened to the ne? The other lines where the hitman declared his dislike for elevators and other burdensome features of the environment were also missing the ne. And years later when I went to live in Paris and walk through the same métro stations, I heard lots of negation with the pas only, no ne. I learned to negate my own sentences with just a casual pas after the verb, because when in Paris, do as the Parisians do.

Another six years later, in a class on Frequency Effects in Language Change, Joan Bybee asked us to pick a change for our term project. I chose to look at French negation. I was sure the story of the missing ne would turn out to be a compelling one.

I was right. It was so compelling that it already had a big literature on it. Worse, because it had only recently entered mainstream media, the data on ne-dropping were hard for me to get in time for a term paper. But as I looked further back in time, I discovered an earlier change. This one had been studied a lot, but not quite as much, and there was quite a lot of data. This was the original addition of pas to the ne. Or, as I was to find out, the large increase in the use of ne … pas.

Want to read the rest of the story? Stay tuned to this blog. If you can’t wait, go read my dissertation. Oh, and ask if you have questions!

Making dreams and stuff

Yesterday Tyler Schnoebelen posted an important warning to anyone who thinks translation is simple, by going through various translations of the quote “the stuff that dreams are made of” from the movie the Maltese Falcon.  Unfortunately it’s even worse than he says, because the official French translation, at least, is not very good.

One spring evening when I was in college in Paris I went out to see Casablanca.  I had liked it in high school film class, and noticed all the references to it that pervade Anglo-American pop culture.  When I watched English-language movies in Paris I always checked the subtitles to pick up some good French expressions.  The lobby was full of French people excitedly chattering about how much they loved “Casa” too.

Well, if these French people loved “Casa,” it must’ve been for the visuals, or because they understood the English dialogue, because it sure wasn’t for the French subtitles.  I got to read one famous, poetic line after another rendered in dull clichés.  There were two that I remember most vividly.

There’s the line, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” that Rick says to Ilsa four times in the movie. I’ve never heard anyone say it when they weren’t referencing the movie.  It’s a toast, but it’s clearly a very affectionate toast, and Rick repeats it even when they’re not drinking, instead of something more direct, like “I love you,” as fits the conflicted nature of their relationship.  How did our subtitler render these complex nuances? With the most standard and formulaic French toast, “To your health!”

The other line that really struck me is the last one in the movie. [Um, SPOILER ALERT!] Police Captain Renault, who has demonstrated a lack of morals throughout the movie, has just allowed Ilsa to escape, shielded Rick from prosecution for killing a Nazi officer, and offered to flee to the Congo with him. As the two men walk off into the dark, Rick says, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

By hedging with “I think” and explicitly referencing “the beginning,” Rick emphasizes that this is a turning point for them, and that he has been impressed with Renault’s actions. How did this come out in the subtitles?

Maintenant, nous sommes amis!

They didn’t even translate the whole thing! It was just “Now we’re friends!” with that silly little exclamation point on the end. No thinking, no beginning, not even a friendship, just “friends!”

I’m not necessarily faulting the subtitler. I don’t know when it was translated, and how famous the movie was at the time. The people who pay for subtitles are often in a hurry, but don’t want to pay for quality, so they get what they pay for.

Casablanca deserves better, of course, and for the seventieth anniversary DVD they got it. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” is translated as “À vous, mon petit !” and then finally, “Bonne chance, mon petit.” The last line is rendered as, “Louis, je crois que ceci est le début d’une merveilleuse amitié !” which is very literal, but a lot better than the first version.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the original subtitles for the Maltese Falcon were just as bad as those for Casablanca, and if they haven’t been updated for a seventieth anniversary release, they may still be bad. “L’étoffe dont sont faits les rêves,” isn’t horrible, but as Tyler points out, étoffe is a very concrete noun, usually indicating some kind of fabric or stuffing. The noun matière (also feminine) is much closer to the sense of “substance” that I think the Maltese Falcon screenwriters were aiming for, and it is in fact frequently used to translate the original Shakespeare quote, as in this 1882 translation: “Nous sommes de la matière dont on fait les rêves.”

My overall point is that translation is hard. Even the best translators get stumped regularly, and mediocre translators can put out some real howlers. More importantly, translation is not a repetitive and precise task like statistical analysis where computers can improve on the job that humans do. It requires knowledge, subtlety and art, and if this is the best that people can do, computers aren’t going to get anywhere close.