Sunday, 3 June 2012

Language is like trousers

Marie-Lucie, a commenter on a couple of different language blogs that I read, posted on Language Hat the other day on the topic of prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. She made this analogy between language and clothing:

One way to convey the significance of internal variety in language is by comparing speech to clothing: we wear clothes not at random or just according to the weather but according to circumstances. It would be ridiculous to insist that we have to wear formal clothes all the time, or that it should not matter if we showed up for work in pajamas. Without wanting to wear a uniform, we normally adjust to the common standards of those around us, at least in our working lives. These (usually unwritten and even unconscious) standards include some obligatory rules (all men wear pants!), some more relaxed ones (colours, jewellery, height of heels), and some no-nos (no ripped jeans or baseball caps in an office). There are also exceptional occasions which call for specific clothing and language, often following more ancient tradition (weddings, religious ceremonies). In traditional cultures, ethnic differences are often reflected both in clothing and in language. So are some social differences in large cities. Some professions call for special clothing, along with specialized vocabulary (eg in hospitals). Members of teams or clubs often wear identical t-shirts or jackets, and share some in-group words and expressions. Language does change through time, as do clothing fashions.

Posted by marie-lucie at May 30, 2012 03:20 PM
I thought that was a brilliant way to think about the rules of language use. Although I would quibble with the obligatory rule of all men wearing pants (by which she means trousers, for a UK speaker - I think Marie-Lucie is Canadian). It's a very deeply ingrained rule, which is almost never broken (discussion of kilts followed on Language Hat, but that's irrelevant here). However, you certainly can break it, and if you're a man and you choose to wear a skirt people will notice, but they won't fail to understand what's going on.

I'd say this is the equivalent of Yoda in Star Wars. He breaks some quite basic rules of English word order, by topicalising the predicate or some other final constituent of every sentence. This doesn't make ill-formed sentences, but it makes his speech sound quite strange. It's comparable to a man not wearing trousers in that way: it's not an impossible clothing choice, but it's quite strange (to most people).

But crucially, you can still understand Yoda. Why? Because he is still following the rules of English. He topicalises constituents, as I said. He moves a complete constituent as a unit, without breaking it up or destroying its internal word order, to a specified position at the front of the sentence. If he did anything else, people would fail to understand him and the pressure to communicate would force his speech back within the basic rules of language. Likewise, if a man tried to wear a hat on his legs, he would simply fail.

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