Saturday, January 19, 2013

On my hesitance to use "reticent" to mean "hesitant"

Used under Creative Commons from here.

Whenever I'm listening to someone speak, especially a public figure or a television character, and I hear "reticent" used in place of "reluctant" or "hesitant," I think my eye begins to twitch a little. That usage is just wrong, right? Well, as a good postmodern, I've trained myself to stop and consider my potential absolutism whenever my brain renders a subconscious judgment.

You're all familiar, I'm sure, with the idea of language as a living entity, one that evolves and changes over time to properly reflect the current historical moment, society, beliefs, and culture. Terms become archaic (it's seldom that I ask my wife "Whence do you come?" or "Wither shall we go?"), they take on new meanings ("text me later, bro"), neologisms are created ("She IM'd me last night"), and even the use of articles changes (in American English, you rarely see constructions like "an historical moment" [unless someone is trying to be pretentious]).  (This doesn't even touch on the evolution of syntax ("Hi, Chris" becomes the email salutation "Hi Chris," we don't say "What price bananas?" to the person stocking the supermarket in California.)

But I'm not sure that language can live in total postmodernism. For language to be a communicative—which, conveniently enough, is rooted in the same Latin "communis" or "common" as "community"—device, it must hold some common, shared meaning. I think language is most effective when all of the participants connect the same referent with the same referrer, i.e. a rose is a rose; a rose is not an apple.

It turns out that, just like the correct answer to what kind of bear is best, there are two schools of thought, and its unlikely that consensus will take shape.

These two schools are known as descriptivists and prescriptivists. The former, as the name implies, believes that the role of linguists is to watch how language is used and describe it in works such as the OED and Webster's. According to English professor Mark Bauerline, a turning point for descriptivists was the 1961 publishing of Webster's New International Dictionary, the first dictionary to embrace the idea of descriptvism.

Before that time, prescriptivists controlled a linguistic hegemony. This group, as you can likely foresee, believes that there should be an authoritative source (I cringe at the sound of that) on the proper use of language. Bauerline points out that in the Webster's that precedes the 1961 printing, the 1934 edition, some words received the loving categorizations "erroneous" or "illiterate"! (ibid)

I think my other eye just started twitching. It seems that if there is something worse than what seems to be an "incorrect" use of language, it could be a kind of sanctimonious, absolutist body that renders judgment about whether a particular person's use of language is "illiterate"! While the purpose of Bauerline's essay in The Public Discourse, a very conservative publication, is quite to the contrary of the way I'm using it here, it contains good evidence that is useful to this discussion, not the least of which is a quote from Harvard linguist Steven Pinker, who comments on how authoritative uses of language form:

"It begins when a self-anointed expert elevates one of his peeves or cockamamie theories into an authoritative pronouncement that some usage is incorrect, or better still, ignorant, barbaric, and vulgar."

For example, it seems that even John Dryden (of whom I'm a big fan) may be personally responsible for creating the "rule" that one can't end a sentence on a preposition (link found here). I'm not sure what he's going on about.

So that's a fine dilemma. Given all of that, is the person who's reticent to cross this busy street correct (danger of imminent crushage notwithstanding)? I think I'm even more torn than when I first started thinking about this. I really want that usage to be "wrong," but I really don't want there to be a wrong. Given the lesser of two evils situation here, I guess I will cast my vote against conservatism and absolutism. Use words to refer to whatever you want, and I will attempt to divine the referent by the context of the word's use.


parsnipgirl said...

Well of course you can expect me to be firmly in the descriptive camp but I share your cringe at times with the usages that I see. I've never heard reticent to mean hesitant but there are plenty others out there, notably the gantlet/gauntlet pair which is completely a mess by now. Another one for me is the use of "to death" as an adverbial phrase ie, The prisoner was beaten to death. That for me implies iterativity -- ie that the prisoner was beaten over and over until his injuries were so massive that he died. For me, you can't use that sentence if the prisoner received one sharp blow to the head that killed him. But on the other hand, then I hear people on the news say that "John Smith was shot to death" when he was only struck by one bullet. When I hear that, I think, that's not my grammar!

But I think these are sort of edge cases. For 99.9% of the sentences I hear, I recognize them as grammatical in either my dialect of English or someone else's. I think that if language is always changing you can expect to see these edge cases crop up but, as you point out, for language to be useful they had better be in a tiny minority of the utterances you hear every day. And they are. At least I think they are.

parsnipgirl said...

Chris, I totally share your cringe at some of the phrases that come out of other people's mouths (or keyboards). For example, I have always thought that "to death" as in "The prisoner was beaten to death" implies iterativity -- that the prisoner was beaten over and over until his injuries were so massive that he died. In my world, you can't use that sentence in a situation where one sharp blow to the head killed the prisoner.

But then on the news I hear someone say "Joe Smith was shot to death" even though he was struck by only one bullet. When I hear that, I think, that's not my grammar!

I think these are edge cases. Since language is changing you can expect that the set of sentences in my grammar of English is not going to completely match the sets of other speakers around me. Since they *do* match 99.9% of the time, that's ok for communicative purposes, which is of course crucial, as you point out.

So even though I am a hard-core descriptivist, I do sometimes cringe. I just have to learn to live with the cringe, since it's part of being a speaker of a language where I actually have other people to speak it to!