In a couple of previous posts, I talked about how powerful people’s pet peeves about others’ language were being used to justify prejudices. As I pointed out, some educators and some business leaders are utilizing arbitrary ideas about language to draw unwarranted conclusions about others’ communication abilities, intelligence, or work ethic. A reader’s response to one of the two posts, however, motivated me to clarify something about language. Specifically, language is not Logical (with a capital L). Language is for the most part an arbitrary system. That means English is an arbitrary system. Japanese is an arbitrary system. Every natural human language is an arbitrary system.
This principle requires some explanation. So, first, what do I mean by “not Logical”? People often discuss language as being “correct” or “incorrect”. For example, many people would say that the following sentence is “incorrect”: “*Language make no logical sense”. The “correct” version would be “Language makes no logical sense” (of course, if the original sentence was the result of a typographical error rather than dialect differences, then we can call this the correct version, no quotation marks). One of the ways that people who insist on “correct” grammar defend their beliefs is by suggesting that certain choices are “logical”. For example, the reader I refer to suggested that talking about historical events using the past tense “serves logically”. There are two possible ways to interpret the idea of “logic” in this claim.
The first way to look at the issue of the logic of language would be to say that there is a type of formal Logic to language, which would allow us to say that one language choice is the Logical, valid, or correct choice (whereas another is not). This is what people often mean when they just say “logic” as in “Logic dictates that…”. If language were logical in this sense, it would mean that there are a finite number of axiomatic statements to be made about language that apply consistently in all situations and could help us predict and explain everything about language. Logic (in this sense) is often expressed in formal terms: for example, A = B and B = C, therefore, A = C. One of the most fundamental facts about language, however, is that it is arbitrary. By this I mean that the connections between elements of language are not the result of generalizable, wholly abstract rules. We can demonstrate this, for example, by considering real objects like this:
Since you’re reading this, you must speak English. Hence, you could call the thing in the picture a “chair”. However, there’s nothing about the object that Logically dictates that those sounds or letters together should represent it, and indeed other languages have different names for this object: for example, “Stuhl” (German), “scaun” (Romanian), or “isu” (Japanese). There is no Logical principle that we can apply to come up with any of these words. None of these words are more Logically valid than any other. You could say that it would be less arbitrary if we called this a “sitting device” because then it would name its function and therefore have a non-arbitrary connection to the object. However, the choice to focus on its function is arbitrary as is the fact that the sequences of sounds or letters that make “sitting” and “device” still are only arbitrarily connected to their meanings.
While this principle is probably pretty obvious to many people when it comes to vocabulary, it may be less obvious for grammar. However, grammar, too, lacks formal Logical principles. We can demonstrate this by thinking about the diversity of ways that sentences are formed in different languages. In English, a simple sentence will have an order of Subject-Verb-Object (for example, “He hit her”). The same order of elements will appear in other languages, but different orders appear in others. Japanese will most likely use Subject-Object-Verb (that is “he her hit”). Irish Gaelic will use Verb-Subject-Object (that is “hit he her”). Hence, the order of elements is ultimately arbitrary.
Why is it important to point this out? Well if language is arbitrary, then there’s no way to claim that any particular choice in language is Logical or “correct” in this universal, axiomatic sense.
I said originally that we could mean two things by the “logic” of language. Language is not governed by Logic in the formal sense, but even though it’s arbitrary we know it’s also not completely random. An individual language, like English, has particular consistencies about it. For example, English speakers do not say “*I sat on chair the”. “The” always comes before the noun it modifies in English (although the opposite is the case for Japanese, and some languages just don’t have a word like “the”).
The fact that we consistently connect “chair” with the object in the picture above then is a product of our socialization. As English speakers, we’ve been socialized to associate the combination of sounds or letters in “chair” with objects like the one above. Had we been socialized another way, we would have a different set of associations (for example, if you were socialized into Japanese, you’d think “isu”). There is a type of logic involved here then, which we could call deduction. It works something like this: We have a general but ultimately arbitrary rule that things that look like the object in the picture above (or that share certain features like having a platform to sit on and being used to sit) are called “chairs”. Hence, when we see another object like the one below, we can safely call it a “chair”.
Here is the problem. We draw specific conclusions (for example, the object is a “chair”) from principles that are not wholly abstract or generalizable but which are actually arbitrary. Hence, we could work from a different principle and arrive at a different language choice. For example, I could choose to use the more general word “furniture” instead of “chairs” for the above objects. Of course, I’m not saying that the choice is inconsequential. Making a different language choice does have effects on the meaning you convey, but those meaning effects are not governed by abstract, generalizable principles. The effects are themselves arbitrary (are you tired of that word yet?).
How does this idea apply to grammar? Let’s look first at the example I gave earlier: “*Language make no logical sense”. This sentence would not follow the logic of what is often referred to as “standard” English. In this case, the logic of “standard” English says when a subject of the sentence is singular and third person then mark the verb with -s. We know this arbitrary rule, because we’ve been socialized into it (even though you may not know it explicitly, you probably still follow it if you’re a “standard” English speaker). The logic of many dialects of English, however, is different. That logic just says don’t pay attention to what kind of subject you have; just put the bare form of the verb after it. This is also an arbitrary rule, one that many people have been socialized into. Both choices (“make” and “makes”) are equally arbitrary and equally valid from the perspective of formal Logic, and they work equally well when speakers share a logic. That’s not to say they’re equally valid from the point of view of society. In addition to being socialized into meanings about what words refer to, we’ve also been socialized into meanings about what people’s language tells us about them. In this case, not putting an -s on “make” in “*Language make no logical sense” carries with it the social meaning that the speaker is stupid or uneducated. Of course, this interpretation is once again arbitrary.
Why then do we often feel very strongly that at least certain parts of grammar and language are Logical in the sense that people can make “correct” and “incorrect” choices? What happens is we apply our own arbitrary logic to other people’s language (which was chosen through their arbitrary logic). We then criticize them for not following our arbitrary rule. The reader I referred to above provided this example sentence: “Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the slaves are officially freed.” He claims that the present tense (see the verbs “issues” and “are”) is not the Logical choice. He reasons that this is because the events happened in the past and should therefore be represented using past tense. Indeed, we have such a logical principle in English that events we want to say happened in the past get marked with the past tense (usually -ed). If we chose to use such a rule, then we might produce a sentence like this: “Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the slaves were officially freed”. However, the original sentence can also be derived from another rule known as the historical present. This logic tells us when you’re telling a story, and you want people to feel like they’re really part of it, then use the present tense.
Both logics are arbitrary in the sense that they don’t necessarily follow from universal principles of formal Logic (hence, neither can be labelled “correct” or “incorrect”, at least not in a general sense). It might seem obvious that the past tense should be used for the past, and the present tense for the present. After all, just look at the names! However, the name “present” and “past” tense are just labels given to verb types and misleading ones at that (like everything else in this post, they’re arbitrary). In fact, in both sentences above the time frame of the event is clearly represented in the past. We only need to look at the reference to the year 1863 to verify this, and even if such a reference were not available other contextual information could help us determine that the writer wants us to think that this event already happened. It’s, therefore, not the case that the writer inaccurately or ilLogically represents the event. This is possible because time and grammatical tense are not the same thing. In fact, their relationship is inconsistent and arbitrary (just like the relationship between “chair” and the objects in the picture). This is especially clear when we think about the fact that the present tense is routinely used in English to represent many different time frames (past, present, and future). Think about the time frame for all of these sentences:
- I am writing a blog post.
- I study sociolinguistics.
- Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
- I leave for Toronto next Wednesday. (or I‘m leaving for Toronto next Wednesday.)
- I met this guy last week. He said something really stupid to me, so I punch him in the face.
- Lemieux passes the puck to Jagr. Jagr shoots. Jagr scores!
- Cheng (2004) reports interesting findings on this matter. (The year in parentheses is a citation for something published in 2004 written by Cheng.)
There are of course conventions that we may be socialized into regarding tense usage. For example, many scholars of literature talk about the writing of famous authors (who long ago died) in the present tense (similarly to #7 above): for example, “George Orwell makes many keen observations”. These are conventions. Failing to use the present tense in this way will show that you don’t belong to the club of literature scholars. These rules are much like systems of table manners. They’re important from the point of view that they have social consequences. However, they are not Logical (in the formal sense), even though we can point to a logic to them. In this case, the logic might sound something like this: when you want to talk about a famous author’s writing whose work is still read everyday by many people, then use the present tense since it creates the effect of a timeless truth (as in #3 above) or portrays the text as timeless (like #7 above). An alternative and very simple logic might be: when you write about past events (like someone writing something or someone reading a piece of writing), use the past tense since they happened in the past. Once again, both logics are ultimately arbitrary. Neither is “correct” in that sense.
To wrap this up, language is not Logical. We can use logics to understand it. When people insist that one logic is “correct”, and another is not, they often try to use the power and persuasiveness of Logic even though it does not apply. What they are doing instead is using their own personal logic and trying to present it as the only possible choice ignoring the logic that the other person used. Of course, not all logics are equally valued in every circumstance. This, however, is an issue of social norms and not of Logic. The problem with drawing on Logic to say that someone’s language is “incorrect” is that it ignores or denies the other person’s intentions and competence. It’s a shortcut for calling them stupid or lazy for not knowing about a social convention that they may not have encountered or may not care about at all.