First off, I am going to ask my readers to suspend their PRESUMPTIONS about just what structural linguistics IS. On this blog, I am presenting MY vision of linguistics, which is based on empirical observation of the structure of our language. I am NOT trying to write a Wiki article, nor am I presenting or summarizing what other people have written on the subject, unless precisely noted.
And in true Rousseauean, and humanist fashion, I try to start with anecdotal observation, and see where it leads (me). And I invite ALL who read this blog to chip in with THEIR observations, when they may be different, for example, or challenge mine.
The ONLY legitimacy, and authority I can claim here stems from the fact that I am totally bilingual, and stumble around in several other European languages too. And that language is a passion for me, and I have been observing IT, and ME through it for over 40 years now. I ask my readers to ACCEPT my authority and legitimacy on this basis, WHILE comparing it with their own observations.
End of methodological considerations, which I will not repeat.
My nine year old daughter came home from school one day with a mistake in her schoolwork, and we looked over it together. The French language is structured in such a way that even an educated, cultivated person HAS TO spend three to four times longer REREADING what he/she has written in order to correct mistakes. There are picky little things in French that don't exist in English. Aligning past participles on genders (masculin and feminine) in certain cases. Gender is NOT sex : the moon in French is LA lune, it is a feminine noun, the sun is masculine, for example. Making sure that all those markers go together takes time.
So, my daughter had made a mistake with the word "lorsque", roughly translated as "when".
She wrote it : "lors que".
When I corrected her, she told me, with the closed, scowling face that most of us put on when we are corrected : "but my teacher spelled it that way".
To which I answered.. "um... no, I don't think your teacher spelled it that way." Her teacher was an over 50 year old lady who had an EXCELLENT command of the French language. (As it turns out, in the course of my children's school careers, I NEVER took it for granted that their teachers were always right about such matters... My 11 year old son came back one day from school with a correction that was WRONG in his homework, and we took the time to look it up to make sure... of course we told him that there were some cases where being right can be hasardous to your health... Like blithely driving into an intersection when the light is green as a Mac truck barrels through at a ninety degree angle... What profiteth it a man to be right when he loses his material body (or soul) in consequence ??)
So, in good adult, PEDAGOGIC fashion, I said... "Well, let's get the dictionary out, and see what IT says about the word, shall we ?".
Sure enough, when we looked for the word, it was spelled as I said it was, and as her teacher had corrected.
End of the matter, right ?
My nine year old looked at me and said... "The dictionary is wrong".
I LOVE this story now. It gives me a belly laugh.
But what is really interesting is how I felt, what I thought, and how I reacted when it happened...
Her reaction was an earthquake for me.
It HAD NEVER occurred to me that the dictionary could be.. wrong before.
I was INCAPABLE of thinking this.
So, let's START examining the terrain that her remark opens up. We won't finish today, because it's really somewhat complicated.
CAN the dictionary be wrong ?
What does it mean to hold that the dictionary is RIGHT about a word ?
Geez... what IS the dictionary, anyway ?
Is it a kind of.. Bible, for example ?
Observation number 1 : We have at home several dictionaries of the French language. One dictionary that is over 20 years old. And we just recently bought a dictionary published 2 years ago.
You guessed it. There are words in the dictionary published 2 years ago that are NOT in the dictionary published 20 years ago...
Like there are words in the dictionary 20 years ago that are not in the most recent one.
When I write poetry using the idiom of 16th century English, that I know, and like a lot... am I WRONG, because the words I'm using are not in the most recent English dictionaries ?
If you compare TWO dictionaries from two time periods you will be able to see several things : 1) looking at the SAME word, you will see that its meaning evolves OVER TIME. Words change MEANING, while THEY remain the same. Think for a minute about a word like... "science", or a word like.. "money"... This PERSPECTIVE for looking at language, and culture, we call the DIACHRONIC perspective, because it looks at a stable element over time. The historical perspective opens up with diachrony.
Remember what I said about COMPARING, and its role in determining meaning ?
Here it is again, this method of comparing to extract meaning, like.. comparing the phonemes in oral language to DIFFERENTIATE words.
2) You will see, as stated above, that words enter and leave the lexic. They... go out of style, for example. When our society changes, words that "refer to" tools, processes that are abandoned in favor of "newer" modus operandi are abandoned, lie fallow. This happens over a longer period of time, AS THE GENERATIONS disappear.
You will not be able to SEE this perspective with only one dictionary. ONE and ONLY one dictionary gives you... the STATE of the lexic (the treasury of words, if you like) at any given point in time. In 1654. In 2008, for example. This phenomenon is called.. SYNCHRONY. Synchrony is anhistoric. It brings together the words spoken AT THAT TIME. In relation to EACH OTHER, within the language.
SOMEBODY has to "write", or compile the dictionary.
That somebody (or those somebodies..) is human.
The dictionary is based on the writer's observation of the state of the language at a given point in time.
Do the American RECOGNIZED dictionaries include... the words that the people in certain ethnic enclaves are using in THEIR daily lives (when they are speaking English, that is...) ?
Their slang ?
Why ? Why not ?
Um... conclusion... ideology, ideas (and prejudice) are behind EVERYTHING we do.
Even something as apparently innocuous as the dictionary...
I'll come back to the dictionary.
The lexic is the MOLECULAR level of our language.
And it is the area that interests me the most.
By the way... I just made up a "new" word (I think...).
The word.. "illude".
On the root of "illusion". Because I don't like.. delusion which has NEGATIVE connotations...
(Another post on connotations, boy, I could spend the rest of my life doing this...)
Help !!! Gotta come up for air !!! ;-)