The Recency Illusion thread produced this comment:
First, Volokh would have us believe that against all usage, usage is all that matters.
Now, we hear that it is improper to lament the contemporary decline in the order of the language because, in times before that order was fully established, the order did not exist. Imagine if he praised modern errors in spelling by pointing to ages with unorganized systems of orthography. Volokh’s citations to Shakespeare et al. here are no more interesting for understanding the significance of contemporary changes in langauge than they would be in justifying a spelling error that happened to conform to Shakespeare’s usage.
What Volokh really despises is an order that sustains civilization and limts the ability of technocrats to demonstrate their cleverness with statistics. The parallels between his attack on decent speech and the attacks his spiritual cousins would have brought on morals is most interesting. We have long heard from those who loath the good that it is impossible to lament declines in public morals because such laments were also lodged long ago in ancient Rome as if there has been only one moral community in history. The lesson of past decline is not to repeat it. But men like Volokh would turn the lessons of history into excuses for irresponsibility. The fact, of course, is that morals and languages are broken down and restored again and again ... broken by men like Volokh, restored painfully by others with a knowledge and respect for order and authority.
The commenter’s position on this seems rather extreme, but I’ve seen milder versions of it before, in which people have generally tried to draw an analogy between descriptivism-as-linguistic-relativism and “moral relativism.” This set of “parallels” strikes me as fundamentally flawed, and I thought I’d briefly explain why.
1. To begin with, note how all of us are linguistic relativists at least across languages. The extreme form of moral relativism is to say that there’s no sound external basis for judging a culture’s morals. If some culture wants to kill Jews, or stone women who commit adultery, or execute heretics or apostates, who are we to judge? I certainly don’t subscribe to any such view, and I suspect most of our readers don’t. We think that many basic moral principles must, as a moral matter, remain constant among cultures.
But I suspect that virtually no-one seeks to demand compliance with universal standards across languages. Americans say “dog”; Russians call the same animal “sobaka.” Neither is wrong — they’re just different. In English, the double negative in “there’s no nothing here” makes the phrase non-standard; in Russian, the literal translation (“tut n’et nichevo”) is fully standard, because double negatives are quite proper (in fact, often required) in Russian. Neither approach is wrong in the abstract; they’re just different rules for different languages. In Russian, nouns have many different cases (“dog,” for instance, takes different endings depending on whether you’re saying “to the dog,” “near the dog,” “with the dog,” and so on); in English, they do not (unless you count the possessive as a separate case, in which case they have only two cases). In Russian, nouns have genders, and the adjectives corresponding to the nouns have different endings depending on the gender — a big female dog is “bol’shaya sobaka” but a big male dog is “bol’shoy p’os.” Not so in English. None of these approaches is wrong; they’re just different.
To be sure, there are some regularities even across languages, especially within the Indo-European family but even across families. But those are interesting facts studied by linguists; they do not have moral significance. And though there are very many differences, people who would be rightly outraged by substantially different approaches to murder, rape, and the like in Russia and in America don’t see any problem with substantially different linguistic structures in Russian and English.
2. The critics of supposed relativism in usage generally speak of supposed decline within a language. But once we recognize that today’s English need not be judged by the standards of today’s Russian (and vice versa), and that today’s English need not be judged by the standards of Middle English, why should today’s English be judged by the standards of the English of 1700 or 1800 or 1900? Again, changed usages need not be wrong — they can just be different. At some point there might be practical costs to changed usage, for instance if people have a hard time understanding documents written in the 1700s because the words have changed too much; but very few controversial language changes actually relate to this practical concern.
Of course, there’s a separate problem (one of factual inaccuracy) when people claim that there’s a “contemporary decline in the order of the language” if there is no decline. Sometimes supposed innovations in the language are not new at all, but have been around for centuries. That, for instance, is why my Recency Illusion post gave examples from Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, and Austen. I don’t understand what the commenter means by saying “Volokh’s citations to Shakespeare et al. here are no more interesting for understanding the significance of contemporary changes in langauge than they would be in justifying a spelling error that happened to conform to Shakespeare’s usage.” Is the claim, for instance, that though “since” in the sense of “because” was common from 1600 to the early 1800s, it somehow became improper at some point after, and we have since “decline[d]” from that hypothetical point? If so, then (1) it’s hard to see why we should conclude that the proper baseline is this hypothetical 1900 consensus rather than the 1600-to-early-1800s consensus, and (2) I could equally find other examples from great writers using the same locution around 1900; I just didn’t because I was responding to a claim that somehow the “since”-as-”because” usage was a modern innovation.
But even if there has been a change in the language — as sometimes there is — why should we see it as a “decline” rather than as a change? “Thou” has become archaic; is that a “decline” that we should condemn as tantamount to a “br[eak]down” in morals? “Doth” is now written “does”; is that a “decline”? “Pleaded” is now often written “pled” in legal English; why should we conclude that this is a “decline”?
3. To be sure, there are sometimes functional arguments to support the claim that some changed usage is a “decline” — claims that the usage is ambiguous, or even more likely to enable moral errors. But the commenter makes no such specific arguments, and often such arguments just can’t work with regard to a usage at all. Whatever one’s objection to the use of “pled guilty” instead of “pleaded guilty,” for instance, it can’t be that “pled” is ambiguous.
And beyond this, the claim that some term is potentially ambiguous simply means that it is one of the thousands of well-established English terms that are potentially ambiguous. That is a reason to be careful in using the term; it may be even a reason to avoid the term altogether; but it is not a reason for labeling the term non-standard or otherwise incorrect, any more than the term “sanction” (just to give one example) is incorrect simply because it is potentially ambiguous.
4. Finally, the language that sustains our corner of our civilization is indeed an order, but it is a grown order, the result of a constant process of evolution through the actions of millions of speakers and writers. Its evolution continues, and ought not be faulted or labeled “decline” simply because it is change. And its evolution progresses in ways quite different from the evolution (for better or worse) of our society’s moral practices.