This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Hey “Weird A” Yankovic, Assistant Professor of Linguistics Ezra Keshet would like to have a word with you.
Yankovic, America’s premier musical parodist, released a song titled “Word Crimes,” a humorous take on Robin Thicke’s 2012 dance hit “Blurred Lines.” In the song, Yankovic bemoans the state of the English language, chastising people for confusing “irony” with “coincidence” and saying “expresso” instead of “espresso.”
But these aren’t crimes, Keshet insists.“Languages are things that occur in the brain,” he explains. “They happen naturally, and there’s the same sort of natural order to every language. There is no purely linguistic reason to say that one way of saying something is really better than another.”
Language variations like those on Yankovic’s hate list are par for the course, Keshet says. Some differences—saying the word “aluminum” instead of “aluminium,” for example—can define speakers geographically, the first as American, the second as British. Linguistic markers like these might signal where the speaker grew up, or what their race or ethnicity is, or what socioeconomic class they belong to. Sometimes, new uses for words accrete over time, like how “silly” once meant something closer to “innocent.”
Keshet did some detective work to better understand the phenomenon of language peevishness, and that research provided him with an opportunity to educate others about the complexities surrounding complaints about correct and incorrect language. He taught a class on the topic, titled Epic Grammar Fails, for the first time this year.
In the class, Keshet emphasizes that there are reasonable motivations for enforcing language norms, most importantly the need for people with dissimilar life backgrounds to communicate clearly with each other. But he also stresses that language is complicated, and that desires for clarity need to be divorced from the kind of holier-than-thou moral judgment that “Word Crimes” offers. He hopes that his students will replace that impulse to judge other people with a richer understanding of the different sources of language variation.
The final project for the course is a database of language peeves known in class as Wikipeevia. The students write articles about arguments that they’ve encountered, citing both the complaint and any opposing viewpoints on the same linguistic issue. The project and the class are both excellent entry points, Keshet says, for people unfamiliar with linguistics as a field of study, an area that first-year college students often arrive with no experience in.
“We all use language every day, so we all have opinions about how it should be used,” Keshet says. “And it is important to understand that there isn’t just one correct version and the rest are mistakes or bastardizations. Language changes. That’s neither good nor bad. It just is.”