How you can be wrong in how you speak: part 2

In part 1 of this essay, I described what language is: a combination of information in people’s heads and the utterances they produce. Now, on top of this—as a secondary thing—people build standards, like Standard English. They might do this by choosing a particular group of speakers, taking note of the way they say things, and then encouraging other people to speak like this. Or they might come up with some compromise dialect based on bits and pieces of how lots of people speak, and promote this.4 There’s nothing wrong with such behaviour. It can be very useful to have a standard dialect to help communication go smoothly. Where people go wrong is in thinking that this standard dialect is the language. Or they think that this standard dialect is primary and that real usage is not only secondary, but constitutes a good or a poor attempt at the standard. This is simply false.

But there is a way in which it’s almost true, which points at one way in which you can be wrong in how you use language. Sometimes people are trying to speak Standard English and fail. Sometimes they think that the way they say things is how everyone else says things too. And often they’re wrong. What’s more, there are some contexts where we are justified in expecting that people use standardised forms: in academic journals, encyclopedias, newspapers, and much public discourse. It is reasonable to say that when people fail to do so, they are doing something wrong (in much the same way that you’re doing something wrong by failing to follow a dress code, or failing to take account of a speed limit when driving). It’s just that we can’t assume that everyone using English is trying to speak Standard English, and we have no right or reason to expect they they do so in every context.

Apples and oranges
It’s worth mentioning dictionaries at this point. It should be stressed first that the meaning of a word is not constituted by what a dictionary says it means. A word means what it’s used to mean. However, that does not mean that all uses of a word are equally good. We have a right to expect people to communicate clearly with us. To take a silly example: if a small group of English speakers called oranges apples, then it would be a fact of English that the word apple meant orange in some dialect(s), and these speakers wouldn’t be wrong to do so any more than an American is wrong to call trousers pants. On the other hand, they would be wrong to expect most English speakers to understand them, and they would be serving communication badly by using the word “apple” like that in addressing most speakers of English.

But, at the same time, someone who told them off for it would be wrong to say that they’re not speaking English, and would be technically wrong to say that “apple doesn’t mean that in English”, and they would be wrong to use a dictionary to support that claim, because that’s not what dictionaries do. They would not be wrong, on the other hand, to point to a good recent dictionary and say, “Look, this is what you should expect most people to understand by that word, so you shouldn’t be surprised that I misunderstood you! It’s just not helpful to use ‘apple’ like that when you talk to most people!” Dictionaries do not define what words mean; they tell you what most people use them to mean.5 These are not quite the same thing.

The final part of this essay will develop this a little further…

4^The way this happens varies considerably. Sometimes one person does just sit down and devise a standard. In other cases a committee does so. In other cases, standards come about through the work of lots of people working separately. The process may also be bottom-up: speech patterns associated with power, or with literary success, tend to be imitated. Standard dialects often come about through a combination of all these things.
5^Or, if it’s a really good dictionary, it’ll also tell you about minority usage. In addition, it may advise you on how to use a word in most contexts if you don’t want to be misunderstood, or challenged, and on the reactions you may get to using it in a particular way. In all of these things, of course, the dictionary may be factually inaccurate—in other words, wrong.

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