Friday, May 12, 2017

Alert the MLA: Trump drops accuracy from English language requirement


I've been teaching language and communication for over 40 years. 
I started as a teacher of deaf children and went on to teach at community colleges, an Ivy League school, a prestigious Medical School and now at one of the world's best city universities. 

And although I do look back from my "seasoned" professor vantage point wondering what little legacy will I be leaving, I have never questioned that, if nothing else, I have contaminated my students with the love of the power of language.  

Using its form and structures for accuracy, truth and, yes sometime for poetic beauty. That's what I have taught.  That's what I was taught.  A reverence and respect for words.  Used well they will not fail you. 

But today the leader of the free world, in a tweet - one of the least contemplative forms of communication we use these days - has declared that accuracy of the spoken word is no longer a requirement for his staff. 

We can't assume Mr. Trump really understands the profound import of his words - what he tweeted - about speech and accuracy.  In fact there's really no evidence that he respects the english language much at all.  To him, it certainly isn't very useful for communicating facts - in his world there are facts and there are fact - there's news and there's fake news.   So when he says that fluent speakers of the language - his staff - can't be counted upon to be accurate, does he realize he give license for them to stand there and simply make things up.  


A basic maxim of linguistics and speech act theory is that for communication to work there must be the tacit agreement between speakers to be truthful and accurate (Grice, Logic and Conversation, 1975).

So if we could imagine a language where accuracy were up for grabs, just how would that language work. 
If it were raining out I could say "It's sunny."   If the train wasn't running on time at Penn Station,  the station master could announce  "All trains are on time"?  If ships were being deployed to the Korean Peninsula, the Defense Director could announce that they were being deployed to Hawaii"? 

Now, imagine a society with a language that had no way to mark things that were accurate...or inaccurate.  
What would that society look like?