Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Overthinking "old-school."

Earlier this week, the quite excellent website Overthinking It featured a guest post from Diana Barnes-Brown, applying the site's characteristic over-analysis to a recent commercial for clothing store T.J. Maxx. (Full post available on the website, here.) I usually enjoy Overthinking It's particular style of commentary, but I admit I was preparing to grit my teeth when I saw the opening line mention "the continual decline of the English language." This is one of those phrases that gets used a lot by opponents of language variation and change -- it implies that any new development in the language must be one for the worse, even though from an objective point of view, no form of a language is superior or inferior to any other form. Different, yes, but no better or worse.

Happily, my fears about Barnes-Brown's article were for the most part misplaced. Despite the provocative opening about the decline of English, she actually makes some insightful points about how language change operates.

Her main contention is that the T.J. Maxx commercial contains an unacceptable use of the word "old-school" to mean 'old-fashioned and lame' rather than 'retro and cool.' The exact line in question is, "I’m in T.J. Maxx all the time. I used to think it was old-school, but it’s not. I get this season’s designer clothes - and I still get to eat!” Barnes-Brown asserts, and I quite agree, that this is not the way the word "old-school" is typically used. It's hard to tell in this short sample exactly what the speaker means when she uses the word, but as Barnes-Brown points out, the ad does seem to have changed its connotation from positive to negative.

Barnes-Brown writes:

...while language and in particular semantics are dynamic, they aren’t dynamic in this way. Saying things incorrectly in a way people don’t generally say them isn’t being linguistically progressive, it’s just being ignorant. There’s a difference between a) meaning that evolves over time, as people slowly apply a word at the edges of its current meaning, and that usage gradually edges from rare to common and b) meaning that is confounded because you never knew the common or accurate usage in the first place. To vary from or build upon a linguistic or semantic convention, you first have to understand what it is you had to begin with.

I think there's a lot of truth to be found in these comments. I'm not quite as opposed to this new use of "old-school" as Barnes-Brown is, because it seems to me that all new uses of words have to start somewhere, and I don't agree that there is -- or should be -- a requirement that the new use be closely connected to an older one. (And since a television commercial for a national department store chain is a fairly major platform, it's even possible that T.J. Maxx will inspire many more people to start using the word in this way.) However, I completely agree with Barnes-Brown that there is a world of difference between the avoidance of prescriptivism on the one hand and what she calls "linguistic apologism", the unqualified acceptance of all forms, on the other.

There is a misconception at times that being against prescriptivism means not believing that language has rules, or believing that that any combination of words is as good as another. Instead, descriptivists hold that the rules of language are fluid: they exist and are semi-stable, but they are in no way permanent. Someone speaking in a way that goes against conventional rules or definitions is most likely a sign that the rules are in shift once more.

This is my one objection to Barnes-Brown's commentary: I think the definition of "old-school" could well be in a state of flux, either before or because of the clothing commercial. But in general, her position is a strong one that is worth repeating: being descriptivist does not mean that we have to accept as legitimate just any combination of words. Although all speakers are free to invent new words, definitions, or grammatical rules -- either consciously or not -- those that are just too far removed from existing conventions are unlikely to be picked up by other speakers and enter into the wider language. There is a certain stability that is essential for language if it is to remain an effective means of communication, and language-users seek to preserve that stability almost automatically by avoiding sudden radical changes to the system they know. As a result, the changes that occur in language are more likely to be slow and gradual, as Barnes-Brown observes.

Sudden changes are in fact all around us, in the speech of individuals. Human beings love to push at boundaries, and even if that's not what the scriptwriters at T.J. Maxx were intending to do, it is what their unusual use of "old-school" achieved. Most such radical changes, of course, do not last long beyond the first speaker to employ them. The descriptivist's job is to describe: to determine when changes have been picked up by a wider speech community, passing from individual idiosyncrasies to groupwide rules.


  1. Hey Joe,
    I do enjoy following you thoughts here. But I had one thng I kinda wanted to discuss. You say that "no form of a language is superior or inferior to any other form. Different, yes, but no better or worse." I have to say that I kinda disagree.
    I would define language's purpose as enabling understandable communication with people who speak the same language. (I'm not a linguist so bare with my fumbled definition). If the fluid changes that occur and the use of words changes, and grammar rules are no longer adhered too, and vocabulary shrinks because people no longer educate themselves in a manner that gives them the ability to be eloquent (i.e. the "the continual decline of the English language" or any other language for that matter)- lead to an inability to have your ideas communicated fully and with all the desired nuances than language is no longer being used to fulfill its purpose to the best of its capacity. And I would therefore say it is worse.
    I'd like ot add something anecdotal to this. As a bilingual individual I often have to switch between languages to explain the same thing. I find that when using the language that I have a weaker vocabulary in, that I don't use as much and therefore don't have a firm grasp of the grammar of, my explanations are worse (less understandable). I feel like this could happen within one language as well if the "decline" continues.

    Sorry for the essay. I'd be interested in your thoughts.


  2. @Joe:
    I think there are actually a number of words whose meanings have changed (over time) precisely because those using it have not known or have misunderstood their original meaning. While I'm not really a fan of the phenomenon (and would prefer that "old-school" remain positive and nostalgic), it certainly does occur.

    The idea that no language is better or worse is one of the fundamental guiding principles of descriptive linguistics.

    Language change occurs based on the social environment of its users. There will be times where it will change slowly and there will be times where it will change quickly, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. If you find yourself in the "kids these days" mindset, it is likely because you are no longer part of the demographic in which the language is changing, and your disdain is likely an indicator of your feeling left out.

    Rules of grammar are always adhered to; that's inherently how they work. What you're experiencing is actually the changing of those rules, to the point, perhaps, where your rules of grammar are different from those whom you are criticizing.

    Similarly, the "shrinking" of vocabulary is not in and of itself a bad thing. Vocabulary shifts and changes based upon the usage requirements of its speaker. Even though there may be a single word to describe a certain situation, you can almost always get it across in multiple words if you do not have that single word available. This is likely the same phenomenon you are experiencing in your bilingualism: What you are mistaking for "eloquence" is in fact succinctness.

    So, yes, there is a nearly unlimited resource of possible vocabulary words that can be used to describe a situation. But no one knows all of the words of a given language (especially because many of them are in fact borrowed from other languages), nor do they need to. That is not to say that people would not benefit from learning more words—it could certainly ease their ability to express concepts—but it is not strictly necessary, and those who do not know of such words' availability likely will not ever even consider whether there is anything "wrong" with the way they speak.

  3. Nicely put, Gordon. And yes, that was what I was trying to get at with this discussion of "old-school": it may very well be that this usage began with someone (or a group of someones) misunderstanding how the word was being used by other speakers. In my view, though, once someone has added a word into their personal vocabulary, it isn't incorrect for them to use it in the way that they think makes sense. So even though I don't use "old-school" in this newfangled sense myself, I don't think its new definition is invalidated simply because the speakers originally misunderstood what someone else meant by it. As you pointed out, there are many words that have undergone such shifts in the language, often to the point where the former definition has been effectively replaced by the newer one. Grammar mavens may squawk, but I find the whole process fascinating to watch in progress.

  4. It seems to me that old-school is primarily descriptive, and what connotations it has depend heavily on context. At the job I held from 1999 to 2005, I worked closely with two salesmen, an old-school type who went in for pressure tactics, and a new-school type who preferred establishing emotional closeness. I'm not aware that one approach was better than the other.