The purist attitude toward language

fire in the hole by C04

If you need evidence that people feel passionately about language, check out a plain language summary of research published by Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics at Monash University in Australia. The summary appeared today in the Linguistics Research Digest, a terrific resource for locating more than platitudes about communication. Their goal is “to  provide up-to-date reports on the latest research papers on language issues in an engaging, jargon-free way.”

Burridge reports some downright nasty responses to her objective research about language use. For instance, after she explained the etymology of the expression “Gordon Bennett!” (North Americans might need a peek at this article to understand this British interjection),

one viewer complained that the explanation was a ‘disgrace’ and followed the comment with ‘I hope that you die (pleasantly) before me: so that I can piss on your grave’.

The purist attitude toward language is, of course, not truly about language at all. Instead, it is the result of a belief that the world, including words, can be categorized into pure/clean or impure/dirty. The purists’ passion about “dirty” language expresses their social concern about lack of etiquette (at best) or cultural decay (at worst). For linguistic purists, there is little possibility for an understanding of language as a rhetorical tool.  In other words, purists resist the notion that a word can be judged only within its context.

Here’s link to more on linguistic purism. I believe this attitude toward language is one of the obstacles to widespread adoption of effective and efficient writing (like plain language) in the workplace. What do y’all think?

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  1. As usual, you’re on to something here. Words, sentence constructions, and rhetorical moves need to be judged based on their effectiveness for specific discourse communities (audience). Hopefully, that previous sentence is not “unplain” or gobbledygooky.

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