Linguistic conventionalism

Until today, I didn’t know what that meant, either, but in my reading of John Locke, I’m acquiring all these interesting new concepts like just war theory, natural law and its offshoot, declarationism, and other concepts and so I’m trying to keep tabs on all the ideas popping up.

Conventionalism – an important philosophical position in which one asserts that fundamental principals of society derive from commonly held social agreements (rather than from universal laws, which was what modernism sought to identify) – showed up in a commentary I was reading about Locke, specifically in reference to the distinction made between his definition of the Law of Nature (which Locke said was universal and superordinate) versus natural rights, the full list of which was impossible to enumerate unless you refer to a specific society at a specific time. When I looked up conventionalism, I had that glorious moment of realization that the word I was looking at, in part, described me.

I studied applied linguistics for my master’s degree at UMass Boston and we discussed at length how language is influenced by socioculturual, historical, and political context. Case in point: language standardization in the form of dictionaries, translations and textbooks. Whose language is it? Who wrote the texts? Who is in power to define what language form should be considered a standard in the first place? Why, for example, is African-American Vernacular English (a.k.a. Black English, a.k.a. Ebonics) not considered “standard”? And so on. The point is this: For those of us who are language teachers, is language something we describe…or prescribe?

While at UMass, I became more informed – and frustrated – about the presumption that many people in our country have about what is “correct” or “incorrect” in language use, and, by extension, language teaching and learning. I had a particularly heated argument with a teacher at a school I was working at while I was at UMass over whether to use “If I was sick” vs. “If I were sick,” not because I was bothered about which version my students used, but because he smirkingly refused to accept that I would ever let my students say it (even though they’d heard it on the street in Boston plenty of times). I know the drama is mine alone, but his superior, obstinate refusal to accept any modifications to the language (of which he insisted there was a “right” and a “wrong” version) reflected what I now understand to be the opposite of my opinion, which is a conventionalist one. Read: I think that a language’s rules, including its grammar, pronunciation, spelling, syntax, the creation of new lexical items (words), etc. are in a state of constant flux as its users adapt it to the times in which they live. The verb “to Google” obviously didn’t exist fifty years ago; certain dicta such as “Never start a sentence with a conjunction” (and, but, or, so, for, neither/nor, yet) have been thrown in the trash by today’s newspapers and academic publications. Who is to say what is right? We risk complete relativism in such a conversation, but then I think it should be discussed much more than it is.

So thanks, Locke, for the new term: I guess now I know I’m a linguistic conventionalist.


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