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07-28-2019, 04:43 AM   #1
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Dictionaries: "descriptive" v. "authoritative"

I figured I'd hijacked a thread on coin photography in my zeal to promote effectiveness in language. I'm moving the latest pontification here, in case anyone else has opinions about the subject, and to eliminate clutter in a thread about the more serious business (https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/58-troubleshooting-beginner-help/390417-...-photos.html):

QuoteOriginally posted by clackers Quote
All dictionaries, do, Dan, including the academic ones like Oxford.

They are descriptive, never prescriptive.

We have no Academie like the French to decide what's correct and what isn't.
The OED has been "descriptive" for a long time. I think the last good one was published in, like, 1952, or thereabouts. All such "dictionaries" reflect popular usage from any and all print sources. Lately, they've been including examples of recent "social media" coinages.

The problem is that the average person does not perceive the same degree of precision in distinctions among words that the more educated people do. The result is like taking a palette of different colored paints and smearing them together - which is fine if you want to make a picture of mud. If we are to communicate effectively, we need to recognize that language is subject to a greater consensus, and not to our own idiocentric choices. It has to have an objective reality that transcends individual choices if we are to be able to talk to each other with some assurance that we will be properly understood.

Recall how the deity destroyed that uppity bunch back in Babylon - their language became confused such that no one could understand the other. The recent trend to redefinition of terms, particularly in the political realm, has resulted in just such confusion. Where a lexicon has a legitimate claim to authoritative usage, e.g., from the writings of the most literate and educated sources, it can be relied upon to clear up that confusion.

If you want to destroy a civilization, one of the best tools in your arsenal will be confusion of the language. Mao Tse Tung did that in China in 1968 (Four Olds - Wikipedia) in order to level pre-existing civilization so that a new order could be imposed on the country. There are people who want to do the same thing in the West, and for the same reason: power.

Here's an interesting article on the subject: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/lex/article/viewFile/62713/50631.


Last edited by dlh; 07-28-2019 at 04:52 AM.
07-28-2019, 04:49 AM   #2
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QuoteOriginally posted by dlh Quote
It has to have an objective reality that transcends individual choices
But it doesn't, Dan, never has, never will, and yet, here we all are.



07-28-2019, 05:44 AM   #3
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QuoteOriginally posted by dlh Quote
It has to have an objective reality that transcends individual choices if we are to be able to talk to each other with some assurance that we will be properly understood.

yes and no - the basic definitions are there, but the meaning is in everything surrounding the message...

your lexicon's definitions may have the same base as mine, but my experience of language is going to be different than yours....

when I describe a lens when writing a review will be based on my perception and experience of the lens and if I cannot convey that with enough examples, either written or through photos, your perception of my description may be a world away from what I intended...
07-28-2019, 06:23 AM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by clackers Quote
But it doesn't, Dan, never has, never will, and yet, here we all are.
If that proposition were true, we wouldn't be having this conversation, because we'd be unable to communicate. It's only because of the cultural consensus about what the words mean that we're able to do so. And, because culture is dependent on a shared consensus among large numbers of individuals, specific aspects of culture (e.g., language) are by definition beyond the scope of individual preferences.

Lewis Carroll gave a good parody of precisely what I'm complaining about in his dialog between Alice and Humpty Dumpty (The Humpty-Dumpty Theory of Language).

07-28-2019, 07:28 AM - 4 Likes   #5
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All language is so convoluted and confused it's amazing we can communicate with each other at all.
07-28-2019, 10:37 AM - 2 Likes   #6
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If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.
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Language has the pragmatic, syntax, and semantic components. Pragmatic is what we personally bring, syntax is the rules, semantic is the real thing we try to pin to a symbol.
07-28-2019, 11:48 AM - 2 Likes   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by dlh Quote
The OED has been "descriptive" for a long time. I think the last good one was published in, like, 1952, or thereabouts. All such "dictionaries" reflect popular usage from any and all print sources. Lately, they've been including examples of recent "social media" coinages.
Interesting topic. It obviously has a lot of broad cultural inputs as well. In German language there definitely is exactly one prescriptive dictionary still, the "Duden". If you want to know what is "correct" German language you refer to this and nothing else. It gets updated in new editions where they do add new words and meanings, but that is rather limited.

To connect this to a photo topic I can hint at a neverending war in German online forums about the correct word for Depth of Field (DoF). Real life writers often use "Tiefenschärfe" and "Schärfentiefe" interchangingly without any remorses (that is pretty much like writing DoF versus FoD...). Some care and some don't. Some users explain that it is not the same and only losers don't understand. Fun fact: The Duden defines them as synonyms.

The same fun arguments can be had about the term "image quality" which many technical forum users use strictly for "technocratic aspects image quality" and really get mad if you start discussing "overall image quality".

Language is fun.

07-28-2019, 01:34 PM - 1 Like   #8
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QuoteOriginally posted by dlh Quote
I figured I'd hijacked a thread on coin photography in my zeal to promote effectiveness in language. I'm moving the latest pontification here, in case anyone else has opinions about the subject, and to eliminate clutter in a thread about the more serious business (https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/58-troubleshooting-beginner-help/390417-...-photos.html):



The OED has been "descriptive" for a long time. I think the last good one was published in, like, 1952, or thereabouts. All such "dictionaries" reflect popular usage from any and all print sources. Lately, they've been including examples of recent "social media" coinages.

The problem is that the average person does not perceive the same degree of precision in distinctions among words that the more educated people do. The result is like taking a palette of different colored paints and smearing them together - which is fine if you want to make a picture of mud. If we are to communicate effectively, we need to recognize that language is subject to a greater consensus, and not to our own idiocentric choices. It has to have an objective reality that transcends individual choices if we are to be able to talk to each other with some assurance that we will be properly understood.

Recall how the deity destroyed that uppity bunch back in Babylon - their language became confused such that no one could understand the other. The recent trend to redefinition of terms, particularly in the political realm, has resulted in just such confusion. Where a lexicon has a legitimate claim to authoritative usage, e.g., from the writings of the most literate and educated sources, it can be relied upon to clear up that confusion.

If you want to destroy a civilization, one of the best tools in your arsenal will be confusion of the language. Mao Tse Tung did that in China in 1968 (Four Olds - Wikipedia) in order to level pre-existing civilization so that a new order could be imposed on the country. There are people who want to do the same thing in the West, and for the same reason: power.

Here's an interesting article on the subject: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/lex/article/viewFile/62713/50631.
I could be wrong, but my perception of Noah Webster's first dictionary was that he intended it to standardize spelling and pronunciation in these United States. There were enough different dialects, etc over here that he thought there should be something to bring them together.

I don't know how effective it was, but I think that was his intention.

07-28-2019, 02:58 PM - 2 Likes   #9
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Well, having been so inspired, I set about researching the OED's history. The last authoritative version was printed in 1933, although "updated" versions were printed for some time after that. And, in the course of my InterNet ruminations, I found a copy of the 1933 edition for sale!!! Don't go looking for it, because I snapped it up. Just wait until I play "Scrabble" again!
07-28-2019, 03:03 PM - 1 Like   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by Rondec Quote
my perception of Noah Webster's first dictionary was that he intended it to standardize spelling and pronunciation
That is interesting. I can see now how it that works. You can go anywhere in the U.S or Australia and find slight differences in language or pronunciation (as in accent) but the education system (in which the dictionary is present but not necessarily obvious) will stop regional differences from morphing into new dialects and eventually - with no linguistic contact - new languages. Just look at the hundreds of different languages in a place like Papua New Guinea where even those in adjacent valleys could not converse once. They came from the same start point but they ended up with different languages because there was nothing like a dictionary (and no interaction) to moderate change. I guess it has always been like that except for the last few hundred years.

I guess that is also why they don't play scrabble with one another!

Last edited by PJ1; 07-28-2019 at 03:05 PM. Reason: Added comment
07-28-2019, 03:18 PM   #11
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I gave up on dictionaries when 'Uninterested' and 'Disinterested' were defined in the same way.
07-28-2019, 03:29 PM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by 35mmfilmfan Quote
I gave up on dictionaries when 'Uninterested' and 'Disinterested' were defined in the same way.
Exactly! That's what I meant about the loss of important denotative distinctions. The Virginia Supreme Court relied on a recently published popular (mean, common, vulgar) "descriptive" dictionary to redefine the word, "brandish" to mean "display". The defendant had been convicted of "brandishing a firearm" when (1) he was not, in fact, in possession of a firearm at the time of the alleged offense, and (2) he had merely "displayed" a flare gun such as one might use on a boat, but without touching it with his hands. But a flare gun is a "firearm" because it does shoot something (though not a bullet), and the defendant "brandished" his flare gun by showing it to people. Popular dictionaries are popular, I reckon, not because they're "descriptive", but because they're not; and as a result, you can, like Humpty Dumpty, use the words to mean whatever you want.
07-28-2019, 04:20 PM   #13
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If this is the case he had fired it. Had it on him and grabbed and threw it.
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07-28-2019, 05:56 PM - 2 Likes   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by dlh Quote
If that proposition [" an objective reality that transcends individual choices" weren't] true, we wouldn't be having this conversation, because we'd be unable to communicate.
Obviously not. Shakespeare would have laughed at you, he spelt his name seven ways, no objectively right answer there, just an arbitrary one.

You spell 'traveling' because Webster set about simplifying the existing 'travelling'. Who's objectively right according to your belief?

An Englishman from Somerset sounds nothing like a Scotsman from Orkney in conversation, and neither talk like the classic BBC newsreader.

Language adapts to trends, and because it isn't so codified is one reason it has become the new lingua franca, it's super flexible, as the old lingua franca became rigid (French newspapers could be fined at one point for using borrowed English terms instead of Academie approved ones).

The cost is complexity and lack of consistency, the bonus is it's very rich. The Polish author Joseph Conrad voted with his pen, choosing to write his poetry in French for the sound and his novels in English for all the synonyms/vocab with their shades of grey.

Last edited by clackers; 07-28-2019 at 06:03 PM.
07-28-2019, 06:02 PM - 1 Like   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by PJ1 Quote
That is interesting. I can see now how it that works. You can go anywhere in the U.S or Australia and find slight differences in language or pronunciation (as in accent) but the education system (in which the dictionary is present but not necessarily obvious) will stop regional differences from morphing into new dialects and eventually - with no linguistic contact - new languages.

JRR Tolkien is known to the ordinary community as the writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but to academics he did an influential translation of the Old English saga 'Beowulf', and as an Oxford academic he also travelled through Britain interviewing and recording the vocab and pronunciation of elderly people in their dialects before they died and the country would become more homogenous in language.
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