Obsessive-Compulsive Language Disorder

If you have never heard of Obsessive-Compulsive Language Disorder, don't worry.  I just invented the expression to get your attention.

In my article We Have Ways of Making You Conform,  I state: "The natural laws of conformity give rise to the patterns in language that we call grammar." and "In opposition to the natural drift of language is the set of communal rules of conformity." 

In this follow-up, I hope to demonstrate a scientific foundation for this 'rules of conformity' theory.  Of course, the foundation came first, else I would have nothing on which to build the theory.  However, it sometimes happens that a foundation becomes more interesting once we have seen what was built on it.
It is, indeed, the common fate of human reason in speculation, to finish the imposing edifice of thought as rapidly as possible, and then for the first time to begin to examine whether the foundation is a solid one or no.
Immanuel Kant, The Critique Of Pure Reason

The Asch Effect

In a famous experiment in 1951, Solomon Asch had volunteers compare lines of different length and decide which of three lines was best matched by a single line.  In fact, there was only ever one volunteer.  The other participants in the experiment were Asch's accomplices.   Asch found that the volunteers would frequently fall in with the group in coming to an obviously wrong conclusion about which lines matched.  The experiment appears to show that people's willingness to fit into a social group can over-ride their personal judgements.

There have been many follow-up studies, such as Perrin and Spencer (1980), and Eiser (1987).  Perrin and Spencer suggested that the effect was 'a child of its time', that social conformity was more prevalent in the 1950s than in later decades.  This observation deserves to be compared with the observation that the 1950s gave us Rock and Roll, teen culture, and parental angst about juvenile delinquency.  The 1950s were less a time of conformity, more a time of  teenage rebellion against conformity, the age of  the wild one.

Some simple observations about language use show that we do tend to conform, whether consciously or not, with the way language is used in our immediate community.  The Eton schoolboy acquires a strange accent not heard outside of the BBC archives.  The traveller adopts at least a trace of regional or national accent, and a few choice idioms.  This is, I suggest,  such a common observation as to need no elaboration.

The psychological mechanisms that govern social conformity in general are, I suggest, sufficient and necessary to explain the stability of language use over long periods of time, together with the observable fact that it does still vary.

From various studies in the area of social psychology and conformity, I suggest that the following are some of the aspects of conformity that apply to language use and that they warrant further study by psychologists.

Language-user group membership:  members of a group will each have a view of the average of language use of all other members and will, with or without, or perhaps even in spite of conscious effort, adapt to the perceived average.  Since each member is trending towards a personal perceived average, the group's use of language will be a blend of the members' unconscious contributions to the group's rules of conformity.  This averaging process will give the language a degree of long-term stability.

Conformist behaviour: where one or more members of the group are seen to set an example of 'correct' use of language, group members may consciously strive to copy the language of this 'leader'.  If the leader actually holds some sort of power, language-normative forces may be stronger.

Non-conformist behaviour: any member of a language group who resents being the target of 'corrective' behaviours will resist conformity of language use.  The more confident a person is that their language use is perfectly adequate, the more they will resist attempts to make them conform.

Obsessive behaviour:  any member of the group who feels they have a better command than others of how language works, or of what is aesthetically pleasing, may attempt to impose their ideas on the group.  In a conformist group, there may be some skew away from a natural development of the language and towards an artificial rigidity.  However, this cannot last, since the one who would enforce strict rules of language cannot usually exercise any power in a wider community.

Since about 1900, linguists have realised more and more that their task is to describe language as it is used in real life, rather than to prescribe rules about how it ought to be used.  It is now widely known that many of the 'rules of English grammar' laid down in books were derived from attempts to fit English into a Latin mould.   The 'rules' that make a speaker self-conscious about 'incorrect' grammar stand in stark contrast to the subconscious rules of conformity, the natural grammar that we all rely on from day to day.

In spite of what is known about how language works, some people delight in 'correcting' other people's use of language.  Language is a set of tools with which we plan and play.  It is for each user to select the appropriate tool.  Who in their right mind would say that Michelangelo used the wrong colour or the wrong brush?  We would laugh at such a person.  In which case, we should not put up with the dotwatchers.  These are the people who comment on a blog or forum only in order to point out 'errors', rather than engage in on-topic conversation.  They seem not to realise that an attack on a person's use of language is an attack on their dignity as a human being.

I sometimes wonder if the dotwatchers suffer from some sort of obsessive-compulsive language disorder.

Further materials:
There is a good video of  Asch's Conformity Experiment  on youtube.
( Thanks to Tommaso Dorigo for the link to that video. )

A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy some related articles in my blog:
Word Salad And Rules Of Conformity
Digging Beneath the Surface of Grammar