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Manners Makyth Man

English writer and broadcaster Robert Robinson holding the first volume of <em>A Supplement To The Oxford English Dictionary</em> in 1977.
English writer and broadcaster Robert Robinson holding the first volume of <em>A Supplement To The Oxford English Dictionary</em> in 1977.

Among the clutter and furniture of our intellectual lives, there are dictionaries. Although they have probably disappeared from the bookshelves of most college students, they haven't disappeared. They've migrated online.

I thought of this while reading an article in The New York Times on the truly Herculean labors going on at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary, where a team of scholars are busy producing the OED's third edition. They started in 1994 and now anticipate finishing in 2037. It's going to be a long book, if it ever comes out in book form. The second edition, published in 1989, was nearly 22,000 pages. (As reported in The New York Times.)

But when you stop to think about it, there is something strange about dictionaries. Why do we need them?

Bilingual dictionaries tell us what foreign words mean; they explain the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. The first dictionaries were two-language of this sort. But what use is there for a mono-lingual dictionary?

After all, we already know what our own words mean. We use them all the time. Sure, there may be the odd word we are unsure of. Or maybe we want to check the pronunciation or a spelling. But even to use a dictionary you need to be fluent in its language. And even if you can manage to find the words you're looking for — not an easy task if the alphabet is different — you won't be able to make heads or tails of the definitions. And if you can understand the definitions, well, that's because you already know the language. So why mono-lingual dictionaries? What use or uses do they serve?

Encyclopedias tell us what is known about this or that. But dictionaries don't summarize what is known, they just tell us something we already know: how we, or most of us, speak. Linguists and dictionary makers will insist that they aren't in the business of prescribing correct usage; they aren't telling us how we ought to speak. They are recording how we do speak. But isn't that yesterday's news?

Why dictionaries?

One clue to why dictionaries matter to us — and they do matter — has to do with a rarely noticed but, I think, extremely important principle of human affairs. People, as a rule, and subject to all matter of qualifications, tend to act like the kind of people they think they are.

Why do New Yorkers talk like New Yorkers? How is that you can tell so much about a person's age, class, education and geographical origins from the way he or she speaks? You might think that this is a pretty easy question to answer. We talk the way we were taught to talk, and we are taught by those nearest to us. So it stands to reason that people near each other will tend to talk the same way. We talk the same way for the same reason we tend to share dietary habits and dress the same way. We carry on with what we know.

But that can't be the whole story, for the simple reason that people are not ignorant of different ways of speaking. Downton Abbey is probably accurate about this much: lords and ladies spend lots of time talking to their servants, and the servants come to know the ways of their masters very well. Why don't they start talking like each other?

Or, more generally, why don't kids grow up speaking like their nannies?

At least part of the answer, I would wager, is that they don't want to. Or feel they shouldn't. Or would find it ridiculous and inappropriate to do so. Like asking the elderly to dress and talk like kids in a playground. Sure, they could do that, maybe, if they tried. But why would they?

We talk the way we think we are supposed to talk. We live up to own own self-conception.

In fact, diversity is, and has always been, the norm, not the exception. There are always foreign traders, or people who've gone abroad and returned with funny accents, or people who just plain want to be different. TV, radio, the Internet, they only amplify the fact that our linguistic communities have never been homogeneous.

So what explains why, for example, Gov. Cuomo, of New York, himself the son of Gov. Cuomo, talks like a local man of the people? The simple answer is: because he wants to. I don't mean that his accent is a pretension. I mean: that's how he identifies. That's how he thinks of himself. He speaks like the kind of man he thinks he is. And that's why people from Atlanta sound like they're from Atlanta and why Londoners talk like Londoners. At least this is why these folks talk the way they do when the do. Not because this is all they know, or all they can do. But because this is the choice they make.

Which makes how we talk, like how we dress and comport ourselves, political. It's not just how we are, it's also how we relate to the larger groups of which we are a part. And we do so knowingly.

Isn't this what dictionaries do writ large? They show us how we speak. That is, how we speak, not them, not those neighbors nearby we've known forever who, still, aren't really like us! We make dictionaries as monuments to a conception of ourselves as precisely people who share this thing we call a language. True, dictionaries don't prescribe how we ought to speak; but they are prescriptive nonetheless. They define what is and what is not in our language.

It's good to remember that dictionaries of the single-language variety are largely a product of nationalism and the rise of the nation state. The OED first edition appeared in 1858. The German language's Duden came out in 1880. Dictionaries are bred of the ideology: one nation, one language. Peoples with aspirations to nation-building make dictionaries. This might seem natural for practical reasons. A state needs a school system and a bureaucracy and so they need linguistic standards. But why, exactly? My thought is that we need standards not to facilitate our communication, but to give expression to an idea, a conception, or ideology, that we are one. Just as Downton's lords are hived off, separate from the servants, so we hive ourselves off separate from our neighbors. We do this with things like dictionaries.

And that, finally, is what dictionaries are for. They are monuments to our conception of ourselves as a community.

Dictionaries face a daunting task, today, and not merely that of deciding how to stay relevant in the world of the search engine.

If dictionaries seem quaint today, it may be because they are fighting yesterday's battle — how to shape a conception of ourselves as distinct, as one, as a community — but the battles we face today are different. Increasingly our new self-conceptions are themselves pluralistic. One nation, one language was never true. But now it is an increasingly forgotten myth. England, France, Germany, the United States, these are pluralistic, multi-linguistic countries. If dictionaries are monuments to a nation's self-conception, what should the dictionaries of these nations look like now? What is our self-conception now?

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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