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Grammatical versus Acceptable

Doug Schulek-Miller wrote yesterday:

“I was recently confused by something. For all my literate life I’ve believed “Semitic” people to be those of the Middle East, inclusive of Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians—all the folks that used to be citizens of different countries in that area before WW I, and probably Persians [Iranians], too…. Therefore, anti-Semitic relates to being antagonistic to all of the above people, Semitic people.”

Well, first off, Iranians are not Semitic but belong to our family, the Indo-Europeans. Farsi, the language currently spoken in Iran, is written in Arabic script but it is clearly an I-E language related to English.

Doug’s point, though, is correct; many strange quirks lurk in language. Grammatically, anti-Semitic can only mean “against Semitic peoples” but that isn’t the way it is used and using it in this sense would lead to a breakdown in communications. Another example, homophobic grammatically can only mean “fearful of people” or “fearful of sameness”, depending on whether you intend the Latin or Greek homo, but that isn’t the way it is used and restricting the use of this word to its grammatically appropriate senses would lead to confusion.

Linguists make a distinction between what is “grammatical” and what is “acceptable” in speech. It is possible for ungrammatical usages to be accepted, as in these cases, and for grammatical uses to be unacceptable, as in the case of defenestrate meaning “removing windows”, as I recently reported and was criticized for. Errors are made because people don’t realize that they are errors and if everyone joins in agreeably, they become idiomatic forms or phrases.

In fact, most of the funny words in English are ungrammatical but accepted: gobbledygook, stick-to-it-iveness, panjandrum and hundred of other similar words were not generated by the rules of English grammar but by wags playing with those rules. The important point is this: humans make the rules of language so they can break them without going to jail or paying fines. So we do.

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