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RE: Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in Linguistics (was Re: Support Existing Content)

From: Dailey, David P. <david.dailey@sru.edu>
Date: Sat, 5 May 2007 13:35:00 -0400
Message-ID: <1835D662B263BC4E864A7CFAB2FEEB3D258BFD@msfexch01.srunet.sruad.edu>
To: "Maciej Stachowiak" <mjs@apple.com>, "Jeff Schiller" <codedread@gmail.com>
Cc: <tina@greytower.net>, <public-html@w3.org>, <www-html@w3.org>

On Fri 5/4/2007 4:59 PM Maciej Stachowiak wrote:

>Most linguists these days subscribe to a descriptivist view, not a 
>prescriptivist one. In other words, they try to describe how people 
>actually do speak, rather than laying down rules for how they should. 
>Ending a sentence with a preposition would be a nonstandard usage to 
>be avoided when writing in a high-status dialect, but is perfectly 
>understandable and not problematic in colloquial usage.

I agree and that's why I tend to favor the "support existing content" side of the debate.
 
Since I had raised a similar proposition in a different context, it reminded me of a curious idea that has come to mind in the past month or so of trying to follow these various topics in public-html. We have sort of four levels of discourse. The discussions of the specs; the specs; the language(s) the specs specify; the utterances made within those languages (the web). At times some curious homomorphisms between those levels seem to present themselves. The debate over whether or not HTML should parse as a tree reminds me of the question as to whether or not the WHATWG/HTML document could be more modular. That is sorta related to the issue of whether the software mediating our discussions should be threaded (tree-shaped) or graph theoretic.  Several such partial isomorphisms between the microcosm and the macrocosm seem to exist providing a pleasant sort of fractal quality to the whole discussion. That of course reminds me of Dan's comments on the nature of democracy and consensus and of things I saw on the HTMLWG IRC about when is consensus really required (http://krijnhoetmer.nl/irc-logs/html-wg/20070501). (I think I rather side with the W3C on that issue, fwiw.)
 
That led to another curious idea (Maciej is apparently developing a fondness for my curious ideas) about achieving consensus. Let me illustrate with what seems to be a contentious issue: "don't break the web" ~ "support existing content" ~ "handle legacy content" ~ "promote incompetency".
 
I've not been issuing lots of opinions on the subject*. And I am really not trying to re-open yet one more thread on the subject -- there are probably 38 threads already. I'm trying to imagine "how might consensus be achieved?" Pardon me if my understanding or following representation of either perspective is inaccurate; I'm sure it will be oversimplified in both cases, but I'm more interested in the generalization than the example.
 
Ordinarily we think of differences of opinion becoming resolved when A convinces B or vice versa. Otherwise, absent consensus, then perhaps there can be compromise. That seems to be a standard model for diplomacy -- perhaps emanating from historical disputes over Real Property where molecules and space for those molecules cannot (yet) be easily cloned. Compromise is sort of a fall-back position should agreement not be possible. Perhaps this historical model of compromise in the zero-sum universe of molecules is less applicable to the world of Intellectual Property. Maybe consensus can be achieved not through painful compromise but through having it both ways. 
 
When I have tried to listen to the "legacy content" issue(s) I find myself sometimes agreeing with both sides of the argument.
 
    -No, we don't want to make HTML so stiff that 97.342% of web pages will cease to render.
    -We would like to make sure new browser developers may come into existence in the future;
    - Imagining that all peculiar manifestations of all HTML+CSS+JavaScript+Xforms ever cobbled together should continue to work forever is a hard stretch
    - Authors do have some sort of obligation to learn to write good code,  (sorta like contributors to these discussions should learn to read specs)
   - If specs sanction all manner of discourse, then will not the footprint of those specs have to embrace a non-linear growth rate to keep up with the mutations of discourse they might inspire?
    - etc.
 
I think one approach toward achieving consensus is for the people on either side of an issue to attempt not just to "understand" the opposing perspective but to "believe" it. How can one believe both of two mutually contraditory statements? Well by first believing that the statement is but a surface structure manifestation of an idea. Maybe before we become so anxious to point out the flaws in one another's statements we first make a concerted effort to believe the underlying ideas that led to those propositions. Sometimes our underlying ideas are held so strongly that we view a disagreement as an assault on the idea, when in fact it may only be a disagreement with the expression of that idea. Sometimes, at least.
 
If so, a spec (or a set of principles or a charter) may not necessarily represent a "compromise" or a disappointing "watering down" if we might reach  some synthetic perspective where the underlying concerns rather than the words associated with those concerns are understood. Maybe, if the volume of discussion continues to increase (636 messages this month and it is still early on May 5) we should consider some rules that limit arguments with propositions to those who believe them. Not really. Talk about draconian! I wonder how much discussion would actually take place then. 
 
So while I think I believe all of those five propositions above (the ones beginning with hyphens) they seem to emanate from different sides of the debate. How might inconsistent beliefs be held without causing cerebral hemorrhage, or worse yet, halting problems, or the derivation of paradoxes?  Perhaps by making a sincere effort to understand where people are coming from. Some have argued that consensus between 300-400 people is impossible. I suspect we have lots of examples where it has not happened, but to be convinced it is not possible, it would be nice to see a formal proof. Imagine building the axiom set from which such a proposition could be proven. Then imagine getting this group to come to consensus on that axiom set. What fun that would be!
 
But generally the sides of this issue seem to be concerned with different kinds of things. One set of concerns seems to be about preserving the past; another about preserving the future. Both of those ideas, seem to me, at some very fundamental level, crucially important.
 
In Navajo (at least back when I studied it -- I sure hope it hasn't changed since then), there is not a word for "why." One either asks "for what purpose"  (ha'at'iish biniighe) or "as a result of what" (ha'at'iish biniinaa) -- one is rather teleological;  the other rather mechanistic. Either may produce valid explanations, but those explanations address quite different questions.
 
Maybe those who worry about the past can suggest a migration plan that makes sense to address the concerns about the future? We certainly don't want browsers to become infinite in size -- not unless we come up with radical departures from conventional models of computing.  Maybe those who worry about the future can suggest a new form of history (perhaps involving s/blame/understand/g) ? I don't know --  this is rather simplistic, but then "fanciful feuds follow from familiar foundations".  I doubt my simplistic example here is itself going to resolve any issues. The particular issue is one that in conventional terms of Real Property diplomacy, I would have to say I am ambivalent about **  As I say I don't see my ideas here as leading to any concrete sytheses of particular points-of-view. 
 
But maybe, trying to believe instead of just trying to understand, might just help, since it forces a deeper level of parsing that is not just tree-shaped.
 
David Dailey
 
* - Or if I have, I have now forgotten them and would like to renounce most of them at this point in time.
**-- maybe in addition to "agree", "concur with majority" ,"abstain" ,and "no" we should have an "ambivalent" response in our votes. Oh, goodness! the formal processes I could imagine if that were put in place! I think the "Reasoning with Uncertainty" group would have to be called in to resolve all such questions in that case. It seems not inconceivable that they just might come to relish such a role.
Received on Saturday, 5 May 2007 17:34:45 GMT

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