On the propositional level we use language in the first place to solve a coordination problem, a problem of interdependent decision-taking. It is in interaction situations that cultural norms emerge which serve as guidelines for people's behavior or actions. In general, the members of a community adhere to such guidelines, and are expected to adhere to them. One type of these cultural norms --there are several types of them-- are 'partiality norms' or 'norms of partiality'. They stabilize a status quo in which one of two parties has a notably better position than the other. (Cultural and subcultural norms are often called "social norms", but as the content of such norms is not seldom quite a- or antisocial, we shall not use that expression, unless they are really 'social' in every respect.)

Insofar as language is indeed a means of communication the cultural norms playing a role in interaction situations in which language is employed are so-called 'coordination norms'. It is these norms which prescribe an action, or type of action, and which produce an equilibrium, if the people involved do act, and keep on acting, in the way prescribed. If the problems are recurring problems, and if the solutions are generally accepted and established, one speaks of "conventions". But the answer to a new problem which will keep recurring in the future may also be a kind of artificial ruling which has been called "a decree". Whether the solution is such a decree or a convention, the interests of the parties concerned coincide, and the success of the one participant (for example, the writer) is also the success of the other (for example, the reader) -- insofar as the employment of language is purely a question of communication, that is.

In a study on conventions in particular it has been pointed out that in a situation of interdependent decision not only first-order expectations are important but also higher-order ones. A second-order expectation is, then, an expectation about a first-order expectation. In the same study a convention of language is conceived of as a regularity in behavior 'restricting one's production of, and response to, verbal utterances and inscriptions'. The agents are said to have 'a common interest in all doing the same one of several alternative actions' and the convention is sustained by this common interest and by the expectation that others will do their part. The crucial thing is that no explicit agreement (or decree) is necessary, if the content and strength of mutual expectations suffice. Experiments have shown that in an interaction situation people will try for a coordination equilibrium which is somehow salient, which --so it has been said-- 'stands out from the rest by its uniqueness in some conspicuous respect'. (The equilibrium does not have to be the best one judging from another point of view than that of coordination alone.)

A special convention which is claimed to play a role in every possible language is what has been called "the convention of truthfulness". If such a convention prevails in a certain community, sustained by the general will to communicate, the possible language is said to be an actual language of that community. But --as the argument goes-- in practise there is a 'tight cluster of very similar possible languages' and on this view a convention of truthfulness in a single possible language is a limiting case never reached. If the 'languages' of the cluster are very similar, communication is not or hardly impaired, however. In the case of written language this cluster may encompass, for example, a complex of closely related spelling systems (or 'one' spelling system which is not necessarily uniform).

It has also been demonstrated that taking some risk with regard to communication has benefits too. Firstly, the different languages of the complex can meet different individual demands and be suited to different tastes and purposes. Intolerance itself, and a lack of insight with respect to the several variants of the spoken and written language, may already do much harm to regular discourse. Secondly, a child that still has to learn the language needs more information to identify a language (or spelling) in a cluster than the cluster itself. This is important, given that complete analyticity does not exist, and that the idea of a convention of truthfulness in a single possible language is an illusion. (Compare the reservations we had to agree to in the last division.) Whether these arguments are entirely persuasive or not, they do illustrate very well that the belief in a (necessarily) uniform, spoken or written, language is a chimera. The idea of one language without variants, and separate from the actual 'languages' belonging to the same complex, is therefore expressive of a prejudiced attitude in which one variant (or 'language') among others is assigned an exclusive status.

Coordination norms are related to so-called 'technical norms' in that they are means for the attainment of a certain goal, namely coordination. Yet, this goal itself is usually a means for the attainment of a cooperative goal of a higher order. The direct objective may be linguistic, the ultimate goal is, even if only communication is mentioned, of a social, moral, esthetical or other nature. This should already refute the claim that questions of language are purely practical, rational or technical issues, because people do not communicate simply to communicate (save in exceptional cases). Even if language is conceived of as a mere system of coordination norms, necessary and good to solve problems of communication, much still depends on how the questions are posed. Certain presuppositions remain always implicit in the formulation of a scientific or technical problem, which affects the scope of possible solutions, if only because of the conceptual framework used. This is quite obvious with regard to established language, such as 'received' pronunciation and 'official' spelling. But it is also evident where it concerns the technical demands made upon the rendering of any language, dialect or sociolect: that it is learnable, readable and writable (when represented by means of visual symbols). For example, does one start from the present situation and check how easy a proposed new word, meaning or spelling can be learned by people who live now and who have grown up in another pattern of lingual expectations? Or, does one direct one's attention to a future generation in the experiment represented by nonspeakers of the language concerned to whom the proposed novel variant is taught? And then, we must not forget that a certain easily learnable, readable and writable alternative may be an excellent solution to a certain coordination problem but is perhaps incompatible with another, older solution upheld in the same linguistic community at the same time. So we had a good reason not to select her as gender-neutral and -transcending adjective (with the pronoun he) so long as her is simultaneously used by others of the same speech community to refer exclusively to female beings (among which ships, countries and a few other peculiar things), even tho we ourselves could have accepted the loss of the exclusively feminine her and masculine he.

What is labeled "standard usage" in connection with a certain language is not just a system of coordination norms, it is at least partially also a system of partiality norms. These are cultural norms which play an important part in standardized languages and which just cannot be explained or justified in terms of the need of an easy communication alone. This should be clear enough with respect to the institution of an official or national spelling: as soon as it strikes the eye that someone makes a mistake according to official or national usage, the transmission of the meaning of the word has already taken place perfectly. (Of course, one orthography may be easier to recognize than another, but this is not inherently the case if the so-called 'incorrect' usage consistently follows an existing orthographic rule, or a different existing orthographic rule.)

Once partiality norms stabilize an existing situation, the nature of the considerations whether to deviate from them, or not, changes fundamentally. It has been pointed out that deviation from the then-normal pattern is not only going to cost an extra effort, nay, it plainly becomes something 'morally wrong or subversive'. This is why deviation from the status quo becomes harder when it is fortified by partiality norms. Moreover --it is said-- the sanctions backing these norms are imposed impersonally, altho they favor one party against the other. Such is necessary, because otherwise they will lose their effectiveness as a disguise for the exercise of power on which they are really based. Also educated people, also parents of children, and also people whose dialect or sociolect have become the official or national language, are supposed to fully observe the rules of 'cultivated' usage, regardless of their personal tastes and preferences, and also if a nonofficial variant could be equally well read and understood. Whereas in other cases the influence of cultural norms may be harmonizing, and their nature social, we see how they assume quite a coercive character in this case. Evidently both aspects go together in institutionalized linguistic systems (whether officially decreed or not) which do not solely serve good communication.

Partiality norms have been associated especially with the institution of private property. As the argument goes, (sub-)cultural norms of private property, such as those governing trespassing and inheritance, do in the first place protect the haves and their descendants in a socioeconomic state of inequality. (We will return to this view in 9.2.2.) It is indeed remarkable how close the connection is, historically, between these norms which serve to protect private property and the (socio-)linguistic partiality norms of the official or institutionalized language which had to approximate as much as possible the dialect of the wealthiest region(s) and/or the sociolect of the propertied class. While it is the former which are responsible for an unconditional sanctity of private property, it is the latter which are responsible for an unconditional sanctity of traditional linguistic usage.

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Model of Neutral-Inclusivity
Book of Instruments
About What Is, Can and Should Be
Language as Means and as Product