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The Language Wars
A History of Proper English
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Henry Hitchings
All rights reserved.
'To boldly go'
Truths and myths about English
It seems as if no day passes without an argument over the English language and its 'proper' use. We debate the true meanings of words, the nuances of grammar, the acceptability of slang, attitudes to regional accents, resistance to newfangled terms, confusion about apostrophes, the demise of the semicolon.
Why do questions of grammar, spelling and punctuation trouble us? Why are we intrigued or unsettled by other people's pronunciation and vocabulary? Why does the magazine The Awl report 'the awful rise of "snuck"', and is the word ilk really, as The Economist counsels, 'best avoided'? Do we laugh or grimace when we see outside the entrance to a friend's apartment block a sign reading: 'Please Ring the Buzzard'? What about if the sign says 'Please, Ring the Buzzard!'? Why do we object to someone sighing 'I could care less' rather than asserting 'I could not care less'? What is it that irks people about alleged being vocalized as three syllables rather than two?
The ways in which we and others use language have implications for our relationships, our work and our freedoms. Much of the time we select our words deliberately, and we choose to whom we speak and where we write. We may therefore feel uncomfortable about others' less careful use of language.
Perhaps you are feeling uncomfortable right now. You are likely to have spotted those queasy inverted commas around 'proper' in my opening paragraph. Maybe you disapproved of them. I might have deployed them in several other places, save for the suspicion that you would have found them irritating. But immediately we are in the thick of it, in the mêlée of the language wars. For notions such as 'proper', 'true meaning' and 'regional' are all contentious.
To sharpen our sense of this contest, I'll introduce a quotation from a novel. One character says, 'I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.' 'Bravo!' comes the response. 'An excellent satire on modern language.' When was this novel written? Recently? Twenty years ago, or sixty? Actually, it is Northanger Abbey, written by Jane Austen in the late 1790s.
I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible. The words, said by Austen's teenage heroine Catherine Morland, are not meant to be satirical. They give pleasure now because they present, in miniature, some of the more vexed issues of English usage. Catherine is struck by the indirectness of polite conversation, and sees her own clarity as a mark of being unsophisticated. That strikes a chord: we all have experience of speech and text in which unintelligibility is displayed as though a badge of educational or social refinement. The American academic Alan Sokal has parodied this deliciously, publishing in a scholarly journal a spoof article entitled 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity', which uses smart words to dress up claims about the nonexistence of laws of physics and the need for a 'multiculturalist' understanding of mathematics.
There are other concerns humming in the background of the extract from Jane Austen. Who decides whether someone speaks well? As for 'well enough' – is the insufficiency of Catherine's speech something perceived by her or by others, and, if the latter, how have they let her know about it? Are there, in fact, any virtues in unintelligibility, or in not being immediately intelligible? To put it another way, are there times when we benefit from expressing ourselves in a warped or aberrant fashion, our individualism saturating our idiom? And what does Henry Tilney, the rather flirtatious clergyman who is the object of Catherine's affections, mean by 'modern language'? Austen's writing invites this kind of close attention. Ironies are everywhere, and her characters are forever picking their way through the linguistic hazards of polite society.
Next, here is the title of an essay: 'The Growing Illiteracy of American Boys'. When do you suppose it was published? 2010? 1980? In fact this piece was the work of E. L. Godkin, founder of the magazine The Nation, and was published in 1896. Godkin lamented the absence of practical language skills among college students. He based his arguments not on research in some unlettered backwoods, but on an extended study of written work done at Harvard. In America in the late nineteenth century, universities were criticized for failing to prepare students for professional life. In 1891, the future President Herbert Hoover was required to take a remedial English course before being admitted to Stanford, and that same year James Morgan Hart, a professor at Cornell, could write that 'the cry all over the country is: Give us more English! Do not let our young men and women grow up in ignorance of their mother tongue!'
Now, moving back in time to 1712, this is Sir Richard Steele, a usually convivial observer of London life, writing in The Spectator – a periodical which influenced eighteenth-century ideas of polite usage, though in its original form it ran for only twenty-one months and sold about 3,000 copies per issue: 'The scandalous abuse of Language and hardening of Conscience, which may be observed every Day in going from one Place to another, is what makes a whole City to an unprejudiced Eye a Den of Thieves.' Here is the same author, the previous year: 'The Dialect of Conversation is now-a-days so swelled with Vanity and Compliment ... that if a Man that lived an Age or two ago should return into the World again he would really want a Dictionary to help him to understand his own Language.' Finally, here he is in 1713 in a newspaper called The Guardian (no relation of the more famous paper founded by Manchester businessmen in 1821): 'As the World now goes, we have no adequate Idea of what is meant by Gentlemanly ... Here is a very pleasant Fellow, a Correspondent of mine, that puts in for that Appellation even to Highway Men.'
Reflecting on Steele's complaints, we may well say to ourselves that little has changed in the last three hundred years. But the history of talking about language's imperfections goes back even further than this. It is not exclusive to English. In the first century BC the critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus celebrated recent improvements in oratory by rubbishing the rhetoric of the previous generation; this, he said, was 'intolerable in its melodramatic shamelessness' and possessed of a crudeness that made Greece 'like the household of some desperate roué, where the decent, respectable wife sits powerless in her own home, while some nitwit of a girl ... treats her like dirt.' This is the way critics of language use are apt to express themselves; we can quickly lose sight of the fact that they are discussing language, because they deploy such extravagant images.
In the late nineteenth century the American linguist William Dwight Whitney argued that language is an institution. It is 'the work of those whose wants it subserves; it is in their sole keeping and control; it has been by them adapted to their circumstances and wants, and is still everywhere undergoing at their hands such adaptation'. Its elements are 'the product of a series of changes, effected by the will and consent of men, working themselves out under historical conditions, and conditions of man's nature, and by the impulse of motives, which are, in the main, distinctly traceable'. Whitney's model has flaws, but he alights on an important idea: 'Every existing form of human speech is a body of arbitrary and conventional signs ... handed down by tradition.' Crucially, therefore, change is 'the fundamental fact upon which rests the whole method of linguistic study'. Common assent and custom are, he argues, fundamental to meaning, and at any moment we may experience a kind of amnesia about what the words we employ used to mean and where they came from.
Although many will agree with Whitney's view of language as a set of habits, other conceptions of language persist. English-speakers are touchy about questions of usage. This sort of touchiness is not uncommon among speakers of other languages, but English is the most contested major language. By this I mean that its small details and large presence are fought over more vociferously than those of any other language.
The fight is most often about 'the fundamental fact' of language identified by Whitney. Change happens. All living human languages alter: meanings shift, and so do pronunciations and grammatical structures. We may feel that the language we use is stable, but this is an illusion. For all that it may unnerve us, there is nothing weird or wrong about change; it would be much weirder if change did not happen. Language is form, not substance; not communication, but a system of communication – a point on which I shall expand.
We are the agents of change. The 'facts' of language are social: changes occur in a language because there are changes in the conditions under which the language is used. Needs alter, values shift, and opportunities vary. For many, the experience of being caught up in language change is maddening. It requires a large effort of detachment to think that the rise of textspeak may be one of the glories of minimalism. But feeling outrage is not the same as being right.
The idea that we are doomed to disagree about language is, of course, the subject of one of the most memorable stories – and one of the most enduring images – in the Old Testament. This is in chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version, the text reads as follows:
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they [the families of the sons of Noah] journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there ... And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
This has become a defining myth in Western culture. Notionally we are the descendants of the families of the sons of Noah, and we suffer the effects of our forefathers' arrogance. Our punishment is incomprehension of other people; their minds are shuttered from our gaze. The myth of Babel fosters the idea that we are doomed to be separated by language not only from other societies, but also from people within our own society.
Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century polymath who was the author of the first really good English dictionary, claimed that 'Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration.' It is true that languages in the past have tended to divide and proliferate. Yet rather than thinking of this as degeneration, we can see the diversity of languages in a different way: as permitting through its richness greater possibilities for creativity and adaptability, and as generating opportunities for collaboration and reciprocity that are powerful precisely because they are difficult. The world is a boisterous parliament of tongues. And not only between different languages, but also within each language, there is this disparity, this scattering, this dissociation – which can be seen as a problem, as a mere fact, or as the very wellspring of the efforts we pour into communicating.
A language is a transcript of history, not an immutable edifice. Whoever makes this point, though, is at risk of being labelled permissive. In fact, a derogatory adverb usually accompanies 'permissive': 'hopelessly' or 'dangerously' or 'recklessly' – as if one has been encouraging anonymous sex or the sharing of hypodermic needles. There is a gulf of difference between, on the one hand, questioning bogus rules and, on the other, urging people to use language insensibly and promiscuously. But to many self-appointed guardians of good usage (and almost all such guardians are self-appointed) the gulf is invisible. These guardians come in many guises. They may be teachers, retired civil servants, senior broadcasters, seasoned editors, people who like writing letters to newspapers, word-fanciers, or the semi-educated. Some make sensible observations, but many are hypocrites. Their rage can be tempestuous. Just ask the language professors who have received hate mail for refusing to take a stand against split infinitives.
In the chapters that follow, I shall explore the history of arguments about English. The movement of the book will be, in broad terms, chronological. Yet digging into the past will often prompt thoughts about the language as it is today. Rather than unfurling a narrative of what-happened-next, I shall move between the past and the present. The connections between them are essential to my story.
The geographical focus will at first be Britain; then I shall range more widely, reflecting the emergence of English as an international language. Some chapters will dwell on a concept, for certain subjects require a single sustained treatment. I shall also zero in on people who have exerted an especially strong influence on ideas about English; one of my themes is the role of individuals in shaping the language and our beliefs about it. Ralph Waldo Emerson has a lovely line that 'Language is a city to the building of which every human has brought a stone'.This captures the sense – vital here – of language as a consensual, communal but also ongoing construction. My account of the building of this city will be investigative. But, as I proceed, a polemical strand will become apparent.
I sometimes give talks about English, and I am always keen to take questions afterwards. My first book was about Samuel Johnson's dictionary. My second was a history of words absorbed into English from other languages. Whenever I speak about these books and the time for questions comes, the past has to make way for concerns about the present: my feelings about apostrophes or the perceived evils of instant messaging. We are dogged by the notion that the English language is in a state of terrible decline. Here, writing in the 1980s, is the distinguished American educator Jacques Barzun: 'Two of the causes in the decline of all modern European languages have been: the doctrines of linguistic science and the example of "experimental" art,' and 'The language we have now has suffered damage wholesale, the faults encountered come not as single spies but in battalions.' I hear this kind of thing a lot: individual words are being cheapened, diction is on the slide, grammar is getting bastardized, and 'In fifty years English literature will mean nothing to us.' Once, after an event in Edinburgh, an audience member bearded me to ask, 'Don't you think this is a very uniquely sad moment in the history of our language?'
In truth, I don't. I could pedantically reply that there are no degrees of uniqueness. More to the point, though, the present moment does not strike me as sad. It is normal to imagine one is living in an age of exceptional violence and anarchy, yet this is to be blind to the problems of every other age. Our sense of the particular seriousness of the difficulties we face is sharpened by narcissism, and more than that by the belief that we can improve matters. We take a morbid pleasure in believing that the special randomness of our world requires of us a special heroism. Yet novelty is not the same thing as decline. English is no more going to the dogs than it was in the middle of the nineteenth century when pessimists predicted that within a hundred years the speech of Britons and of Americans would be mutually unintelligible, or in the 1550s when the humanist scholar Thomas Wilson complained in The Arte of Rhetorique, a book 'for the use of all suche as are studious of eloquence sette forth in Englische', that well-travelled gentlemen had lately started to 'powder' their conversation with confusing 'oversea language'.
To say this, I recognize, is to provoke. Experience suggests that you can always start a row by staking a claim about English usage. Get mixed up in the question of plurals, for instance. Insist that, since the word data is plural in Latin, if we have been given only one piece of information it is a 'datum'. Allege that when confronted with more than one hippopotamus, one should speak not of hippopotamuses, but of 'hippoipotamou'. Say that a Birmingham accent – be it Birmingham, England, or Birmingham, Alabama, or one of the two Birminghams in Ohio – is inferior to a middle-class London one. Claim for that matter that some languages are spoken much faster than others or that Americans are ruining English. Protest, as someone did to me at a festival, that 'However stupid English grammar is, at least English has got grammar – unlike Chinese.' Assert that 'The crowd is on its feet' is better than the 'The crowd are on their feet', or insist that you cannot say 'The class of '89 is having a reunion, and there's a big surprise in store for them'.
Excerpted from The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings. Copyright © 2011 Henry Hitchings. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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