Read an Excerpt
The Lexicographer's Dilemma The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
By JACK LYNCH
Walker & Company Copyright © 2009 Jack Lynch
All right reserved.
Chapter One Vulgarities of Speech
HOMO SAPIENS LEARNS TO SPEAK
Humans have been using language for a long time, though no one knows how long exactly. Because sounds leave no fossils, clues about the early history of language are scarce. The subject has, nonetheless, prompted endless speculation. As one linguist put it in 1933, "How language originated nobody knows and everybody has told." And, we might add, everybody has told with reckless abandon and precious little regard for fact. The speculation got so bad in the nineteenth century that on March 8, 1866, the newly founded Société Linguistique de Paris placed an official moratorium on papers discussing the subject: article 2 of its bylaws decreed, "The Society will accept no communication concerning either the origin of language or the creation of a universal language." More recent linguists have echoed the society's disgust with the subject. Writing in 1988, Noam Chomsky-the most influential linguist of the last half century-sided with the jaded nineteenth-century Frenchmen: "There is a long history of study of origin of language, asking how it arose from calls of apes and so forth. That investigation in my view is a complete waste of time."
In the last two de cades, though, evolutionary psychology has once again made language origins a hot topic, especially after Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom published a learned essay, "Natural Language and Natural Selection," in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a respected scientific journal, in 1990. What had once been forbidden is now becoming fashionable again, and several books and hundreds of articles on the subject appear every year. Oxford University Press has even started a series of scholarly books called Studies in the Evolution of Language. None of this means that our guesses are necessarily more accurate than they were two hundred years ago. We're still woefully ignorant about where language came from.
We can say with confidence that humans have been using language for more than five thousand years, because we have writing at least that old. We can also say that it has probably been less than five million years, because the fossil record tells us our earliest hominid ancestors had a larynx ill suited to speaking. But "somewhere between five thousand and five million years" is a frustratingly broad range. Virtually all linguists draw a line between animal communication and the tremendous richness and complexity of human language, but presumably our species had to move across that barrier. How we did it and when remain provocative mysteries. We can make a very conservative estimate, though, and say that human beings have been using language as we know it for about a hundred thousand years. A language called "English" split off from the others around the year A.D. 500.
If language, then, is around a hundred thousand years old, and English is fifteen hundred years old, how old are "good" and "bad" English? When, in other words, did people begin singling out one variety and considering it correct, with all other widely used varieties deemed improper? Our notions of proper English are only around three hundred years old-a very recent innovation indeed. For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language we already speak.
And yet, even though attacks on bad English are fairly young in historical terms, they've become a big part of the modern world. That's probably because they can be thoroughly enjoyable. It's fun to revel in well-phrased put-downs. Venom makes for good prose, at least as long as it's not directed at you. A favorite spectator sport in some corners of the journalistic world is watching an ill-mannered critic toss and gore a third- rate writer for his limp clichés and flaccid prose. It's the same kind of malicious glee we take in reading nasty reviews of bad novels or plays. Samuel Johnson raised a laugh when he looked at one poem and said that "though but fourteen lines long, there were six grammatical faults in it." A twentieth-century inheritor of Johnson's mordant wit, Paul Fussell, offers a similarly biting critique of one of the most respected British novelists of the day in an essay called "Can Graham Greene Write English?" Fussell's answer is no. Greene's memoir, he writes, opens in its first sentence with "a freshman howler: 'An autobiography ... may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity more selective....' For less, read fewer." To the memoir publisher's touting of Greene as "the most distinguished living writer in the English language," Fussell responds that the claim is "impertinent and illiterate.... Actually Greene's writing is so patently improvable that it could serve pedagogic purposes, as follows." Then comes an amusingly vicious parody of an undergraduate final exam in an English composition class:
English 345: Expository Writing (Intermediate) (One hour. Write in ink on one side of the paper only.)
The following passages have been written by Mr. Graham Greene in his book Ways of Escape. They have been passed by his editors and approved by his publishers, who assert that Graham Greene is "the most distinguished living writer in the English language." Rewrite each passage as indicated.
1. Correct the grammar:
a. "I am not sure that I detect much promise in [Orient Express], except in the character of Colonel Hartep, the Chief of Police, whom I suspect survived into the world of Aunt August and Travels with My Aunt."
b. "In my hotel, the Ofloffson ..., there were ... a gentle couple whom I cannot deny bore some resemblance to Mr. and Mrs. Smith...."
The long roster of Greene's grammatical and stylistic blunders keeps going-not only whom for who, but also misplaced modifiers, jargon, redundancy, and awkwardness. It's a bravado demonstration of curmudgeonly sarcasm that raises obnoxiousness to the level of performance art, and it has the potential to amuse everyone except Graham Greene himself.
As Fussell shows, bad writing often calls forth good writing. H. L. Mencken's description of President Warren G. Harding's linguistic proficiency is a minor masterpiece of the genre:
He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
It almost seems worth it to suffer through the writing of a bungler like Harding in order to get sublime vituperation like this.
What's interesting about these attacks, though, is that they would have made no sense before about 1700. Who and whom, less and fewer-things like this may keep modern writers awake at night, but no one seems to have paid them any attention until the grammarians arrived on the scene. Under the old dispensation, people spoke and wrote English without self- consciousness. But we're products of the new dispensation; we live in the age of grammars and dictionaries, rules and prohibitions, and we're expected to know them all before we open our mouths or fire up our word processors.
This book discusses the origins of many so- called rules of English, but we should be clear about what we mean by "rules." Grammatical rules or laws are not like the law of gravity, or even laws against murder and theft-they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people, useful only in certain situations, and subject to change.
When linguists refer to rules, they mean the principles according to which "The boy sees the girl" counts as a legitimate English sentence while "See girl's boy the the" doesn't. While no one is sure how many such rules there are, one estimate places the count around 3,500. And though weary purists and frustrated schoolmarms complain that badly educated simpletons don't know the rules, almost every native speaker knows virtually all the real rules of English.
What's confusing is that most people don't know they know the rules of English. Two examples can take the place of many. Ask native speakers of English, "My and mine both mean 'belonging to me,' but when do you say my and when do you say mine?" Few will be able to give you a clear answer-at least, not without a long pause to run through various possibilities. They'll be able to produce examples, but few will be able to formulate a rule; only those with some training in linguistics will be able to explain the distinction between attributive and predicate positions. And yet it's very rare for fluent speakers to make a mistake in using these words-even though they've never heard of predicate position, they make use of the idea every day. They know the rule, but they don't know they know the rule. Or another: virtually every native speaker will say "the big red ball" rather than "the red big ball." We all know to put attributive adjectives that refer to size before attributive adjectives that refer to color, but no textbook bothers to spell it out. The real rules are the ones that native speakers don't need to be taught because they're absorbed unconsciously.
When most people talk about the rules, though, they mean something different. The real rules permit sentences like "I wonder where he got it from" and "It looks like he's done," but many people find them unacceptable: one ends with a preposition; the second uses the preposition like as a conjunction and has is done for has finished. A sentence like "I ain't got nobody," by these standards, is a train wreck: it uses the naughty word ain't, the past participle got for the present-tense have, and a double negative. Slang, obscenity, jargon-we've all learned in school that we're not allowed to use them, and for most people, these are the rules. And still virtually everyone gets them wrong.
And most people know they get them wrong. When I'm introduced at a party as an English professor, people immediately turn apologetic about their grammar and shuffle uncomfortably, fearful of offending me and embarrassing themselves. No one feels compelled to confess to engineers that they never got the knack of building bridges, or to doctors that they don't understand the lymphatic system-but nearly everyone feels a strange obligation to come clean to someone who is supposed to be an expert in "grammar." They know there's some difference between lay and lie; they know that shall and will are different somehow; they know that there's some rule about where to put only in a sentence-and yet they don't know what those rules are. They've been scolded for confusing can and may, but to no good effect. They know that there's a mark called the semicolon but haven't a clue what to do with it, and so they ignore it. They therefore have convinced themselves they're not using their language correctly. The only relief most people find is in the thought that at least some people speak worse than they do. It's a well- known fact that whole groups speak bad English, including school dropouts, some ethnic minorities, poor people, and the young-especially the young, who are believed to be incapable of forming coherent sentences. Most people speak improperly; only a talented and educated few get it right.
What, though, does it mean to say that everyone, or almost everyone, speaks incorrectly? There are some things on which everyone can be wrong-when Aristotle argued that heavy bodies fell faster than light ones, he was simply wrong: that's a fact that can be confirmed or denied according to objective standards. But language isn't gravity. To say everyone speaks the language badly is tantamount to saying an entire country drives on the wrong side of the road. Some maintain that It's me is wrong, and It is I is the only correct form, because the case of pronouns has to be the same on either side of a verb of being-but only comic book superheroes routinely say It is I. Doesn't that mean the old rule about pronoun case is no longer operative? The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary recently published a book called 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces-words like acumen, banal, chimera, coup de grâce, debacle, desultory, forte, impious, lingerie, marquis, mores, niche, quay, respite, ribald, and viscount. But if "almost everyone" pronounces forte as for-tay (instead of the traditional fort) or niche as neesh (instead of the traditional nitch), doesn't it mean that for-tay and neesh are now standard pronunciations? The first time an English- speaker pronounced the French word forte as for-tay, it was an unambiguous mistake. Ditto the second time. But what about the thousandth time, or the millionth? At some point the wrong version became right. How long can the tiny band of purists hold out against the rest of the world?
What infinitive-splitters, preposition-enders, double-negativizers, and forte-mispronouncers are violating are not grammatical rules but what linguists call the "prestige forms," the ones given special social status. Often they hold this special status for the most tenuous of reasons, but hold it they do. The alternative is "stigmatized" words or usages. And words, word endings, and word combinations move on and off the naughty list and the nice list as the years pass.
We can see how these forms work by looking at the most stigmatized word in the language, ain't-the word that every five-year-old is taught is not a word. But why not? Just because. It originally entered the language as a contracted form of am not (passing through a phase as an't before the a sound was lengthened) and first appeared in print in 1778, in Frances Burney's novel Evelina. We have uncontroversial contractions for is not (isn't) and are not (aren't), so what's wrong with reducing am not to ain't? The problem is that it was marked as a substandard word in the nineteenth century, people have been repeating the injunction ever since, and no amount of logic can undo it. It's forbidden simply because it's been forbidden.
An anonymous work of 1826, The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected, is typical of the nineteenth- century excoriation of the word ain't. After surveying the various contractions with not-don't, haven't, won't-the author admitted that they're all offensive, though "some of these are much less vulgar than others." One in particular, though, was beyond the pale: "I mean the expression 'a'n't it,'" which he labeled "the most vulgar and incorrect expression in common use." He advised readers to avoid it, reminding them that "you will never hear it employed by any well educated person, much less by correct or elegant speakers." Then comes a handy table of "vulgar" and "correct" ways of saying the same thing:
In order to make you more perfect in avoiding this vulgarity, I shall give you a few corrected examples of it.
I a'n't a going. I am not going. You a'n't able to do it. You are not able to do it. A'n't she come yet? Is she not come yet? A'n't I very lucky? Am I not very lucky? He a'n't ready. He is not ready. They a'n't gone. They are not gone. Those a'n't pretty. Those are not pretty. A'n't they going? Are they not going? It a'n't fine. It is not fine. He is very clever-a'n't Is not Mr. Wilson very Mr. Wilson? clever? This flower is pretty- Is not this flower pretty? a'n't it?
He concluded, "When you have mastered this easy lesson, you may then proceed to the other forms of contraction, which are by no means so bad as this vulgar a'n't." Nearly two centuries later, that "vulgar" word continues to produce shudders among traditionalists.
The ban on ain't is the classic example of a shibboleth. A passage from the Book of Judges sets the scene. The Gileadites and the Ephraimites were at war, and the Gileadites developed a clever way to spot Ephraimite spies:
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.
Excerpted from The Lexicographer's Dilemma by JACK LYNCH Copyright © 2009 by Jack Lynch. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.