Questions of English reverberate through our daily lives. When we use a language, we may be making a social connection, answering a question, enjoying ourselves, passing time, or showing off, but fundamentally we imagine that the interest of the person or people to whom we are speaking is engaged. The desire to shape and emphasize this engagement is crucial. How do I get you to listen to me? Can I persuade you to like me, hire me, trust me, come and see my etchings?
Manipulations of our language -- by the state, advertisers, salespeople, factions, preachers, prophets, poets, cheats -- are legion. Then there are other questions. How do we refer to social groups other than our own -- people of a different ethnic background, say, or people with disabilities? How do we address strangers, which words are hurtful, and when is it okay to swear? Is the language of an email different from the language of conversation? What songs can we sing, and how should we pray?This is an English language blog – written by a young-hearted old-fogey who, as such, prides himself on his use of the English language. I shiver when I hear prepositions being (in my view) misplaced. It has been some time, for example, since “different to” apparently replaced “different from” but I still can’t accept the new version. We (still) say “I differ from you” – but, despite this, have allowed “to” to usurp the place of “from” when it follows the word "different".
The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (from which the opening quotation is taken - page 20) is a book which puts some of this prejudice in its place.
It will come as something of a relief to find out that, when it comes to language and usage, the sky has always been falling. People have been lamenting the coarsening, bastardizing, and very death of English ever since it first emerged, with each successive generation looking wistfully to the previous generations’ undiluted character and general superiority. Hitchings takes a common sense stand when surveying contemporary usage; there are rules, he writes, and there are principles, and when “we write, and also when we speak, we should pay attention to the needs and expectations of our audience, and we should never forget that we are part of that audience.”
Hitchings deftly charts the boisterous evolution of English, couching it in rich historical context. To wit: as English emerged in Great Britain out of the dialects brought by Germanic settlers in the 5th century, regional usage ruled. Given the obvious lack of ability or opportunity to easily cultivate written works, dialects varied widely from place to place. As a result people tended to be very tribal and jingoistic about usage; it seems we have a natural tendency to believe the way we speak and write is correct and to regard other accents as impolite, rude, uneducated, or the evidence of straight-up moral turpitude.
English was mostly repressed until the 14th century; French (or Latin) was then the official language of government. After the Black Death wiped out a third of Britain, however, surviving peasants and laborers began to rebel against established labor laws. The language of protest was English, and it started being taught in schools around 1350. Soon thereafter, Chaucer began using English (specifically a London-based dialect) in his work. This decision, Hitchings writes, “was bold”, and the rest, as they say, is history: after Chaucer’s death, “as his poetry circulated widely in manuscript, he was anointed as the inventor of English as a literary language.”
Plague, revolt, the cultural power of poetry? Awesome stuff. Equally awesome is the nutty rogue gallery of usage experts (many of whom are self-proclaimed (natch)) Hitchings has the good sense to let stride through the narrative. For instance, who knew that it was none other than John Dryden who led the charge against ending sentences with prepositions? Or take Lindley Murray, an American expat in Britain in 19th century and celebrated grammarian, who insisted on not using the relative pronoun who when referring to children “for the reason that ‘We hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection.’ ” This is just the tip of the iceberg; it turns out that people who care deeply about language are frequently pretty crazy generally.
In a quick 300 pages, Hitchings takes his readers from the emergence of English; through the divergence of “English English” and “American English;” how it grew to become the lingua franca of business and power and the sociopolitical ramifications of this; evolving conceptions of vulgarity and swearing; the sowing of many Englishes around the world and their complex legacies; the death of British imperialism; George Orwell; all the way up to the present day, where he touches on the influence of the internet, text messaging, PowerPoint, and technology generally. It’s quite a trip.
The New Yorker reviewer took a more severe view of the book’s “descriptive” or relativistic approach – clearly belonging more to the “prescriptive” school which Hitchings takes every opportunity to ridicule. But the review gives a very good summary of the different ways English useage developed on the other side of the Atlantic
For a long time, many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs. All around them, people were talking about “parameters” and “life styles,” saying “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested,” “fulsome” when they meant “full.” To the pained listeners, it seemed that they were no longer part of this language group. To others, the complainers were fogies and snobs. The usages they objected to were cause not for grief but for celebration. They were pulsings of our linguistic lifeblood, proof that English was large, contained multitudes.
The crucial document of the language dispute of the past half century was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. This 2,662-page revised edition of the standard unabridged dictionary of American English was emphatically descriptivist. “Ain’t” got in, as did “irregardless.” “Like” could be used as a conjunction, as in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Some of these items had appeared in the preceding edition of the unabridged Webster’s (1934), but with plentiful “usage labels,” characterizing them as slang, humorous, erroneous, or illiterate. In Web. III, usage labels appeared far less often; they bore more neutral names, such as “nonstandard” and “substandard”; and they were defined in subtly political terms. “Substandard,” the dictionary tells us, “indicates status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community but differs in choice of word or form from that of the prestige group in that community.” Two examples that the dictionary gave of words acceptable throughout the American language community except in its prestige group were “drownded” and “hisself.”
On many sides, Web. III was met with fury. It was the closest thing to a public scandal that the quiet little world of English-language manuals had ever seen.Out of it a new lexicon was born: the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1969. The A.H.D. was a retort to Web. III. It was unashamedly prescriptive and also, strictly speaking, élitist.This is one of these rare books to which I want to return immediately it’s finished. Its 15 page bibliography is an incentive to further searches. It has a tantalising reference to the way young English people now tend to finish their sentences on an interrogatory note – apparently known as “uptalk” or "high-rising terminal" - even when there's no question involved.
Those with an interest in the continuing development of our vocabulary are recommended to use the Lexican Valley blog