While my back was turned blogs again united to take the power back, this time over the English language:
Prior to the arrival of the Blogosphere, the Academics controlled the media. Not directly, of course, but the standards in which the media and journalists conformed to the literary fads. Journalists self-regulated, in consultation with their former professors, to rule on the standard use of “is.”
We reject it. We reject the intrusion. The people are no longer willing to surrender the media, the press, to today’s journalists. Now unfortunately, the Chomskys of the world didn’t get the memo. They’re finding out that the people have rejected their view, their standards, and their hold on the common tongue. It is OUR language.
The next time someone attempts to dismiss your message, your opinion, or your right to speak by attacking the structure or style you’ve used, tell them to stick it. This will get a lot worse before it gets any better. The fortresses of those ivory towers are pretty powerful. They’ll not surrender their power and position without a fight. And a fight is just what they are going to get.
Vox populi vox dei; but we might ask, before storming the barricades, what the enemy’s position really is. A brief multiple-choice quiz may clear this up. Who said “No native speaker can make a mistake”?
B. The people
C. A famous 20th century linguist
The answer, of course, is C (Allen Walker Read). Mrs. du Toit has hold of the wrong end of the telescope. “Correctness” has been very much out of fashion for the last hundred years or so, since Saussure promoted philology and grammar to “linguistics.” Descriptivism dominates academic discourse. It may take a prole to speak Ebonics but it takes a professor to suggest that it be taught in school.
The popular reaction, understandably, veers wildly toward prescriptivism. The language column is the most popular feature of every newspaper and magazine; William Safire got several books out of his. The local bar is thick with grammarians. A badly punctuated guide to British punctuation becomes an American best-seller. (thanks to Our Girl in Chicago.) The phone lines clog every time Patricia T. O’Connor appears on NPR, every caller with his tiny axe to grind.
Carol from Woodbridge boldly comes out against “irregardless,” which is ugly, has a needless and confusing prefix, is not in the dictionary (except as vulg.), and differs from “inflammable,” which no one complains about, only in the last respect. Malik from Staten Island objects to “whom” where “who” is meant. But as the great language historian Otto Jesperson points out, flexion tends to disappear as languages age. “Habaidedeima” becomes “had.” “Cut” loses its endings, serving as present singular, present plural, past singular and plural, and past, present and future perfect, and we’re better off for the fact. “Whom” will eventually land in the dustbin with “whomever,” now rarely used and never correctly. Spelling “night” and “light” as the advertisers do sends Tony from Brooklyn into a towering rage, lest the words no longer betray their Old High German origins. These are the people on language; hear them roar.
Alleged vulgarisms are sometimes not merely harmless but useful. Second person singular and plural are identical in Standard English, which causes no end of confusion. The Southern “y’all” distinguishes them nicely. “Ain’t I” was a perfectly acceptable and euphonious usage 150 years ago — it shows up in Henry James — until the schoolmarms got wind of it and began to insist on “am I not,” or worse, the illogical “aren’t I.”
Languages evolve, for good and ill, though mostly for good: natural selection applies. They are spontaneous orders, like markets. “The people” cannot take English back, never having surrendered it in the first place. Educated speakers exert disproportionate influence over its evolution, and as more people can do their own publishing there will be more educated speakers. This is the kernel of the truth in Mrs. du Toit’s remarks. But her counter-revolution is wholly imaginary. “Blog” will shortly appear in the OED, though I won’t hold my breath, as she seems to be doing, for “blogosphere,” let alone “Instalanche.”
H.W. Fowler, a moderate prescriptivist, adopts a sensible mediate position:
Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, not to say what they are nevertheless well understood to mean. Fastidious people point out the sin, and easy-going people, who are more numerous, take little notice and go on committing it. Then the fastidious people, if they are foolish, get excited and talk of ignorance and solecisms, and are laughed at as pedants; or, if they are wise, say no more about it and wait. The indefensibles, however sturdy, may prove to be not immortal, and anyway there are much more profitable ways of spending time than baiting them. It is well, however, to realize that there are such things as foolish idioms; an abundance of them in a language can be no credit to it or its users, and drawing attention to them may help to keep down their numbers.
Best, as Fowler suggests, to say no more about it and wait. But if you’re spoiling for a fight, fight for precision and clarity, and flog a live horse, not a dead one. “Shall” and “will” used to make subtle distinctions between prediction and intent. The whole business proved too complicated, and they have gone, mostly unregretted, the way of the dodo. But “masterful” and “masterly” may yet be saved. There is hope that “amazing,” “phenomenal,” and “awesome,” on the one hand, and “horrid,” “horrible,” “terrible,” and “awful,” on the other, will (shall?) be resuscitated before they congeal into synonyms for “good” and “bad,” respectively. Mrs. du Toit herself employs “academic” and “academician” interchangably. Doubtless she would consider me pedantic for saying so, but an academic has a job while an academician has a style. “Academician” has pregnant historical associations and is worth preserving. These are some of mine; you have your own. And don’t wait around for the revolution, it won’t be televised and it won’t be blogged either. It isn’t coming.
(Update: Jim Henley comments. Alan Sullivan proposes several principles for rating linguistic innovation, all of which I endorse.)