Jun 262004

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”?

A. Me
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.)

  13 Responses to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

  1. You remind me of Jim Quinn’s _American Tongue and Cheek_. I’ve never seen a better case made for American English as a living breathing thing and not the dead set of rules pushed by language mavens like Safire and Edwin Newman (Remember him?). Quinn wrote with just the light touch such an argument requires. Sad to see the book is out of print, while Safire keeps rolling along.

  2. Anon: I don’t know the Quinn book but you’ve inspired me to look it up.

    Mac: Paul Valery made almost the same joke, in an almost contrary sense, about his own native language: "The trouble with France is that it’s the only country where French is not taught." Juxtaposing the two remarks goes a long way toward explaining the relative success of English.

  3. I forget who said it (other than my Hebrew/Latin professor):

    "The problem with the English language is that they let just anybody use it."

    This, of course, is its strength and beauty. I go to school in a very multilingual environment; my small class of twelve includes two from Ghana, one Zulu, one Dane, two Brazilians, and a gentleman from Kentucky. Comparing language features among our respective native tongues has really increased my appreciation for the plasticity of my own mother English.

  4. Interesting argument. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have anything to do with my point.

    However, the "A, B, C" was a nice strawman.

  5. If your point had been only that language pedantry is often a form of ad hominem I would have been happy to agree with you. But that wasn’t all you said.

  6. I’ll sum it up for you:

    The point of the essay was that "the left" makes constant appeals to authority by claiming that George Bush (or others) are simpletons because of their use of the language. This is supposed to make the majority of people cower at the wisdom of the Left and justify their claims that if we were as intelligent and as sophisticated as them (and their Academic buddies, aka Chomsky), we would be better able to understand how wonderful they were, and how foolish we are.

  7. Mrs du Toit,
    May I have the next dance?
    you are most eloquent.

  8. I wouldn’t do that, jtmckee. Her husband likes to shoot things.

  9. Mac,
    "The problem with the English language is that they let just anybody use it."
    Or make them not use it. One of the trends I’ve seen gaining ground in my garden center is for more and more growers to use a Mexican-American driver, who can speak English with the best of us, instructed to act like a hard working green card trying to make it in America who hasn’t picked up the lingo yet. Of course, the purpose of this is for the nursery to get some of it’s junk plants that should have been tossed, signed for. It’s much harder to reject part of an order when the driver plays like he has no idea what you’re talking about. Most of the junk plants you see in a garden center, especially in chain stores, were pushed in through some kind of politically correct intimidation. I would bet as more and more of us pick up on Spanish, the dishonest nurseries will switch to Eastern European-American drivers or whatever.

  10. "Instalanche" will never happen, nor will "blogosphere." Not enough critical mass for the first and the second is just plain ugly.

    "Blogsphere" has a shot, once we get rid of the "o."

    At the same time, hauling out autodidactic theories of how language is or is not minted just to butress the President strikes me as a bit over the top.

    Bush can take care of himself and language is its own manifesto and needs no help from the assembled.

  11. Blogsphere winning in a straight fight with blogosphere? We were talking about English and not German, ja? "sph" just won’t stand another consonant as its neighbour without a vowel to intercede, and "-osphere" is the established suffix insofar as there is one. The "ionosphere" could easily enough have been the "ionsphere", but a native speaker’s tongue won’t have it.

    But this is academic: "weblogs" as a separate medium are too ill-defined to persist, and another word or phrase will eventually be devised for the chorus of instant online reaction.

  12. The argument from consonants is, I admit, compelling but not persuasive. For while there is a good case to be made for the notion, the upshot is that you end up with a world that seems, to the ear, to be filled with mucus. "BLOGOSPHERE!" "GESHUNDEIT!" In other words, it simply isn’t as attractive a sound with overtones of fluid, if not nuts, spice and berries.

    The elision within ‘BLOGSPHERE’ is not only more pleasing to the ear by several orders of magnitude, it has the added attraction of a technotronic edge here in C-Space.

    And while it currently lags 43,000 to 216,000 in G-Space, that is only because C-Sensibilities are not known either for the size of their wardrobes or poetic sensibility.

  13. Well, nine years have passed, and blogosphere has been in the OED for the last five years. But I didn’t come here to talk to y’all about that, I came to talk about masterful and masterly.

    These words have been used to mean each other essentially since the beginning. Specifically, masterful ‘imperious’ dates back to 1400, and masterly ‘skillful’ to only 1648, so the former is much older. But we find masterful ‘skillful’ from 1425, and masterly ‘imperious’ from 1544. So there was no period when the two were clearly separated, and if anything the ‘imperious’ sense is the original one for both words.

    The use of masterly to mean ‘imperious’ is pretty much obsolete: the OED dates its last quotation in this sense to 1766. But masterful ‘skillful’ is ongoing. The OED’s headnote does say that it seems to have declined during the 19th century, but there are still three 19th-century quotations and only four 20th-century ones. If anything is doubtful, it’s the gap between the 1425 quotation and the next one, which is Milton’s in 1641.

    In short, we cannot save this usage, for there has never been anything to save. This is just another of Fowler’s attempt to draw lines where there are no lines to draw, and to impose his ideas of clarity on a living language.

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