Jun 6, 2012

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings

The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings

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.
In The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, Henry Hitchings tackles the following questions: “What is proper English? How do we decide what is ‘proper’? And why do we care so much anyway?” The book tells the history of the ongoing arguments about the correct use of English – as well as of the definition ‘correct’ itself – from the days of Chaucer to the present times. Along the way, it examines topics such as apostrophes, split infinitives, dialects, swearing, the standardisation of spelling, and the contentious rise of Textspeak.

As is customary, with history comes perspective: The Language Wars reveals that language disputes we think of as recent are in fact quite old, and that the notion that the use of the English language has reached an unprecedented state of decay is far from unique to our times. Hitchings says:
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 19th century when pessimists predicted that within 100 years the speech of Britons and Americans would be mutually unintelligible, or in the 1550s when the humanist scholar Thomas Wilson complained in the The Arte of Retorique, a book ‘for the use of all suche as are studios of eloquence sette forth in Englische’, that well-traveled gentleman had lately started to ‘powder’ their conversation with confusing ‘oversea language’.
Resistance to change is of course as old as humanity itself, and as the The Language Wars demonstrates, the sense of eminent linguistic apocalypse we experience as unique today has been around for a very long time. (On a side note, it would be fascinating to read a book that put reactions to technological changes into similar historical perspective. I have my suspicious about how old the arguments put forth by books such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows might actually be.)

One of my favourite things about The Language Wars was the fact that it acknowledges that our relationship with language is very emotionally charged, and that arguments about the use of language are seldom about standing up for accurate communication, even if people perceive them as such. First of all, we’re all invested in particular ways of using language, and this is not something to be ashamed of. Secondly, the way people speak and their knowledge of how their use of language is perceived by others is very powerful and very personal. As a non-native speaker of English, I’ve had my share of experiences with this. Despite my background in linguistics and my knowledge that language is convention, nothing makes me feel as awkward and vulnerable as being the only person in a room with the ‘wrong’ accent – the only person whose use of language indelibly marks her as ‘other’.

The Language Wars acknowledges the emotional weight behind this kind of experience, but it also highlights the fact that none of this mean that anyone contributing to the creation of the standard from which an accent like mine deviates is doing anything wrong. A standard only becomes negative when we assign it a weight and meaning it doesn’t actually have — when we assume, for example, that any deviations signal laziness or a lack of intelligence or sophistication, which plenty of people gleefully do. What this book does so well is unpack all the unacknowledged variables behind debates about the ‘proper’ use of language: namely issues of power, social influence, access to prestigious forms of education, and class.

Having said this, the book is also not an exercise in shaming people for being invested in particular usages of language and becoming impatient when others fail to follow them. We all have our linguistic pet peeves, after all, and The Language Wars actually covers some of mine: for example, using ‘simplistic’ for ‘simple’ (this is where I passionately yell “IT’S NOT THE SAME THING AT ALL, ARGH!111@”), the expression “I could care less” (then you do care!), or misplaced commas, particularly between the subject and the verb. The following paragraph, which is actually the last in the book, makes it clear that Hitchings’ approach is far from censorious:
The pedants are not often comprehensively outpedanted. They will usually fight back, and they are not about to go away. Their intransigence is occasionally risible. Yet, undeniably, they stimulate thought about language. That is vital, because we need to engage with language – and yes, with our language – critically. We tend to discuss it in a cantankerous or petulant way, but thinking and talking about what makes good English good and bad English bad can be, and should be, a pleasure.
The one thing to keep in mind always is that taking a step back and remembering that what we’re really discussing is often power and social status, and that things that seem unforgivably wrong to us are in fact conventions (even if they seem natural and inevitable and a matter of absolute right and wrong), should be part of this process of engaging with language critically.

The Language Wars is immensely readable, thoughtful, and a lot of fun. My overall very small complaints about Henry Hitchings’ previous book, The Secret Life of Words, were absent from this book, which made it even more of a joy to read. It made my inner linguistics geek very happy, but I think it’ll also appeal to anyone with a general interest in social studies, cultural criticism, or just fun and informative non-fiction.

A few more interesting bits:
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 the 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.

Studying and mapping dialects calls for a great deal of philological dexterity. Many people have been moved to wonder what the point of all the effort is. This is an area in which the disjunction between what happens in universities and what happens outside them is palpable. In the public sphere, dialects are routinely demonized. It is common to treat ‘dialect’ as though it is somehow opposed to ‘language’ – as an enemy of language rather than as a part of it. The negative connotations of the word are bound up with false notions: of people’s failed attempt to govern their language properly; that they are deviant forms of correct speech and writing, rather than having their own distinct patterns and features; and that they are only used by the socially disadvantaged. This is not something uniquely English. Denmark is a good example of a country where dialects have traditionally not been valued. By contrast, in Germany some dialects enjoy considerable prestige.

Standardization has general benefits, but often it has been practiced not so much in the interests of the public at large as in those of the small authoritarian group who have enthroned their English as the best English. Yet, to flip things around, I could argue, as Thomas Sheridan did, that a standard form of English is a means of bringing about that great chimera, a classless society. In recent decades, this tension has been central to political debate about how English should be taught in schools: is the teaching of standard English a means of reinforcing the existing class structure, or does it offer children from less privileged backgrounds a passport to freedom? On both sides, disdain masquerades as rightmindedness; the argument is a variation of the familiar contest between the prescriptive and descriptive schools.

There are obvious incentives for immigrants to learn English, which suggests that legislation to make the status of the English language official might really be superfluous. But support for an ‘English-only’ policy is robust. Implicit in this is the belief that there is such a thing as an ‘American identity’, to which people who live in America must subscribe. The notion that a range of identities might happily coexist is shunned. Monolinguism has many costs – economic, educational, cognitive – but is supported in the name of national security, political stability, the preservation of a collective morality and harmony between different ethnic groups, as if it is inevitable that people wishing to use languages other than English will practice terrorism, sedition, depravity and racist hatred. No matter that within diversity there can be a fundamental unity. No matter that America was born in the spirit of inclusiveness and has at no point in recorded history been truly monoglot.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Definitely want to read this :)

    I have so many linguistic pet peeves, mostly common to Malaysian English - and the fact that I find myself actually saying them sometimes horrify me ^^;

  2. Thank you so much for reviewing this book--it is right up my alley and I never would have heard about it otherwise. I'm going to look for it today.

  3. I love his style, so readable! I have an inner linguistics geek too and I think she'd like to read this! :-)

  4. There's a difference in how our language is evolving today that I suppose makes it more apparent than before. Before we didn't shorten words in such a phonetic way, nor include numbers in words, and those aspects are very striking. I find your experience interesting, and can only assume it happens solely in person, because online your English is very good and rather high-brow - I guess as soon as you start speaking the initial impression fades quickly.

    It's sad but true, discussing language is to discuss status, and it always has been. The way someone speaks doesn't always align with their upbringing and life, but mostly it does whether we like it or not. Exceptions to that rule are interesting to read about.

  5. I think in many ways it's a discussion of form vs. meaning. Some get angry when they see people mix up the use of "there," "they're," and "their," though in context we can pretty easily figure out what they mean if they use the wrong word. I personally think that meaning is more important, but at the same time, if you misuse these three words on a resume, you're probably not going to get hired. It's definitely an interesting debate.

  6. I love language stuff, and for that matter, grammar stuff. (I know there is a special circle in Language Hell for those who use "stuff" as an all-purpose noun signifier.) And if anyone doubts the emotion behind language, he or she could follow the newspapers of any of the U.S. border states and read the apoplectic missives from readers and editorial writers about the threat of the invasion of Spanish - which arouses much more passion than say, global warming or global warfare....

  7. This does sound like a fun book. I understand about accents to a certain degree. Even native English speakers in the US can be made to feel uncomfortable. My mom was born in Oklahoma and moved to California when she was around 13. She had a heavy southern accent that made her stand out and got her merciless teasing. She worked hard to lose it as fast as she could.

  8. This sounds like it would be a great companion read to The Evolution of Language that I read last year. That one was very technical, though, and this seems more readable, so I'll have to look out for it.

  9. How intersting! I've never really thought about the fact that our relationship with language is emotionally charged, but of course it is! I separate "words" and "grammar" in my head, but the two are tied together and the emotional aspect is undeniable.

  10. This sounds like a fascinating read!

  11. This book sounds fantastic. I've not read Hitchings, but you've sold me, I need to pick this up the next chance I get.

    I admit up front to being a fairly lazy user of the english language...and yet I very much respect the ways it has been codified and made precise, because I think refining meaning to the greatest degree we have available is a seriously worthwhile endeavor.

  12. The guy would actually really like this book. I think I will get it, read it, and then leave it laying around!

  13. Marineko: I think that happens to all of us! And somehow I suspect it makes us even more impassioned about those pet peeves :P

    Heather: You're most welcome - hope you enjoy it :D

    Joanna: Yes, isn't it? The amount of detail included sometimes could make for a dry read, but he makes it so accessible and fun.

    Charlie: You'd be surprised with the examples from the past Hitchings brings up! I think the difference is mostly a matter of perception. And yes, my English insecurities mostly have to do with speaking (though sometimes they seep into my writing abilities as well). A lot of the time people react to a foreign accent by speaking very slowly and loudly and asking me every other sentence if I'm managing to follow what they're saying. I know they do that out of kindness and to make things easier for me, and I really do appreciate that. But at the same time, the assumption that I'm a lot less competent than I actually am kind of fires up all my insecurities and leaves me feeling pretty bad. Which isn't really anyone's fault, but it's not something I can help either.

    Chris Thompson: Yes, you're absolutely right, of course. The fact that the rules of language are conventions doesn't mean they're not useful, nor that we should rebel against them just to prove a point. As much as I'd like to see people make fewer assumptions about those who deviate from linguistic convention, I also know that if we don't follow the rules we'll face the consequences.

    Jill: If there is, I'm going to it as well ;) There's quite a bit in the book about the rise of "English only" attitudes and policies in the US. I think you'd enjoy it a lot!

    Stefanie: Very true, and there's a section that focuses on regional accents specifically. It was so interesting to read about.

    Aarti: I really think you'd enjoy it, especially for the political angle. It ties in with some of the things we've been talking about over e-mail :)

    Melissa: Yes, it really is. I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to pick it up!

    Jillian: It really was :)

    Neal: Yes - rules may be conventions, but we use the systems we use because they're useful.

    Kelly: Good plan :P

  14. As an English prof, I tried not to be too pedantic (aside from my pet peeves, which include any modifier in front of "unique") but to go the other way and show how to play with English by incorporating words and ideas from other languages. I liked this article lately, about making up neologisms: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/04/using-undictionaried-words/

  15. Jeanne: I imagine that reading my blog as an English professor requires an herculean effort sometimes, and I really appreciate your never being hard on me or reaching for the metaphorical red pen :P I really enjoyed that article - it reminds me of Hitchings' previous book, The Secret Life of Words, which I think you'd find really interesting.

  16. Oh God, "I could care less" is a very big one of mine. I don't think of myself as much of a pedant -- though I do work in publishing so I'm comparing myself against a very skewed sample -- but "I could care less" gets on my nerves every time.

    This sounds like a fascinating book! I love a book that can approach controversial subjects in a way that's nuanced and good-humored, which is what this sounds like.

  17. Wonderful review of an interesting book, Ana! Love the premise of the book and the aspects of English it covers - especially the parts about conventions of what we think is proper English.

  18. One aspect of the language wars that is not amusing at all to me is the way that the larger culture uses language to marginalize minority cultures - and I'm thinking of "black English" here. It's a bit of a special case in America, because the entire syntactical structure of the dialect differs from standard English, putting an enormous academic burden on small speakers of the former who are called upon to express themselves in the latter - or be considered stupid. Standardized testing, which determines children's academic future, puts great value on standard English, and no-one seems to notice that speakers of black English have to make gigantic cognitive leaps that speakers of standard English do not. I've watched so many bright kindergartners go down to defeat before they reach second grade - it's a serious problem that we have yet to grapple with in any meaningful way.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.