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.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.
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.
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?’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.)
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’.
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.(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
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.
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.