My fair language

September 13th, 2012

Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, Joseph Epstein has a wonderfully informative–and hilarious–essay on the English language as he reviews The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings.

After accusing Hitchings of misusing the word “intriguing” throughout the book, Epstein notes that he has “deliberately incited this small skirmish to convey that people are nutty about language”–and that he is, proudly, among those who are. He continues:

The parade of warriors in the English language wars all make an appearance in Hitchings’s book. Among them have been Ben Jonson, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Hobbes, Joseph Priestley, John Locke, Samuel Johnson, Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Noah Webster, William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, H.W. Fowler, H.L. Mencken, Kingsley Amis, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Some of these figures line up in the prescriptivist (or tradition-minded) and others in the descriptivist (or change-accepting) trenches. I use the metaphor trenches because the language wars resemble nothing so much as World War I in having lots of charges back and forth but no clear victor.

Eighteenth-century England, Hitchings maintains, was the first time that a noticeable slippage in the use of English was felt among the educated classes. At this time the battle between the prescriptivists and descriptivists was joined. Hitchings neatly formulates the essential difference between the two sides. The prescriptivists “believed that language could be remodelled, or at least regularized; they claimed that reason and logic would enable them to achieve this.” The descriptivists, on the other hand, “saw language as a complicated jungle of habits that it would be impossible to trim into shape,” and thus was perhaps best left to grow slightly wild, rather like an English garden.

You cannot always tell the players without a scorecard. Most people would assume that Samuel Johnson, given his famous peremptoriness, would be a prescriptivist. According to Hitchings, who wrote Defining the World (2005), an excellent book on the making of Johnson’s Dictionary, he wasn’t—at least not straight out. Johnson began as a prescriptivist, or perhaps more of a proscriptivist, citing many words as “low” or “cant” or “barbarous.” His original plan was to be a lawgiver: to “embalm the language,” as Hitchings writes, “yet by the time he completed it [the Dictionary] he was conscious of the necessary mutability of English; he had also come to recognize the need for lexicography to say how things are rather than to specify how they ought to be.”

Two key names likely to be unknown to amateurs in this landmine-strewn field—they were hitherto unknown to me—are Robert Lowth (1710-87) and Lindley Murray (1745-1826). A bishop, a Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal Society, Lowth published a Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) based roughly on Latin rules. Lowth’s book, Hitchings reports, was in use in Anglophone classrooms as recently as 100 years ago. In it Lowth adjudicated upon the use of shall and willwould and should, the crime of ending sentences with prepositions, the duration implied by marks of punctuation, and other such matters that since their invention have driven schoolchildren comatose with boredom. Lowth enjoyed finding errors, grammatical and semantical, in famous authors, Shakespeare notably among them.

“The Short Introduction,” Hitchings notes, “represents the general condition of English grammars up until the twentieth century: there is a reluctance to wrestle with difficult questions, an emphasis on using literature to illustrate aspects of language, an affection for example and learnable points rather than larger rational procedures, an inherited set of labels that are variably used, and a rarely explored awareness that there is something wrong with all of this.” Hitchings will from time to time toss up a curveball sentence, whose surprising final clauses get one’s attention as it pops resounding into the catcher’s mitt.

Unlike Robert Lowth, who had a nice sense of humor, Lindley Murray brought the point-of-view of the moralist into the language wars. An American who took up residence in England, he was the author of the English Grammar (1795), which represents the ne plus ultra of conservatism in this realm. Everything for Murray needed to be buttoned up, locked down, iron certain. His “doctrine,” writes Hitchings, “was that the rules of usage should not allow choice.” He did not think that children deserved the relative pronoun who, not yet being fully sentient beings. He could write: “Sentences, in general, should neither be very long, nor very short,” which leaves one to wonder if they should not also be very medium. He felt a strong link, as Hitchings writes, “between sound grammar and virtue, and…between mistakes and vice,” and even imagined “a connection between proper syntax and moral rectitude.” […]

That language has political content is a point Hitchings makes repeatedly. Orwell made the same point earlier and more forcibly in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” (You might want to check the difference between forcibly and forcefully; you will find, I believe, that my using the former suggests I am—within elegant limits, you understand—a prescriptivist in reasonable man’s clothing.) Hitchings cites those who are strict in their insistence on the enforcement of grammatical rules, for example, as liking “the idea of grammar because they see in its structures a model of how they would like society to be—organized and orderly, governed by rules and a strict hierarchy.”

A less complimentary picture of a descriptivist is that of a man who comes in with his hands up. Claiming to grasp that the essential point about language is that it changes, relentlessly, he thinks it a waste of time to fight change. He is not alarmed when old meanings or usages or rules are jettisoned. (Hitchings, for example, believes that, given the quick communication required by texting and internet writing the days of the apostrophe and the semi-colon may be numbered; one might throw in the hyphen along with them. Farewell, old pals.) The descriptivist goes with the flow, thinks of language as existing in an ecosystem. The descriptivist view is the linguistic equivalent of the free marketeer; as the invisible hand of the market will in the end cause all things to work out for the best for the free marketeer, so the invisible lexicographer will turn the same trick for language for the descriptivist.

 Read the whole thing here.

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