Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The beauty of English

I have been toying with the idea of tackling NaBloPoMo this month, although I'm so tired today that the thought of making any sustained commitment seems beyond me. Still, September's theme appeals to me: beautiful. So many things strike me as beautiful in one way or another that I feel sure I could come up with a month's worth of blog posts. But I'll probably just have to settle for keeping that theme in the back of my mind while I continue with my haphazard blogposting ways.

Today's beautiful topic is the English language, which I know many would argue is anything but beautiful. I'll have to disagree with those people, especially after reading The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch, a forthcoming book on the myriad difficulties that language mavens have had over the centuries in trying to impose order and rules on our unwieldy tongue. English is big and brash; it may aspire to loftiness but it has always been a lingua vulgaris (language of the people); it is both greedy and generous in the way it snatches words from other languages and shares its vocabulary right back. I grew up speaking, reading and writing English, so I've easily absorbed most of the rules without having to think much about them. Still, even with my English degree and a solid body of writing behind me, I make grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors on a regular basis. After reading Lynch's book, though, I'm a little more inclined to forgive my failings. "Eh, so what?" is the upshot of The Lexicographer's Dilemma, especially when it comes to speech and informal writing. Everyone makes the occasional mistake; when enough people make the same mistake for a long enough period of time, the rules may actually change. While it's important to have standards for formal English, one must accept that change is inevitable . . . and it's not always bad.

Lynch devotes each chapter to a different era in language reform -- early efforts to create a decent English-language dictionary, the dashed hopes in both Britain and America of establishing a language academy, the much-maligned (but really not so evil) 18th-century grammarians who tried to lay down the language law, and so on. I was surprisingly entertained by a long passage on split infinitives, as well as briefer discussions on how the definitions of various words have changed over the years. (Did you know that the word occupy was once considered almost as filthy as fuck? Not to mention the now-obsolete swive.) Along the way Lynch introduces us to Samuel Johnson, who almost single-handedly compiled the first really good English dictionary; Noah Webster, a fiery colonial patriot who created the first substantial dictionary of American English; William Caxton, the first British printer, who had a huge influence on fixing English spelling and may have had more luck with spellings that make sense if the Great Vowel Shift had occurred just a little bit earlier; the wealthy playwright George Bernard Shaw, who left the bulk of his estate to anyone who could come up with and implement a decent spelling reform; and George Carlin, whose "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" practically became the basis for the FCC's indecent language law -- before Carlin, there was no law! Lynch is reluctant to make many specific predictions about how English will continue to change, although he does say, "A betting man should not place much money on the prospect of whom lasting out the twenty-first century." The only certain future for English is change.

Whom may be doomed, writes Lynch, "But so what? The language won't be any poorer for it. It's not a corruption of proper English, but an evolution. It doesn't demand a rearguard action to stave off the attackers; it doesn't call for guardians of the language to rush to the barricades. In fact English doesn't need protection. It's been doing remarkably well over the last fifteen hundred years, and is likely to outlive us all." Language sticklers will probably hate the descriptive rather than prescriptive nature of The Lexicographer's Dilemma; those who are mere enthusiasts -- such as myself -- will love it.


Norman said...

Sure, but can the language be supple w/out becoming so swiving stupid? LOL!

~ Lucy said...

WIll you please, please, please help me revive "swive"? Let's do what we can to make sure it sweeps the nation!