It’s Not All Mary Poppins

SaBloBoMo – About Language

I’ve been bad, bad, bad at this book-a-day challenge! Sorry, Sassy!

Still, I do keep on reading! Can’t seem to break myself of the habit. Today’s book is one I hadn’t heard of till earlier this morning. (No, I haven’t finished it yet.)

A bit of background: Last Christmas, I was given “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. I loved it, then passed it on to a fellow language-lover, my friend Bob. Being of the same mind on these things, or so we both thought, we recently launched into a series of conversations over our bi-weekly pint in a local pub, conversations that have probably been a bit of a surprise to both of us.

Now, I like language to be clear. There is a difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, and I knew it when I was ten. It’s just NOT that complicated. And ‘then’? Don’t get me started on that one! There are TWO words, people, TWO! ‘Than’, and ‘then’. Two different words, each with its own, different meaning. Every time I see ‘then’ being used when ‘than’ was meant, I am just plain embarrassed for the writer. Just because we don’t manage to differentiate well between a short ‘a’ and a short ‘e’ in our speech on this continent doesn’t mean the spelling doesn’t convey different meanings. Yeesh…

Okay. So I have my stripe of linguist purist. But to me, language is for communicating meaning. If a change of vocabulary or usage enhances communication, it’s an enrichment; if a change hinders or diminishes communication, it’s an impoverishment. Simple, really, though there is room for lots of fun discussion. My sweetie and I had a lively half-hour chat on the validity of the current use of ‘focus’ as a synonym for ‘concentrate’, me in favour, he in opposition. (Yes, we do have these kinds of conversations: aren’t you jealous?)

I further believe – this also emerged in my conversation with Stephen this morning – that correct language is often dependent on context. U R OK 2 wrt lik ths if you are texting (now there’s a word that would make Bob’s skin crawl) a friend, but you’re not going to use that in a research paper.

Bob’s approach to language change is even simpler, however: Change is Bad. Linguistic innovation is always inferior to what preceded it.

Easy, huh??

So, when he emailed to tell me he had an article from a British newspaper to show me when we meet again on Tuesday, I knew I had to go in there armed to defend myself. Off I go a-googling this morning, starting with a site which Kat enjoys. From there I follow link after link, googling this and that, until I learn a few things.

I learn that Bob is a prescriptivist, while I am a descriptivist*. Cool, huh? Who knew? (For all my English degree, I have not a single linguistics course under my belt.) (*If you follow that link, you’ll have to scroll down to the section entitled “What is the difference between ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’?” It’s pretty funny.)

And finally, I stumbled across the book I’m (finally) going to mention!

The Fight for English: how language pundits ate, shot, and left, by David Crystal. Crystal, a “world authority on language” (another thing I learned only this morning!), has attended to the trend to “linguistic fundamentalism” with concern. This book is an exploration of the trend, for he believes it should be understood in order to be resisted, and in order that things of value within it be gleaned and used.

I’m on chapter five, so far, and loving it. It’s not as funny as Truss, but it’s a delight to read – clear, logical, instructive. Starting with Aelfric the Grammarian (c. 995), he follows the development of the language and the language squabbling, the jockeying for position and authority down through the centuries. Caxton has a lot to answer for in his jump-start of the Language Wars, poor fellow: all he was trying to do was use this great new invention, the printing press!

I’m not half-through yet, but I have all day Sunday. I am particularly looking forward to the chapters entitled “Change”, “Incorrectness”, “Context”, and “Future”.

I am so going to kick Bob’s ass on Tuesday.


January 20, 2007 Posted by | books, memes and quizzes | 17 Comments