Special Report

Grammar for Smarties

The popularity of "Why Oh Why" books prove we’re serious about the care of our language.

By 1.10.05

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One of the smaller, but no less bloody skirmishes in the Culture War is being waged on the linguistic front. For those new to the field there are essentially two camps: one made up of linguists, lexicographers, academics or language liberals; the other of conservatives or prescriptivists, the so-called "linguistic luddites." The conservative's anguish over the decline of the English language, the linguists charge, is no different than his distress over the decline of culture in general. This "whining," writes linguist Alan Pagliere, is a mix of nostalgia, self-righteousness, and ignorance of the reality of the laws governing and of the myriad variables involved in language change.

Indeed, the battle cry of the language liberal might be, "Languages change. Get over it." Most linguists judge that language change is neither good nor bad, and, anyway, resistance is futile. Languages, like hemlines, will change whether we want them to or not. This indifference to standards is reflected in the latest editions of our popular dictionaries in which words that are commonly misspelled (alright) or misused (disinterested) have been given the lexicographer's stamp of approval.

Yet despite all this talk of transformation the mother tongue has gone remarkably unchanged since the King James Version of the Bible began to stabilize the language in the mid-seventeenth century. Words come and go, yes, but a letter written 367 years ago by John Milton to Benedetto Bonomatthai reads much like one composed by a good writer today:

I am inclined to believe that when the language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin or their degradation.

Now note the dissimilarity between the writing of Chaucer and Shakespeare after a mere 225 years.

Chaucer: Whanne that April with his shoures sote
The droughte of March hath perced to the rote.

Shakespeare: Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

Often there is good reason to be skeptical of change, particularly when it comes about out of laziness and the dumbing-down of grammar rules. Again, compare Fowler's inflexible 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage to current grammars like Woe is I, in which rules that are troublesome or too difficult to remember are pronounced outdated or dead. (Rats, if I had known this was possible in my college days I would have pronounced Algebra outdated and dead and gotten on with my binge drinking.)

What the conservative sees as threats to the mother tongue are dismissed by the linguist as the natural progression of language, and nature trumps civilization (here represented by long-established rules) every time. These threats include the politicization of language, as in politically correct speech; threats from bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who use language to obfuscate, confuse and deceive, or in the case of academics to disguise a dearth of ideas; and, finally, threats from linguists who promote a laissez-faire approach to language.

Ever since the ancient Egyptians began scratching hieroglyphics into sandstone, civilization's most brilliant writers and thinkers have maintained a deep appreciation for -- in Swift's phrase -- the "proper words in their proper places," and felt it their duty to defend their language against its natural tendency to slide back into barbarism. In the preface to his 1755 dictionary Samuel Johnson noted how "…tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggle for our language." Johnson's statement would get only derision from today's anything-goes linguists.

The difference between the Age of Johnson and now is that proper and elegant language today is seen as elitist and anti-democratic, whereas once it was considered every educated man's duty to uphold. Here is linguistic pioneer Friedrich von Schlegel writing in 1815:

The care of the national language is at all times a sacred trust and a most important privilege of the higher orders of society. Every man of education should make it the object of his unceasing concern to preserve his language pure and entire, to speak it, so far as in his power, in all its beauty and perfection.

Language, being an important part of our national heritage, as well as our cultural identity, necessarily says a great deal about what kind of people we are. A slovenly, anarchic language reflects poorly on us. The language liberals may have abandoned their duty to preserve the language, but the recent popularity of "why oh why" books such as Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves and Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary Of Disagreeable English prove that the public is serious about its upkeep. Once again academics and other language liberals have shown themselves to be out of touch with the mainstream and their opinions hopelessly irrelevant.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.