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Do You Speak American?by Robert Macneil
The Language Wars
What grammarians say should be has perhaps less
influence on what shall be than even the more modest
of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed
by their likes and dislikes.
--H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage
For centuries there has been a struggle between those who want our language to obey strict rules and those willing to be guided by how people actually speak and write. The first, who want to prescribe, are known as prescriptivists, while those content to describe usage are called descriptivists. The war between the two camps has blazed up with particular belligerence in our times, as language issues engaged social conservatives and liberals and became a factor in the so-called culture wars. Away from that intellectual battleground, ordinary Americans can be either gloriously relaxed about their language or, to use the popular idiom, decidedly uptight.
A mild insecurity about language may be part of the American birthright, psychological residue from the one fiber in the colonial cord that was never quite severed. Language uneasiness is rife today, as generations of Americans leave high school much freer socially but without the linguistic confidence of earlier generations, who were better grounded in basic grammar. However informal and tolerant our society becomes, people know that the way they use language still matters. "Aside from a person's physical appearance, the first thing someone will be judged by is how he or she talks," says linguist Dennis Baron.
Fear of such judgment may be feeding the free-floating anxiety that we have found, which manifests itself in adamant doctrines of correctness and the firm conviction that "other people" are ruining the language.
If you cringe when someone says between you and I; bristle at the word hopefully; detest prioritize; if you cherish the distinction between disinterested and uninterested and deplore their being treated as synonyms; if you wonder what's happened to education when you hear criteria used as a singularthen you are probably part of the large body of Americans who feel our language is in a state of serious decline. You may keep it to yourself or feel compelled to express your outrage at every opportunity. But the feelings are strong and very personal. You have the sense of being robbed of something precious to you, to the nation, to our basic cultural values, to your pleasure in knowing you are "correct," to your very sense of identity and where you belong in this society. You believe all of this is being wantonly destroyed by language barbarians among your fellow citizens, who, if you speak up, make you sound out of touch, hopelessly old-fashioned, and quaint in your concerns.
But are you justified in being so upset? Many Americans who also care about the language don't agree with you. For example, Charles Harrington Elster, cohost of the radio program A Way with Words on KPBS, San Diego, believes our language "is thriving now probably more than at any time since the Elizabethans." He told the San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine, "I think the language itself is in great shape and growing like Topsy."
Let's begin with those who do think the language is going to hell in this generation. Perhaps the most outspoken is the essayist John Simon. Dapper, cultivated, and acerbic, a leather briefcase tucked under his arm, he is a familiar figure on Broadway as the theater critic for New York magazine.
Today, he sees the state of our language as "unhealthy, poor, sad, depressing, and probably fairly hopeless." Hopeless because he sees no improvement in the teaching of English in schools or colleges and "it's been my experience that there is no bottom and that one can always sink lower, or that the language can always disintegrate further."
Simon says all this with a slight lisp and the faintest trace of a foreign accent. But what really gives him away as someone who is not a native-born speaker of English is that his grammar, syntax, and pronunciation are, if anything, almost too polished and correct.
As a child in Yugoslavia, Simon spoke Serbo-Croatian, German, Hungarian, and French, and learned English only in high school. His family moved to the United States at the beginning of World War II, and Simon went on to earn a Harvard Ph.D. in English and comparative literature. He believes that coming to a language late can be an advantage, because one brings better credentials, linguistic, cultural, and emotional.
Simon's own strong emotions about the state of American English came to national attention in 1980 with his book Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. He wrote that language was "better" when he was a graduate student in the 1940s, when "people were not going around saying 'Come to dinner with Bill and I,' or 'hopefully it won't rain tomorrow.' " To explain what started the language "on a downhill course," he offered a sweeping indictment of students, teachers, women, blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, advertisers, television, and the permissive revolution of the sixties, which dealt education "four great body blows":
(1) the student rebellion of 1968, which, in essence, meant that students themselves became arbiters of what subjects were to be taught, and grammar, by jingo (or Ringo), was not one of them; (2) the notion that in a democratic society language must accommodate itself to the whims, idiosyncrasies, dialects, and sheer ignorance of underprivileged minorities, especially if these happened to be black, Hispanic, and, later on, female or homosexual; (3) the introduction by more and more incompetent English teachers, products of the new system . . . of ever fancier techniques of not teaching English, for which, if the methods involved new technologies and were couched in the appropriately impenetrable jargon, grants could readily be obtained; and (4) televisionthe non-language and aboriginal grammar of commercials, commentators, sports announcers, athletes, assorted celebrities, and just about everyone on that word-mongering and word-mangling medium, that sucks in victims far more perniciously than radio ever did.
In addition, Simon wrote, dictionaries were still relatively "prescriptivist," distinguishing between the correct and incorrect. "Descriptive (or structural) linguistics had not yet arrivedthat statistical, populist, sociological approach, whose adherents claimed to be merely recording and describing the language as it was used by anyone and everyone, without imposing elitist judgments on it. Whatever came out of the untutored mouths and unsharpened pencil stubs of the peoplesorry, The Peoplewas held legitimate if not sacrosanct by those new lexicon artists."
Simon regarded the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 as a "resounding victory" for descriptive linguistics and "seminally sinister" for its permissiveness. He attacked the "equally descriptive" Random House Dictionary and what he called the "amazingly permissive" Supplements to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Simon was not alone in hating the new Webster's. Many did because its editors had dropped the colloquial or slang labels people were used to. To Kenneth Wilson, a scholar who admired the new dictionary, "nearly everyone who didn't like the book came back to one devastating fault: the book was permissive: it did not tell the reader what was right. It included words and meanings that nice people shouldn't use." He added that "for many it was as though someone had rewritten the King James Version of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer in words taken from the walls of the men's room."
In joining the chorus against Webster's Third, John Simon had not just entered the raging "dictionary wars," but had thrown down a most provocative and elitist gauntlet. William Safire, the conservative-libertarian political columnist for the New York Times, said Simon made him feel like a "left-winger." In his column "On Language" for the newspaper's Sunday magazine, Safire called Simon "the Prince of Prescriptivists."
In one of the most provocative statements in Paradigms Lost, Simon presented an unapologetic defense of elitism:
Language, I think, belongs to two groups only: gifted individuals everywhere, who use it imaginatively; and the fellowship of men and women, wherever they are, who, without being particularly inventive, nevertheless endeavor to speak and write correctly. Language, however, does not belong to the illiterate or to bodies of people forming tendentious and propagandistic interest groups, determined to use it for what they (usually mistakenly) believe to be their advantage.
The only salvation, Simon concluded, was "the eventual creation of an Academy of the Anglo-American Language." That idea had been around for about three hundred yearsand consistently ignored. It was first proposed by Jonathan Swift, on the model of the French Academy, to dictate linguistic standards. His contemporary Daniel Defoe wanted to police the language to the extent that coining a new word would be a crime as grave as counterfeiting money. The English-speaking peoples shrugged that off, as they have all attempts to constrain their language sense. That is why there has been a natural or instinctive rebellion against rules from Latin grammar imposed on English during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because certain purists of the day thought our language had grown messy, like an unweeded garden, after the exuberance of Shakespeare and other Elizabethans. Instinctively, unless our high-school English teachers crouch over our shoulders, most Americans naturally say It's me, not It is I, they split infinitives, many use double negatives, and they end sentences with prepositions.
The Danish scholar Otto Jespersen believed this resistance to arbitrary authority arose from deeply rooted ideas of freedom. Comparing French to the disciplines of a stiff French garden of Louis XIV, and English to the freedom an English park, Jespersen wrote in 1905: "The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been for centuries great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself." If the first shoots of those freedoms sprang up in England, linguistically they flourished even more luxuriantly in America, where they were championed by two great writers of the nineteenth century.
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) liberally employed common vernacular language in Huckleberry Finn and thus, according to Ernest Hemingway, truly began American literature. Twain argued in 1871: "A nation's language is a very large matter. It is not simply a manner of speech obtaining among the educated handful; the manner obtaining among the vast, uneducated multitude must be considered also." The other champion, Walt Whitman, demanded a real dictionary that "will give us all the words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any."
Many of the slang words are our best; slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, are powerful words. . . . The appetite of the people of These States, in popular speeches and writings, is for unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words of opprobrium, resistance.
There was always this inherent tension in American English: "unhemmed latitude" versus the American schoolmarm. In her literal incarnation she was a strong cultural force as the nation expanded to the west, but a metaphorical schoolmarm was congenial to the American yearning for propriety and gentility, for a homegrown culture that would not be derided by the older cultures of Europe.
Though the free spirit of the new nation produced a torrent of slang and creative English (see the huge dictionaries needed to contain it), what usually found its way into print was strictly hemmed. Published American English was expected to mind its grammatical manners; public figures who strayed were corrected by the newspapers that quoted them. So little speech by the common man was recorded that educated Americans could be forgiven the illusion that language, like the wilderness, had been tamed; that the kind of English taught in the schoolroom was America's language.
But under the grammatical veneer was a seething disobedience. Ordinary people, depending on their level of schooling, might make an effort to sound refined when they had to, but free of that obligation just relaxed and used the language as it came naturally to them. They spoke as they dressed: formal suit and tie as infrequently as possible, work clothes or casual duds most of the time.
We know that now because linguists have been able to record their speech, and largely because broadcasting, especially today's television "talk shows" and "talk radio," have flooded the ether with the speech of ordinary people. In one of his commentaries on NPR's Fresh Air, Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg said, "What's different now is that conversation isn't a private affair anymoreit has become the chief vehicle of entertainment and public information. We have become a society of overhearers." And what we overhear is a great range of American English, some of it congenial to English teachers, much not.
After Simon's book became a national best-seller, making him the arch-prescriptivist of the moment, Nunberg published a blistering rebuttal in the Atlantic Monthly, chastising "the pop grammarians who play to the galleries." He said there was no hard evidence for a general linguistic decline, adding, "If we are bent on finding a decline in standards, the place to look is not in the language itself but in the way it is talked about." He claimed that Simon's belief in "a morality of language," an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us, "is the credo of a czarist emigre, not an English grammarian."
Prescriptive grammar has passed out of the realm of criticism, where it sat for two hundred years, to become instead a branch of cultural heraldry. . . . There is nothing in modern writing about the language that is more pathetic than attempts to fix the blame for the "problem" (whatever the problem is understood to be) on this or that small group. If the English grammatical tradition has declined, this is the result of basic changes in our attitude to the language, themselves the consequences of far-reaching social changes. It is not a case of the schools having "failed in their duty."
His article drew one of the greatest volumes of reader response ever. Fourteen years later, in 1997, citing the continuing "fierce interest in language usage," the magazine returned to the fray with "The War That Never Ends," an article by writer Mark Halpern, blasting Nunberg and other descriptivist grammarians, who "suppose that language is an entity with its own laws of development, or natural destiny, and that prescriptivist grammarians are trying to interfere with the course of that natural destiny."
Nunberg and his allies have no scientific standing in their quarrel with "pop grammarians." . . . They do so not as scientists watching from above the fray . . . but simply as fellow gladiators down in the arenapassionate and opinionated, like their adversaries. How the battle will turn out, how it should turn out, no one can say with any authority.
Not only does the war never end, there are few truces. Prescriptivists and descriptivists continue to bombard each other. Of the making of books and articles about linguistics there is no end, and much study apparently does not weary the antagonists' flesh. Some recent books have titles as dire as Simon's. People inclined to be worried about the language will find ammunition, for example, in The Inarticulate Society. Author Tom Shachtman argues that American democracy is threatened because we are so dumbing down our language that we risk sliding back to an oral culture, and an "entrenched power structure . . . benefits from a passive and largely inarticulate populace." John McWhorter, a linguist at Stanford, entitled his latest book Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care. He argues that "the sixties swept away lofty oratory and marginalized elaborately constructed prose," to the point where the American public now distrusts formality in language as insincere.
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