Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mind your language

Attitudes to language change have often been negative, with concerns about slipping standards and laziness not just limited to commentators in this century but ranging all the way back to the 14th Century and perhaps even further. As we've been looking at in A2 classes this week, one generation tends to look down its nose at that below it and their use of language. As one student said a couple of years ago, "Those Year 10s on the bus use bare slang."

Among the perennial concerns are that language is getting sloppy, lazy and unclear, that it's being too heavily influenced by American, Black or working class varieties, that it's basically going down the dumper. Julie Blake, in her lecture at the last SFX Language Conference, looked at exactly this strand of prescriptivism through time and reached the conclusion that people have always complained about language change, while more recently even those who ostensibly embrace it, tend to only like its novelty value.

But if these concerns are justified, and the English language has been going down the toilet since 1357 (or whenever), why aren't we grunting like cavemen? It's pretty simple really; most changes to the language are made to ease communication and make it quicker, more concise and efficient. Take new words (neologisms) for example; when we invent new words or create blends and compounds, we don't add archaic inflections such as -en plural endings or -dst 2nd person suffixes, we just add a simple -s to show plurality and -ed to indicate past tense. We've regularised and simplified the suffix system. Guy Deutscher in his excellent book, The Unfolding of Language, also points to this gradual erosion of unnecessary language features but also looks at how language change is also a creative process at the same time: in other words two processes of destruction and creation working side by side.

But, as we've seen, most negative attitudes to language change are only superficially about language itself, and often much more to do with the commentators' dislike of modern manners (or lack of them) , the education system (Why don't we cane these little ragamuffins any more?) and immigration (Those black people with their hippety hoppety language are destroying our beloved language!). So when Norman Tebbitt made his infamous remark in 1985 that bad grammar leads inevitably to a life of crime, you could see the real underlying concern was not language per se, but morality and standards of behaviour.

Which brings me on to John Humphrys. In an article in The Telegraph a week or two back, he launches into a broadside against language change and its impact on British culture. Parts of it sound like the bitter ramblings of an eccentric Wing Commander in a country pub, while others are couched in more rational and reasonable terms, but it's well worth a read to see what linguistic bugbears get his goat (to mix my metaphors). Take these for a start:

Word by word, we are at risk of dragging our language down to the lowest common denominator and we do so at the cost of its most precious qualities: subtlety and precision. If we're happy to let our common public language be used in this way, communication will be reduced to a narrow range of basic meanings...

...The supermarkets are masters of the art – always trying to persuade us how thrilling it will be if we share our shopping experience with them. Note "experience". We don't shop any longer. We have an "experience".

At the heart of this hype process, in which the "experience" is all, individual words are given an even sharper 180 degree change of direction. Take "enjoy". You're sitting in a restaurant, the waitress brings your meal and, with a sweet smile, says, "Enjoy!" I want to say: "Don't you know that 'enjoy' is a transitive not an intransitive verb? You should say, 'Enjoy it!' not 'Enjoy!'."

So, he has a range of targets in his sights; some of them I'd agree with too, especially when he remarks that language should make communication as clear as possible, but do we really care that "enjoy" is a transitive verb and shold take an object? Does it matter? It doesn't actually impede meaning, does it?

David Crystal attacks such nitpicking attitudes in his excellent book, The Fight For English and makes the point that many of the so-called rules of English are actually little more than the personal prejudices of a small group of 18th Century grammarians who tried to impose the rules of Latin upon the English Language. Other linguists and commentators have produced convincing arguments against the prescriptivist approach that Humphrys favours, and you can find a selection of them here and here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates


Anonymous said...

Alot of the ideas of prescriptivist like Humphrys seem a bit too picky, and explores ito areas of language that people really do not care about. Language changeis the effect of people trying to communictae in a simplier, faster and more effective way to accommadate our changing world which is one which moves faster than the world on which English was spoken 3 to 400 years ago. I think the pinacle of human society is about change, and as human change so too will their means of communication.

Dan said...

If you mean that change itself is the pinnacle of our achievement - the ability to change, to evolve and to adapt our language - then I think that's a pretty darn good idea.

Lots of people take a slightly half-arsed approach to change and don't really embrace it, even though they see themselves as descriptivists, so to actually welcome change as a symptom of evolution seems to me to be a very positive position to take.