Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Language Wars

A language is a transcript of history, not an immutable edifice. 
And yet people continue to quibble and bicker about what qualifies as "proper" English. While the wars wage in full flourish, we continue to struggle with the unavoidable and confusing baggage of grammar, spelling, punctuation, pronunciation, and vocabulary. In his book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, Henry Hitchings makes the horrors of the English language a tad less horrifying by helping us understand it better from a historical and geographical standpoint.

Book review: The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings

Originally a Germanic language, Old English evolved into Middle English and finally to Modern English amidst mixed influences – the Celts (the aborigines of Britain), the Latin-touting Christian missionaries, Viking settlers, and the Danish and French rulers of Britain. Several bones of contention stemmed out from the unfair expectation that emerged over time for English to adhere to the rigors of Latin grammar and usage despite its distinctly Germanic descent. 
When first used in English, in the fourteenth century, the word grammar was synonymous with Latin, for Latin was the only language taught grammatically. Not till the seventeenth century did it become a generic term, such that it was necessary specifically to refer to a ‘Latin grammar’ or an ‘English grammar’.
A sizable group of conformists are viciously opposed to the split infinitive, a construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, is placed in between "to" and the uninflected form of a verb. A popular example of this is the opening sequence of Star Trek, which uses the phrase "to boldly go" (as opposed to "to go boldly"):

The mission of the Starship Enterprise is, we are informed, ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.’ It's a line much satirized, as by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the heroes of the wild and long-lost Galactic Empire are said to have dared ‘to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before’.

So what is it that is so offensive about the split infinitive? Well, it doesn't occur in Latin. What makes the argument rather ridiculous is that, in Latin, the inifinitive is a single word. Latin for "to go" is just one word "ire." Not much space to split, is there? Hitchings quotes Steven Pinker here:
Forcing modern speakers of English to not - whoops, not to split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern inhabitants of England to wear laurels and togas.
English grammar is made trickier by the fact that reordering the words in a sentence can completely change its meaning. This is because English is weakly inflected. While English verbs are conjugated in many different ways (one form of inflection), declensions (another form of inflection) of nouns and pronouns are much more limited and of adjectives and articles practically nonexistent. In more heavily inflected languages like Latin or Sanskrit, inflections (although they are a total menace to first time learners thanks to those neverending word lists to be internalized) relieve the burden on syntax, the grammatical arrangement of words. 

And then of course there is the insufferable experience of English spelling! The lack of a clear one-to-one mapping between the phoneme (the smallest unit of a spoken language) and the grapheme (the smallest unit of a written language) makes English spelling difficult to deduce from phonetics. Hitchings explains that this is largely attributable to the timing of the first attempted standardization of English. To see how this came to be, we go back to the time "between the age of Chaucer and the end of the seventeenth century," when the Great Vowel Shift occurred. 
During this period there was a general ‘raising’ of long vowels. If we go back to Middle English, an a was usually sounded the way it is today in father, an e like the first vowel sound in bacon, an i like the ee in deem, o as in go rather than as in hot, and u as in blue rather than as in bun. [David] Crystal explains that ‘We do say it’s time to go now’ would have sounded, in the age of Chaucer, roughly like ‘Way doe sah it’s teem to gaw noo’.
Now it was during this time that William Caxton, who, according to Hitchings, "was a transmitter rather than an innovator, an entrepreneur rather than a scholar," set up his printing press and decided to publish exclusively in English. Historically this was a great boost of English, which at that time was a mere vernacular as the elite preferred Latin and French for written communication. However, Caxton's interests were purely commercial, and his press was lax about standards for spelling. The fact that the printers were attempting to "freeze spelling at a time of phonological uncertainty" was to have a lasting impact on the English language. I wanted to shared two delightfully amusing excerpts from the book on the topic of spelling:
There is a popular story that he [George Bernard Shaw] highlighted the inconsistencies of English spelling by pointing out that, bearing in mind relationships between letters and sounds that could be found elsewhere in English, the word fish could be spelled ghoti. After all, gh sounded like f in enough, o sounded like an i in women, and ti was pronounced sh in nation.

A nice parody of reformed English, often attributed to Mark Twain, appears to have been the work of the comparatively obscure M. J. Shields:
In Year 1 that useless letter ‘c’ would be dropped to be replased either by ‘k’ or ‘s’, and likewise ‘x’ would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which ‘c’ would be retained would be the ‘ch’ formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform ‘w’ spelling, so that ‘which’ and ‘one’ would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish ‘y’ replasing it with ‘i’ and Iear 4 might fiks the ‘g/j’ anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6–12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez ‘c’, ‘y’ and ‘x’ – bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez – tu riplais ‘ch’, ‘sh’, and ‘th’ rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld. By the end of the proposal M. J. Shields has become M. J. Yilz.

Hitchings talks about the notion of linguistic perfection during the Elizabethan era – the so-called golden age of English history, the glorification of this notion later during the Victorian era, the first English grammar books and dictionaries, the influx of words from other languages and the resistance against the same, the history of punctuation and critical perspectives on its usage, the emergence of a distinct New World English, the efforts of Noah Webster – in particular his zeal for removing "superfluous or silent letters," the sociological impact of language, and much more. In the closing chapter, he shares a fabulous quote from a 2009 New York Times article, which I will re-quote here directly from the original source:
So I say outpedant the pedants, and allow yourself to gluttonously revel in the linguistic improprieties of yore as you familiarize yourself with the nearly unique enormity of the gloriously mistaken heritage that our literature is comprised of. For those of you keeping score at home, that last sentence contained a verbal noun, a split infinitive, an improper -ize, an inflectional comparative, a blatantly misleading word choice, at least one example of catachresis, an unnecessarily passive construction — and it ended with a preposition. All of which I’m willing to bet appear in Shakespeare.
While generally teasing of pedants, Hitchings closes his book in a positive note highlighting the merit of these seemingly petty language wars:
The pedants are often not comprehensively outpedanted. They will usually fight back, and they are not about to go away. Their intransigence is occasionally risible. Yet, undeniably, they stimulate thought about language. That is vital, because we need to engage with language – and yes, with our language – critically. We tend to discuss it in a cantankerous or petulant way, but thinking and talking about what makes good English good and bad English bad can, and should be, a pleasure. 

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