‘One Language, Many Voices’ was the title of an exhibition at the British Library in 2010-11. It sums up what English is and always has been. This simple truth is overlooked by those who take a one-size-fits-all approach to language. An historical perspective may help to set the record straight.
English has its origins in the various north-west European dialects which were spoken by the tribes who invaded England from the middle of the fifth century, and which displaced the native Celtic, which remains only in a few words like brock (badger), cwm (valley) and some place names. The surviving literature from the period allows us to identify an Anglo-Saxon language, now usually known as Old English. However, the texts we have still show dialectical differences, and it seems likely that the spoken dialects of Old English were sometimes mutually incomprehensible.
For a period, the Wessex dialect was the most prestigious, showing that then, as now, any one variety of the language predominates not for linguistic reasons, but for political, economic and social reasons. However, the language was by no means static during this period, because the rule of the Wessex king, Alfred the Great, coincided with the Viking invasions, which brought new words and new grammar into English which remain with us today.
The next most significant influence on the language was the Norman invasion of 1066. So pervasive was Norman French that it eclipsed English for many years in the administration of the country, but although Norman French was the official language, we may suppose that English, in all its varieties, continued to be spoken by the majority. English later resurfaced in public discourse, and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading allowed it to be used in Parliament. Soon after this time, Chaucer was writing the first great works of English literature in a form of the language that is much more recognizably English than its Old English predecessor. Chaucer wrote in his own dialect, which happened to be that of the east Midlands, spoken in the triangle formed by Oxford, Cambridge and London. The language spoken and written at this time is known as Middle English, but great literature survives in dialects other than Chaucer’s, including William Langland’s ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’.
Chaucer had a stroke of luck when William Caxton, the first English printer, came to print Chaucer’s works. Because of the proliferation of dialects, Caxton was unsure which to use in his printed books, so he just chose the one he was most familiar with, his own. This happened to be Chaucer’s as well, so the combination of a great writer and the first printer determined the course of English ever after. This particular dialect, which was to become the basis of what we now know as Standard English, was not chosen because it had some particular linguistic merit that other dialects lacked. Any other dialect would have served just as well.
Middle English turned into Early Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, but there is evidence from his plays that other dialects existed alongside what was becoming the standard one. The conscious process of standardisation didn’t begin until the eighteenth century, when speakers of English, most of whom until then had probably never given the matter a second thought, started to become self-conscious about their use of language and sought guidance. As today, there was no shortage of self-styled experts willing to help them out. They made up rules about English, which reflected their own personal preferences, and were based on Latin, a language which has a quite different grammar from that of English and other Germanic languages. Their idiosyncratic prescriptions remain with us. To some they are as holy writ and are stoutly defended by people who know little of their origins. In truth, they are shibboleths, whose main purpose is to allow those with a little education to show their assumed superiority over those who have been unfortunate enough to have had less.
Since the eighteenth century, English has changed, and become more widely spoken, in ways that earlier speakers could not have imagined. It has absorbed vocabulary from around the world and, thanks first to the British Empire and, since the start of the twentieth century, to the global influence of the United States, has become the first international language since Latin. The history of English is complex and long, but this very brief summary is necessary for countering the prejudices that all too often typify discussion of the language today. It is the failure to appreciate that English exists in many varieties, as it has always done, that is behind much misunderstanding. Within the United Kingdom alone, some regional dialects can be almost incomprehensible to those from other regions, and so can some social dialects to those from different social classes. More widely, there are varieties of English spoken in Singapore, New Zealand, Nigeria, India, Canada and the United States, to name just a few places where English is either a first or second language, and within these English-speaking communities there will be further sub-varieties.
All varieties, standard and non-standard alike, have an internally consistent system of grammar, and speakers of non-standard varieties are not, by that fact alone, inarticulate, unintelligent or ignorant. The difficulty in understanding those who speak differently from ourselves often lies in accent rather than grammar or vocabulary. As Peter Trudgill has shown, the grammar of nonstandard varieties does not differ so very greatly from Standard English. Where it does, it can be more complex. For example, as Trudgill says,
‘Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb “do” and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary I do, he do and main verb I does, he does or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary did and main verb done, as in You done it, did you?’
Nevertheless, some form of commonly understandable norm is essential, and Standard English fills the role. It is the variety of the language used in published work, and in education, journalism and broadcasting, the law and public administration, and by the small minority of people for whom it is a native spoken variety. Provided it is understood as a neutral term, not implying ‘high standard’, Standard English is preferable to alternatives such as BBC English, Oxford English or The Queen’s English, and is the one used by professional linguists. If not universally spoken and written, it is widely understood, and for that reason schools have a duty to teach it.
None of this should be seen as undervaluing the linguistic merits of nonstandard varieties. They contribute to the richness of the language which we have inherited from those diverse tribes who came to Britain so long ago. We should celebrate rather than condemn them.
English is constantly adding, modifying, and repurposing words.
Look, there’s one right now: repurpose. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, it is officially a word:
Etymonline cites its usage from 1995, so it is relatively new. It is made by adding re- to the word purpose, which can be either a noun or a verb. My money is on noun, because the new construct comes out of business or technical jargon and purpose as a verb is pretty seldom heard. Not that it would be wrong. In fact, it would not be surprising if purpose used as a verb were revived as a back-formation of repurpose.
In this season of giving, let’s look at the words give and gift. Give is a verb and gift is a noun, right? True. But haven’t you ever found some mechanical thing to be loose when it was supposed to be tight and said, “I feel a little give in it”? Of course you have. Verb has been nouned. You nouned it yourself.
Similarly, we’ve all heard someone use the word gift as a verb: “She gifted them all with front-row seats to the concert.” And whether our inner fussbudget winces or not when we hear it said that way, it is still a legitimate usage. Face it: the traditional verb form give doesn’t say as much, and simply isn’t as precise. “She gave them all front-row seats to the concert.” That doesn’t exactly carry the connotation of presenting them with a gift, does it? She could have been paying them back for prior favors, or because she lost a bet — any number of non-giftish reasons come to mind.
Who can forget the “regifting” episode of the immensely popular TV show Seinfeld? (Hmm, that occurred right around the time repurpose came into the lexicon. Coincidence?) And if we admit that the writers and actors on that show were all very gifted, we’ve now adjectived a noun. We might even have adjectived the noun very giftedly, in which case we’ve adverbed the adjective. It goes on.
There really is nothing to be afraid of. Languages change, and words get overloaded, adapted, modified. Some people abhor this condition. Some feel language should be as precise as mathematics: see John Quijada’s artificially constructed language, Ithkuil, if you don’t believe me. Me, I prefer the richness of everyday speech, and the creative way people adapt words to mean new things. Isn’t it more colorful and descriptive to say a basketball player bricked a shot, rather than falling back on the boring and pedestrian missed? A horrible shot in basketball looks like someone throwing a brick, not a ball, and if we verb the noun we get a shot that has been bricked.
Language is a living thing. Let’s never forget that. If words stop changing, a language starts dying, just as our bodies do if our cells stop dying and being reborn.
While we’re on the subject, let’s look at that verb: live. The noun form is, of course, life. Since the 1830s, the noun lifer has referred to a prisoner serving a life sentence. But wait a sec, didn’t it have to become a verb first? Isn’t a verb at least implied there: lifer, one who lifes? No? Let’s move forward in time and notice a shift in meaning: lifer now includes someone who is serving “for life” in the military. I recently read the book Generation Kill by Evan Wright, who was embedded with a platoon of Recon Marines that participated in the assault on Baghdad in 2003. After Saddam’s army was defeated, one of the Marines, Corporal Ray Person, is quoted as he grouses about the battalion first sergeant’s return to his meddlesome “lifer” ways. Person complains:
Ahh, there it is. Crude though his statement may be, his verbing of a noun that arose from the prior verbing of the same noun is pure poetry. And exactly right for the sentiment the soldier wished to express. What is a lifer sergeant doing to Marines when he makes their lives miserable with a lot of petty regulations? He is lifing them. And he is doing so in the imaginary-yet-somehow-very-real language Cpl. Person vulgarly calls retardese, which consists, presumably, of one stupid, ungrammatical statement after another spoken in a near-incomprehensible hillbilly drawl.
I hope you can’t find any give in my arguments. But I wish to gift you with one final thought on the protean nature of English. Wallace Stevens said it about poetry, but it goes for language in general as well:
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. It has to face the men of the time and to meet The women of the time. It has to think about war And it has to find what will suffice. It has To construct a new stage.In other words, it has to be a living, changing entity, continually adapting, being adapted, constructing a new stage. Fortunately for all of us, it is.
Speech and the written language differ in many ways. Speech developed before writing and we learn to speak before we learn to write. For a long time there was no written language at all, and there are languages that have no written form. That is not to say we can say what we like and hope to be understood. Speech has its rules. In English, we must say, ‘Shut the door’ rather than, ‘Shut door the’ or ‘Shut of door’, and we must say ‘streets’ rather than ‘street, street’ when we mean more than one. Anyone who applies such rules consistently speaks correct English. The only people who don’t are those who have yet to learn them: infants and those who are learning English as a foreign language.
There are many varieties of spoken English and there is no reason to suppose that one variety is linguistically superior to any other. At the same time, we do well to use a spoken language that is tolerably close to that of the people with whom we expect to spend most of our lives. For the middle-class, that means adopting the dialect known as Standard English. It can be spoken in any accent, but is often associated with the accent of educated people living in London and the south-east of England. But it’s no more and no less correct than Midlands, Liverpool, Tyneside, Indian, Australian or Caribbean English.
Written language derives from speech, but we have to make a deliberate attempt to learn it. Some fail to do so, even when they speak their native language fluently. We have to encode our thoughts as arbitrary marks on paper or the screen and interpret similar marks produced by others. Like speech, different kinds of written language suit different circumstances. An email or text message in a variety of language that many of us would not understand is perfectly appropriate between people who do understand such language. The question of whether or not it is correct simply does not arise. However, such language in, say, a job application or a Times leader would be unacceptable, and consequently ineffective, if it was incomprehensible to its readers, or if it simply antagonized them. That seems to me a more important consideration than whether or not it conforms to someone’s idea of correctness.
Those who commit words to print should consider what they are trying to express, who their readers are, and whether the chosen language will succeed in conveying the message clearly without hesitation, repetition or deviation. And it is helpful if, in writing which is destined to be read by a large number of people whose linguistic backgrounds we cannot know, we agree on certain conventions. These conventions include punctuation, spelling, and choice of vocabulary and structures. In speech we generally know personally our audiences. In writing, too, we will sometimes know our readers and we can adapt our language accordingly. Quite often, we will not. In those cases, a certain commonality is required to avoid chaos.
When I read a sentence I ask not so much, ‘Is it correct?’ but, ‘Do I want to read any more of this stuff?’ ‘Getting it right’ means successfully using language to achieve the purpose intended, not necessarily complying with a set of rules. Achieving the purpose intended includes producing the response on the part of our readers thaty we want them to have. Placing the emphasis on effectiveness rather than correctness seems to me more likely to produce the desired result. The alternative seems to suppose that once you have complied with the rules laid down by this or that authority you have done all you need to. That is far from the truth.
Imagine you are reading something on the Internet (I know, it’s a stretch), and you come across the following passage:
I want to be sure that you and me are on the same page. When you ask how I feel about grammar, you are begging the question,Are you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?The problem is that that question isn’t even something sensible to really ask about. It think it would help you if those definitions were reviewed.
How would you characterize the quality of the writing?
- It is just fine
- It has some style issues
- It has some grammar issues
- It is horrid writing for a number of reasons, including both style and grammar
Of course, the correct answer is… well, hold on, now. It’s not quite that simple.
A Prescriptivist’s View
If you cringed while reading the example passage above and ached to break out the red pen, then chances are that you fall into the prescriptivist camp. The general take of a prescriptivist is that there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from when those rules are broken. You might hear this idea of prescriptive linguistics described as normative, which means that the rules are based on
normal usage, and they determine the way things (spelling, grammar, etc.) ought to be. Some examples of prescriptive rules are:
- Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
- Don’t split infinitives
- Don’t use the passive voice
- Don’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in object position
Of course, not all prescriptivists agree on what the rules (and exceptions) should be. Many derive their rules from authoritative works, like Fowler’s 1926 work A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, now in its 53rd year of printing. Others rely on their intuitions, informed by the forces of society and class, or aphorisms passed on by their elders (my grandmother was fond of saying,
Cakes are ‘done’, people are ‘finished’!). The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange site has seen many questions on prescriptivist rules, for example:
- Is using passive voice “bad form”
- What rules make “Remember me, who am your friend” grammatical?
- When is it appropriate to end a sentence in a preposition?
The keen observer will have noticed that prescriptive rules tend to cover not just what is allowed by language, but also (and often) what is preferred. The rules are not restricted to grammar, but can extend to concerns like spelling and formatting (all of which are, for lack of a better phrase, elements of style). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.
A Descriptivist’s View
You may have gotten through the passage at the beginning of this post and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Or, perhaps you thought it was not the best prose you’d ever seen, but that there weren’t any real
errors, simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you even saw some things that you really didn’t like, but know that sometimes people choose to write that way, and as long as it’s understandable, you can deal with it. If any of that sounds like you, then you are probably somewhat of a descriptivist.
The idea behind descriptive linguistics is that a language is defined by what people do with it. In other words, you begin by studying and listening to native speakers. Then, when you notice patterns in the ways that they communicate, you can record those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If you rarely (or never) observe someone breaking those patterns, then your guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. Those guesses are called hypotheses, and when they are well-supported by evidence, they can be accepted as correctness conditions for a language. For example, a correctness condition about Standard English is the notion of a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order. It is very difficult (if not impossible) to observe a native English speaker saying something like, “*I an apple ate,” so it is a safe bet that if you hear that, you aren’t hearing Standard English. Of course, it also means that if enough people start using a new construction, then your grammatical model should adapt to accommodate it.
The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is, by its very nature, regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of cooking: If I serve chicken cacciatore with raw chicken, that’s an error. The dish is still chicken cacciatore, but I’ve made it incorrectly. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs how to make the dish (specifically, the one that says that the chicken should be braised until it is cooked through rather than served raw). On the other hand, if I make cacciatore with rabbit instead of chicken, that’s not chicken cacciatore with mistakes. It’s simply rabbit cacciatore. A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that cooking alla cacciatora is defined by searing meat in oil, then simmering it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and seasoning, rather than by the choice of meat (perhaps with a caveat that some meats are more common than others).
The Middle Ground
So, you seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, you have generations of grade school English teachers rightly warning their pupils that people might chuckle at them if they use the word ‘irregardless’. On the other hand, you have the scientific rigor of the modern linguistic community touting descriptivism as the torch-bearer of truth and enlightenment. Are you doomed to choose between a democracy of solecisms and a library of thousand-page tomes of writer’s regulations? Are things really that bleak?
Of course not. You have the luxury of picking the view that suits you at any moment. You can leave it to the descriptivists to confirm what makes up the language, and the prescriptivists to guide you on how to make it flow sweetly and clearly into the minds of others. Members of these groups tend to bicker and say that the others are destroying the language or poisoning the minds of the children. It is rarely true that these claims are valid. As long as you keep your wits about you, it is not so hard to tell when a descriptivist is being overly forgiving of bad writing or a prescriptivist is blindly spouting advice on language that hasn’t been relevant for the last sixty years. Neither is it a bad idea to keep an open mind towards new ways of saying something, or consult a style manual for tips about how to communicate your ideas effectively. As is so often the case, the most important advice in the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate is to keep your head up and use the right tool for the job.
Going Further (or is it farther?)
Interested in diving deeper into the matter? Here are some resources that I think are interesting:
- Stephen Fry on Language (an entertaining youtube video)
- Language Log (a blog by some linguists)
- The Decline of Grammar (a magazine article by linguist Geoff Nunberg)
- A War That Never Ends (a response to the previous article, by Mark Halpern)
- The History of ‘Shibboleth’ (an interesting story from the bible about prescriptivism taken to the extreme)
- On the False Fronts in the Language Wars (a piece about how the ‘prescriptivist vs. descriptivist’ debate isn’t all that real)