John McIntyre

The war of the words

Sadly, much of what is taught of grammar and usage in the schools, when taught at all, amounts to rubbish, and linguistics is scarcely heard of except at the college level, and seldom there. Oh, you can go to Language Log and eavesdrop on the linguists, but the non-specialist is likely to find articles like "Diglossia and digraphica in Guoyu-Putonghua and in Hindi-Urdu" a little off-putting.

Fortunately, there is now enough accessible material about language in general and linguistics in particular for the general readers as to remove any excuse for ignorance. Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct has been around for eighteen years. More recently, Robert Lane Greene's You Are What You Speak and John McWhorter's What Language Is go a long way toward correcting common misapprehensions about language, and entertainingly, too.


Now we have Henry Hitchings's The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 408 pages, $28), in which we find that logomachy—dispute over language—is native to English.

How could it not be? English is a relatively new language, and a bastard one at that, the offspring of a shotgun wedding of Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) and Norman French (Romance). It grew luxuriantly from the time of Chaucer through the Tudor era, with lots of argument about what constituted "true" English. By the eighteenth century, the impulse to regularize English and make it proper—that is, like Latin and Greek, the prestige languages—for a nascent middle class produced a multitude of grammars. And also bogus rules, like the too-dumb-to-die no-prepositions-at-ends-of-sentences zombie rule. *


The legacy is a persistent anxiety. "We are dogged by the notion that the English language is in a state of terrible decline," Mr. Hitchings writes, and that leads to loud disputes about what is legitimate in English—though Mr. Hitchings cautions us: "Feeling outrage is not the same as being right."

Part of our anxiety rises from the very nature of language: "Languages are full of clutter that's not there for any reason we can immediately identify, and where the reasons can be seen, their machinery may still be ugly." Part of our anxiety rises from the inevitable cultural baggage language carries with it: "Arguments about English have always been coloured [Mr. Hitchings is a Brit] by feelings about tradition, the distribution of power, freedom, the law and identity." Part of our anxiety rises from the ineffective way that grammar and usage have been taught in the schools: "Students typically understand the subject as a network of traps for the unwary."

The Language Wars covers a lot of territory. You will find insights into the class interests and national and cultural values embedded in the grammars of Bishop Lowth and Lindley Murray, Victorian moralism, the flirting with Saxonism, the brouhaha when lexicographers turned descriptive (on the carrying-on about Webster's Third: "The message was simple: if a dictionary bearing the name of America's greatest lexicographer could not be counted on to condemn loose usage, we might as well start preparing for the end of days").

I've barely begun explaining the riches of this book, and I'm in danger of transcribing its contents, since Mr. Hitchings's trenchant prose is irresistible. So let me get down to essentials.

Even if we extricate ourselves from the trap of thinking that there is one, unvarying, "proper" form of English, there will still be no end to disagreements about it, because unceasing flux and the inevitable embodiment of cultural values will force us to make constant adjustments—and we will disagree about which adjustments are important. That is why The Language Wars is so valuable, by providing a perspective on how these disputes have been carried on over the past six centuries of modern English, a perspective that will help us examine our own assumptions and preconceptions, and weigh their worth.

*From page 23, making it clear early on: "The history of prescriptions about English ... is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance. But it is also a history of attempts to make sense of the world and its bazaar of competing ideas and interests."