‘I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.’ This line uttered by Catherine Moreland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey could apply as much to how English is used today in certain circles as when it was first written in the eighteenth century. Henry Hitchings, theater critic for the London Evening Standard and author of The Secret Life of Words: How English became English (published in 2008), takes an entertaining look at the evolution of English and makes the case that the language is ‘a transcript of history, not an immutable edifice. Changes occur in language because there are changes in the conditions under which language is used.’ This quote may seem self-evident to the Twitter generation, but others would surely wish to be buried with Shakespeare at the thought of transcribing Hamlet’s ‘to be, or not to be’ into text-speak: ‘2b/-2b=?’ Lesser transgressions, depending on one’s point of view, have also crept into our popular vernacular. For instance, the opening credits of Star Trek (‘To explore new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’) was spoofed as follows by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before.’ Skilled practitioners of the English language gain the respect of their peers, while grammatical errors have often been attributed to moral or mental inadequacies. Hitchings points out obvious examples such as the penchant of George Bush, 43rd American president, for ambiguous syntax and the fact that the late President Herbert Hoover had to take a remedial course prior to being admitted to Stanford University. Many dyslexics also attest to being made to feel mentally inadequate by others because of their reading abilities.
Who makes the rules that can, at best, serve as a lucid guide to an average listening or reading audience or at worst, serve as a skit for Saturday Night Live? Hitchings calls these arbiters of ‘proper English’ prescriptionists and describes their default state as to ‘say what we should not do, rather than be precise and consistent about what we should do.’ The belief that the avoidance of mistakes is of paramount importance leads prescriptionists to proclaim that Elvis Presley should have said ‘I’m all shaken up’ instead of ‘I’m all shook up.’ Robert Lowth, bishop of London from 1777 to 1787, was a famous prescriptionist who popularized the distinction between ‘would’ and ‘should,’ noting that the former denoted ‘inclination,’ while the latter denoted ‘obligation.’ He also decreed that it was unacceptable in formal, written English to end a sentence with a preposition, but accepted its practice in familiar use. Hitchings paints a portrait of Lowth and others as individuals who hand down judgments based on a wish to impose order on life’s encroaching chaos, rather than basing decisions made on science.
Winston Churchill’s quote that ‘Americans and British are two countries separated by a common language,’ becomes obvious to the reader as Hitchings takes us on a historical tour of American attitudes towards English. Noah Webster is perhaps the best-known example of someone who campaigned tirelessly for an American language that would exemplify independence. Webster’s The American Spelling Book, which contained his ideas for how the language should be codified, was published in 1787 and totaled 100 million in sales. The ideas for Webster’s impressive and enduring legacy, the American Dictionary of the English Language, was planted earlier in his career, when he said:'As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as in government.’ A modern-day Chinese nationalist, Li Yang, developed Crazy English, an unorthodox teaching method designed to ‘conquer English and make China strong.’
The arguments of purists or nationalists can provide the illusion of order and cohesiveness among people. Purists also enable us to be part of the ‘in’ crowd and scoff at the linguistic gaffes or atrocities committed by others. The author remarks how a misused semicolon or stray comma might elicit in some readers the same violent distaste as seeing a puppy tortured. Purists may insist that order is the only rational response to assimilating people (who may use a verb at the start of the sentence or attach gender-specific suffixes to nouns) into a group that can communicate effectively in one language.
They may shudder at mavericks who have contributed to the language. One maverick cited by Hitchings is the sixteenth century critic, Thomas Nash, who had a gift for making enemies,‘including all his own country’s bishops,’ and who appeared to have been responsible for words such as helter-skelter and swagger. Closer to home, the Brooklyn bard, Walt Whitman, was ‘an eloquent advocate of a more fluid experimental approach’ to the English language.
Today the barriers between formal and informal English are becoming more porous thanks to the Internet. Colloquialisms are filtering into dictionaries and the digital age may be accelerating the evolution of the language, permanently imprinting the emoticon, and heralding the demise of punctuation marks such as the apostrophe. Bishop Lowth must be rolling in his grave.
Interested readers, who vigorously disagree with Hitchings, will be happy to read a rebuttal by Joan Acocella (of a similarly-themed book by Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English [published in 2011]). Another option is to steer clear of the fuss and reach out to practical people like Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, to teach us the ‘proper rules’ without ‘preaching at us.’ Her tips on grammar are legendary and have led to features in major newspapers and an appearance on Oprah. Perhaps one should not flood Grammar Girl immediately with questions, as she is probably stuck in Memorial Day weekend traffic, like many of us. Perhaps one should follow her example and join the crowd (or maybe one should stay home and finish the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy).