Rambles on You Are What You Speak

More to add to the Rambles. I just started yesterday a new book, You Are What You Speak. The author, a journalist, looks to be going down the same path as James Quinn, also a journalist, by poking dump-truck size holes in the Prescriptivist grocery list. No prescriptivist will be able to speak up in favor of teaching correct usage unless he has taken this book into account.

We’ve seen the effect of Quinn and others on grammar mavens like the late William Safire. Most of them will admit that language changes and that there are no inferior languages. Nevertheless, they keep up the defenses by insinuating that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong but is bringing down Western civilization by not going along with the popular nonsense about language.

Finding that the author of one of my favorite articles was the late David Foster Wallace provoked some sadness in me. The NYT Book Review had just devoted space to discussing Wallace but I never connected his name to the article I have kept all these years and even recently reread. Robert Lane Greene, the author of You Are What You Speak, is remarkably well-informed; I kept being reminded that he is not a linguist when he mentions interviewing linguists. His grasp of language, of linguistics, and of the impact of prescriptivism on all of us misleads me constantly into thinking I am reading a consumate linguist and popularizer.

For me, have read about 70 pages so far, the outstanding point he makes is the tie to political and sociocultural conservatism that prescriptivism has. Prescriptivism in and of itself is not a bad thing; every time we tell a student how to spell a word or what the “proper” past tense of ’to dive’ is, we are prescribing. It is the huge pile of manure which makes up most of prescriptive precepts that presents the problem (A+ for alliteration). Greene deftly sweeps these into the trash bin of history. He also makes it clear he doesn’t think too many people will read his book but they will rather go on believing the faith-based nonsense they believe now. And he’s right. Conservatism is so natural to human thinking that it will never go away, be it in economics, the arts, social thought, politics, or language. However, I must say, the wonderful linguist, John McWhorter, wrote the preface to the book, and McWhorter is a conservative (so he says).

There are so many wonderful passages to quote, I’ll  do a few later, but I will underscore the way he addressed the emotional and non-linguistic agenda of most prescriptivists. They are on a crusade and are driven by rage and hatred. Greene wonderfully skewers the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, where she hoists herself by her own petard in describing herself and studying correct usage when other girls were out getting hickeys and abortions (! her words). I’ve always thought a little more sex would loosen some folks up.

More anon.

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