Response to complaints about the decline & fall of English

The heat of this argument offsets the lack of interest in it on the part of most people. Not many of us get “all het up” about usage. Here’s a wonderful article by the late David Foster Wallace, considered one of the best contemporary American authors. He describes being raised in a home where the family made a game of “catching” people’s mistakes. He goes on to demonstrate a good appreciation of what linguistics has to say about matters of usage and defends the need for standards, etc.
Typically, this argument over usage is framed as Prescriptivists and Descriptivists, with the latter declaring the former to be snobs with no understanding of how language works and the former declaring the latter to be feckless anything-goes types who will dilute the power of the language with their acceptance of slip-shod usage and sliding-scale vocabulary choices. In fact, quite a few other views of language exist. Before listing a few of them, I would like to put forth a simple question: what is the source of our language? Linguists say it comes from those in our sociolinguistic environment, traditionalists (loaded term, I know) say it comes from the exemplars of our society, most often our teachers. That begs the question since we do have to ask what sort of language our teachers speak. Further, the question arises as to the power of modeling in the family and social circles versus modeling on the part of teachers. And if those teachers are not part of the social circle, what motivation do children have to model themselves on language unlike that of the people in their circle? A personal example of that momentarily.
Inserting yet another buffer between the original question of what approach to language we use is the stumbling block of adoration of the past. One word for this is nostalgia; mine is “kids these days”; for each individual, this past derives from the way the world was when that person reached the age of ten. I am a prime victim of this nostalgia since I reached that age in 1951, the Golden Age of America. Nevertheless, my jaundiced eye picked out some unpleasant aspects of life in America then and I remained vigilant for improvements in life. This is a major issue because a major source of “proper” language has always been our best writers. It seems obvious to me that we cannot use writers of the 19th or 18th centuries but must use contemporary authors whose use of language is not too idiosyncratic. But right here, we part ways with many of our correspondents. One list member offered a view from an English teacher in her school who stated with conviction that 19th language was superior to present-day English. And I am sure we will find many who would hold up as models the language of The Federalist Papers, of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and so forth. Other language traditions have turned to folk tales and folk songs, most prominently, Modern Greek, long mired in a hodgepodge of ancient and medieval forms labeled “pure” but not what even the most committed purist would use in talking to his family and friends. Even English has had its champions for older forms of the language, preferring words like “inwit” for conscience. Some languages (really the people who speak them) just reach out and take someone else’s language, replacing their own. The Israelis accomplished the remarkable feat of bringing back a scriptural language no longer used as a community language and turning it into one, within a very short time, too.
It turns out that English has done none of these things. Early grammar books criticized the best writers and Shakespeare was routinely “corrected” or expurgated, making recovery of the original language of the Bard a full-time profession. So much for great writers. Dialects have been routinely studied but not accepted, the so-called British Received Standard or BBC English being beaten into upper-class children at school no matter their home dialect. In composing this piece, it dawned on me that the reason England has such a rich history of controversy over proper vs improper language is that it is isolated, non-English languages being relegated to the west and north and northern dialects being labeled Scots and therefore inferior (the origin of many of our despised forms in North America, mostly from the South, which lost a war and so lost its cachet). In America, we have no such Standard, but we have a kind of Language of Wider Communication or Broadcast English that floats about anywhere in the country. If you compare English teachers, some mark off for ending sentences in a preposition and others mark off for not making sense. One poster recently stated that teachers need to learn their craft, meaning speak “proper” English; just what English does he have in mind? Where do these teachers come from? I’ve always said, if you want people to talk a certain way, have them raised among people who talk that way; that’s where we learn our language. It’s called a speech community.
We must stop here to admit there are language snobs. These people hate terms like “speech community” and anything newfangled. They believe there is a Heaven-ordered hierarchy and they are in the top of it and have no patience with their inferiors. This extends beyond language, to dress, diet, neighborhood, and so on. While most of us do not aspire to such snobbery, some of that hierarchical thinking does slip into attitudes toward language. But let me give you an example of someone who did manage to operate outside her speech community while remaining in that community: my wife. We celebrated our 48th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. Her speech has no detectable influences from Black English in either pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, though some of the intonation patterns and sentence stress patterns come out when she is enjoying a conversation. When she is talking to a Black friend or family member on the phone, it is easy to tell: she code switches. Not a lot, not unless she is spending days among family, especially in East Texas. Yet my wife grew up speaking a very deep form of Black English; I had trouble understanding some of the people she grew up with when I first met her. So how and why did she get to the point that people talking to her on the phone assume she is White? When she was a girl, society was very segregated here in Phoenix and certainly in Texas, yet her mother cleaned White people’s houses for a living and took my wife along from the age of nine. My wife liked what she saw and determined to have a nice house like that when she grew up. Part of that, she realized, was doing well in school and speaking standard English, so she made an effort to talk like the White people she encountered. Among her friends she still enjoys dialect speech but she can code switch; not many people accomplish that. Part of my wife’s bitterness she holds is that she believed that if she did everything right, including talking “proper”, she would be accepted. She found out that that didn’t happen. But that’s another story.
So people can change their speech, but it is unusual unless they change their social environment or they have high motivation. One point here: note I said she has kept her dialect. One of the elements in keeping children from picking up the dialect of their teachers is the teachers’ assumption of superiority toward the student’s language. I am amazed at the number of people who think everyone wants to sound like some White guy on T.V. Run into a group of Blacks in a restaurant or a park and you will hear people having an outrageously good time just talking; who would want to give that up, split infinitives and all?
We do find wonderful language when we go back into our literary history, but keep in mind: it’s just like music. The great tradition of so-called classical music aka European art music abounds in the highest artistic achievement; and yet this is a distillation. There was plenty of schlock composed just as there was plenty of garbage written as novels, essays, poetry, plays, and so on. Only the best has come down to us and even that is open to question: J.S. Bach was ignored from his death in 1750 until his resurrection in 1829; almost 80 years the greatest of the great went unrecognized, unheralded. Who else have we missed and which of The Great will fall by the wayside as textual analysis marches on and gives us new criticism? Clearly we have to delve into our contemporary sources of language for standards, but when we do, what do we find? Shibboleths. A list of about 15 of these pretty much exhausts the grammatical knowledge of most prescriptivists. For the most part, they rely on their intuitive knowledge of English just like the rest of us. But woe betide he who fails to observe the participle which dangleth or the misappropriated past form, for they shall be sunk (I heard someone of high level education say on T.V. today, “He sunk it” instead of “He sank it”. But even my 1973 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary lists both as acceptable). Wallace, in his article, dwells on the delight of the pounce.
Here is where I let it be known that I am not even-handed: it’s one thing to be pretty expert in language and insist on a whole range of items considered good usage; it is quite another to continually display a shallow understanding of grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and the history of English and pitch a petty rant over long ago disposed of issues like can/may, shall/will, etc. My aunt, desperately hiding her West Virginia hillbilly accent, insisted on “who” as the relative for persons, even as she went on in her unselfconscious speech to use “that”. These are petty. What I am trying to say is that there are legitimate traditions of standards and well-formed language, good writing, effective speaking, etc. They just don’t hang on these shibboleths. One poster to a listserv suggested Strunk & White; I wonder if this person has ever read criticism of Strunk & White. Criticism does not invalidate Strunk & White, but you should be aware of it if you are going to recommend the manual. Wallace insists on his grammar rules and observance of good usage while he acknowledges the achievements of linguistic science. The only prescriptivist I ever heard of who climbed out of his bunker and learned a little about other views of language was William Safire. The others are content to pontificate and I don’t have much reason to listen to them. The thrust of their argument, that the language community will sink into muteness and mutual incomprehensibility, is shattered in one easy phrase: in the history of the world, such has never happened. They think this possible because they have never studied language enough to see how it works: it’s a system with equilibrium.
This leads us to looking at the ways to view language, my list I mentioned way above. The belles-lettristic and literary traditions have dominated the study of language. The texts perforce focus on writing (the word “text” can refer to spoken language, too). Referring to the paragraph above on the role of nostalgia, I would point out the leaning of this tradition toward older texts, early texts. Nationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries searched folkways for the “true” language of the people: the Finns, the Croats, the Germans……. did you know the Brothers Grimm were linguists searching for the roots of the German language in the folk tales they gathered? Some have tried to reconstruct ancient forms of the language and foist them on citizens: there’s always someone trying to bring Latin back. Not impossible, as the Israelis have shown, but hard, as the Irish have shown. Language can be seen in an evolutionary light; it can be interpreted from a social science perspective: sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, anthropological linguistics. Language can be praised for simplicity in one culture and florid language admired in another. Among classicists, inflected languages are frequently seen as of a higher quality than uninflected languages. Language can be used for rhetoric and for propaganda as well as serving to communicate high principles and ideals, spiritual search and community bonding. Even deliberate absence of speech, silence, can be a path to spiritual growth and enligthenment. A linguistic approach or view of language is exemplified by the work of Charles Fries in the 40s where he took a corpus of American language found in letters to a government agency. The nature of the agency meant that people writing in came from various backgrounds and the letters gave information on the writer’s education level and other pertinent demographic facts. He was looking for general American speech as opposed to special purpose speech for art or persuasion.
Most linguists are neutral on language; they just want to know how it works. But that is their professional view. Privately, they may enjoy poetry, drama, and other special and cultivated use of language. Some criticism of linguistics comes out of a misconception that linguists belittle artistic language and want to level speech in some unspecified way. This hostility toward linguistics achieves remarkable heights when linguists show the interconnectedness of all people, the legitimacy of all languages, the homogeneity of all humans. The notion of a general language faculty equal in all humans attacks the hierarchy beloved by many, the structure of better and worse, cultivated and barbarous, close to God and far from God. Are hierarchies natural of man-made? If we think of the world in these terms, then consciously structured language controlled by the intellect becomes paramount in defining ourselves. Man-made or natural, it doesn’t matter; one way or the other, if we entertain hierarchies, we also maintain them. Shibboleths keep out the riff-raff, maintain the hierarchy. Out of these concerns: for rules and regularity, order and symmetry, given birth in the Enlightenment, we derive our attempts to control and shape language. As with so many natural, instinctual forces in our lives: warfare, sex, power-seeking, hierarchy-making, we find language to be slippery, hard to pin down. No matter how much we condemn the language of today’s youth, somehow it becomes the language of tomorrow’s Wall Street bankers —- OK, maybe that’s not the best reference point here, but you know what I mean. Otherwise, we’d still be speaking Old English, or whatever came before that.

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