Monday, March 31, 2003

English as she is spoke

I must applaud this piece in the (Canadian) National Post, which attacks language purists. The problem with language purists is that there are no pure languages. Languages are constantly evolving, inventing new words, adopting new words from elsewhere, undergoing vowel shifts, and you name it. Plus, there is no such thing as a "correct" version of a language either, but merely a collection of dialects, all of which are linguistically equal. (That is not to say that there are not "standard" versions of languages- clearly there are, and clearly it is necessary to be able to read and speak these - but there is nothing innately better about these standards. They have just, generally, become standard through some historical accident). Particularly good:

But worst of all is the constant abuse that is hurled at the non-standard English of blacks and other groups, as when an old Mississippi Delta blues singer howls, "I can't get no lovin'." That's a double negative, bullies say, so it's wrong. But is this really so far off regular usage? Consider how "any," "even," and "at all" function in the following sentences:

I didn't buy any lottery tickets. I didn't do any work at all today. I didn't see even a single bird.

By themselves, these phrases don't contribute to the sentences' meaning, as illustrated by the fact that you can't use them alone:

I bought any lottery tickets. I worked at all today. I saw even a single bird.

As linguist Steven Pinker writes, "What these words are doing is exactly what 'no' is doing in nonstandard English, such as in the equivalent 'I didn't buy no lottery tickets' -- agreeing with the negated verb. The slim difference is that non-standard English co-opted the word 'no' as the agreement element whereas standard English co-opted the word 'any.' "

I will add that I find people who criticise non-standard variants of English as "lazy" particulary irritating. The slurring of vowels (for instance) isn't lazy, it is just how languages evolve. Modern English is essentially Middle English with slurred vowels (and additional grammatical structure added on to it to ensure that any meaning lost in the slurring of the vowels is added back on somewhere else). John McWhorter makes this kind of point (and many others) very effectively (and amusingly) in The Power of Babel, which I am reading at the moment.It's well worth a read.

The most annoying thing about language bullies is that they are generally so ignorant. To be a language bully, you more or less have to be. If you learn how the grammatical structure of English evolved, and just where it imported its vocabulary from, and why the plurals of different words are constructed the way they are, and why different verbs are conjugated the way they are, and so forth, then it's fairly hard to still be an inflexible pedant at the end of it.

This is not to say that there isn't good and bad English. It is possible to write English that is verbose, convoluted, and hard to understand. And it is possible to write English that is simple, elegant (or even beautiful) and easy to understand. However, it isn't pedantry about usage rules that makes for one or the other. It is more complex than that.

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