Thursday, January 26, 2012

Just You Wait, 'Enry 'Itchings, Just You Wait!

Okay, I'm back! I lucked out: the shop fixed my laptop in two days. (I tripped on the power cord the other night, and the computer slipped off the table -- a low table -- onto the floor. It didn't seem to be hurt: it wasn't until the next morning that I discovered that it had landed on the jack where the power plug enters, knocking something loose inside. I gather this is a not infrequent problem with newer Toshiba laptops. Luckily, it's easy to fix, though the labor was ninety percent of the cost. Of course.)

Anyway, I hardly know where to begin, so I'll start with today and work backwards. I'm eighty-five pages into The Language Wars: A History of Proper English (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011) by Henry Hitchings. Hitchings isn't an academic linguist, but he's done his research, and I'm enjoying his book. I've learned, for example, that two seventeenth-century French writers, "Joachim du Bellay and Antoine de Rivarol, believed that French was the closest language to the single tongue that was supposed to have existed before Babel" (18). This is something to add to my collection, like the seventeenth-century Jesuit who proved that Jesus and his disciples spoke Latin, the language of the saints and angels in Heaven; or the contemporary Turkish scholar, known to an acquaintance of mine, who believes that Turkish was the original human language. A high school teacher of mine told us about the European king who had a number of infants raised without their nurses talking to them to see what language they naturally would speak if no one taught them one; he believed it would be Hebrew. The babies all died, my teacher told us, without learning to speak, because human beings need that human interaction. And so on. Of course we all know that the original language was English, like in the King James Version of the Bible. If it was good enough for Adam and Eve, it's good enough for me!

Hitchings navigates cautiously between the Scylla of linguistic prescriptivism (which as he says should really be called proscriptivism, because it's more concerned with telling people what not to do than with teaching them what's correct) and the Charybdis of descriptivism (which purports simply to describe how people actually speak and write their language). He recognizes that neither position can really stand by itself, though I think I'm going to have a bone or two to pick with his notion, enshrined in the book's subtitle, of "proper" English and the importance of propriety.

I'm probably more sympathetic to propriety as Hitchings sees it than I would have been when I was younger. Language -- which is much more than mere communication -- is a form of interaction with other people, and that requires all parties involved to be considerate of each other. I try to be aware of the person I'm talking to, which doesn't mean talking down to them; it means attending to what they say and how they react to what I say. (In my experience, it's usually more educated, petit bourgeois types who perceive me as talking down to them, and they may be right. Blue-collar people usually don't. That's partly because of my own lower-class background, I suppose, and partly because I don't have much respect for people whose own self-respect depends so much on looking down on others. I'll return to this in a moment.) On the other hand, I'm well-indoctrinated with standard, "proper" English, mainly through my own voracious consumption of my language in its printed form. It's my default setting, so (like Henry Hitchings) I speak and write in that mode, even though I recognize that it's conventional, not "natural." I do the same in Spanish, by the way, and I'm glad I learned Spanish formally in the classroom; I added informal and "vulgar" Spanish much later, when I learned it from native speakers, but if I meet people with whom formal speech is appropriate I won't embarrass myself. Too much.

That's an important to point to stress, I think, because numerous reviewers I've read online dwell on Hitchings's fine prose style. There's nothing inconsistent about writing standard English while recognizing that the standard is a convention, more or less arbitrary and certainly not logical, than there is in playing chess by the rules while recognizing that the rules are conventions, more or less arbitrary and certainly not logical.

I'll watch more closely as I proceed through the book, but I think that Hitchings himself believes, or writes as though he believes, that descriptivism means "anything goes." It doesn't. Describing a language necessarily includes describing how words are used, and with whom. That seems to be true of the notoriously descriptivist dictionaries, like Webster's Third New International, that excited so much proscriptivist fury in the 1960s: they specified appropriate usage, but with different terminology than people were used to. For that matter, I have the impression that, while speakers of non-standard English dialects may see themselves as not speaking proper or "good" English, they are not descriptivists themselves. (Just as people who essentialize their sexual practices with different categories than we use in the West are not social constructionists.) They have their own ideas of proper grammar and pronunciation, and if they have to deal with someone who varies too much from those -- say, a non-native speaker -- they will insist that they aren't speaking English at all.

So, for example, one Barton Swaim, reviewing The Language Wars for the Wall Street Journal, writes:
The trouble with descriptivism—the idea that the grammarian's job is to describe the language, not to issue judgments about propriety—isn't that it's theoretically unsound. Rules really are just conventions. The trouble with descriptivism is that it's inhuman. People will always want to know the right way to say a thing. The secretary writing a letter or the corporate communications drone writing a press release doesn't care whether "impact" as a verb is "generally accepted," as modern usage manuals put it; he wants to know if using "impact" as a verb will make him sound stupid.

Henry Hitchings, in "The Language Wars," seems to appreciate the fact that propriety is part of human life, even if it's given no room in the lifeless principles of linguistics. He has plenty of criticisms for those "inveterate fusspots" who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors, but he isn't so naïve as to think we can be rid of "rules" in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
Did Swaim realize that this "make[s] him sound stupid"? First, he confuses grammarians with linguists, though that's relatively trivial. Second, it's precisely those "corporate communications drones" who use "impact" as a verb (though it's completely proper to do so) without concern for the language they are supposedly desecrating. Third, why does Swaim think that grammarians are qualified to "issue judgments about propriety"? That's really for people -- those of us who use our language every day -- to decide, but if someone's not up to it, why not just ask Miss Manners? Finally, how do grammarians know "the right way to say a thing"?

As I said, descriptivists are certainly going to take note of what is considered "the right way to say a thing," because that is part of the description of a language. I don't see anything "inhuman" or "lifeless" about that. Take a language like Korean, which is full of proprieties: you speak very differently depending on whether you're addressing someone older or younger than you, or of higher or lower status. These are proprieties; these are conventions; you can call them "rules" if you like. Of course you can't get rid of them, any more than you can get rid of the rules of chess. But it seems to me that any descriptivist worth her salt would know that. Swaim is attacking a straw man; descriptivism is something else.

(Another reason why "rule" is an incorrect -- indeed, improper -- word to use for grammar conventions: language learners tend to make mistakes by following rules, such as the toddler who says "I breaked the window" because adding -ed is the rule for putting a verb in the past tense. Broke, the correct form, doesn't follow the rule; it's a convention.)

If anything is inhuman, though, it's the prescriptivist stance. Swaim brushes aside "those 'inveterate fusspots' who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors," but that's just what prescriptivism consists of: throwing tantrums over other people's supposed mistakes, based usually on the tantrum-thrower's personal pet obsessions and peeves, almost always misinformed. And if it isn't the entire point of prescriptivism, it's an invariable fringe benefit to be able to sneer at people who don't meet one's imaginary standards. I wrote not long ago about the exuberant contempt exhibited by prescriptivists for "dolts" who can't spell or punctuate "properly." I've also noticed the frenzied vituperation with which American liberals reacted to George W. Bush's pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nukular." Which reminds me that "propriety" has also been used to justify throwing children, spouses, or employees out on the street for supposed misconduct. You can see this in any nineteenth-century English novel: the idea that while one must show Christian charity to the fallen woman, one must on no account receive her in decent society. (Bertrand Russell once wrote a fine essay on the indecency of "decent" people.) That's why I'm so hard on the prescriptivist swine who spew vitriol against their fellow human beings who follow different language conventions than they do: they and not their targets are behaving inhumanely and immorally.

There's another side to this matter of propriety. Molly Ivins wrote an article, "The Legislative Mangle" (reprinted in her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? [Random House, 1991] but available online) about the conventions of grammar and pronunciation among career politicians, especially legislators, which strike proscriptivists as subliterate.
In most legislatures, punctilious attention to correct usage is considered elitist. The word government, for example, is normally pronounced ''gummint''; bureaucracy is ''bureaucacy''; fiscal comes out ''physical,'' and one moves not to suspend the rules, but to ''suppend.''
These are not malapropisms or mispronunciations - which is ''mispronounceciations'' in legislative circles. Nor are they the result of ignorance, bad diction, poor enunciation or the regional speech deformity called a Texas accent, or a Maine accent, or a New York accent. Graduates of Harvard do the same things to these words that lawmakers who flunked out of Texas A & I do, no matter where they serve.
Molly Ivins was almost as mean as I am; if I'm meaner, it's because I stand on the shoulders of a giant. For example, she once wrote of a Texas pol, "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day"; of another, that he was "smarter than a box of rocks." The thing is, she knew the difference between a glorious malapropism like "This problem is a two-headed sword: it could grow up like a mushing room" and actual evil, like killing people. This is what prescriptivists generally have trouble with. Liberal prescriptivists were much more upset about Dubya's offenses against language conventions than they were about his actual crimes, as shown by their willingness to embrace those crimes when they were committed by a Democratic President. Since he was of their faction, conservative prescriptivists mostly looked the other way with Bush's grammatical and syntactic blunders, trying to argue when cornered that only liberal elitists would notice them in the first place; and they were just fine with his actual crimes.

At the same time, I understand and sympathize with the prescriptivists' visceral reaction to violations of grammatical convention, since I generally share it -- I'm a recovering grammar neurotic myself. I just don't regard it as an excuse for their inhumane stances -- dismissing people who haven't done any real harm to anyone as "dolts", for instance.

More on Hitchings and The Language Wars to come, I expect.