[lg policy] book notice: The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings =?windows-1252?Q?=96_?=review

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jun 20 15:00:33 UTC 2011

The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings – review

An entertaining and thoughtful history of the pedantry, scholarship
and prejudice that surround the English language

    James Purdon
    The Observer, Sunday 13 February 2011

Henry Higgins, the pompous professor in My Fair Lady, puts it
succinctly: "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"
As his near-namesake Henry Hitchings points out, we have been asking
that question since the end of the 14th century, if not longer. The
way we speak and the way we write are entwined with our upbringing,
social milieu and sense of self. Language allows us to share our
thoughts, yet most public discourse about it seems to concentrate on
division, on error, and on our limitless capacity to get worked up
about stray apostrophes. An informative and lucid guide to the
battlefield, The Language Wars charts a long history of pedantry,
prejudice and scholarship. Some will object that the title puts the
case a little strongly. But listen to John Humphrys in the
introduction to a recent book about "proper" English: "Many battles
have been lost, but the war is not yet over." Or consider Simon
Heffer's silly proposition that it is relatively easy to define
"correct English … once one has armed oneself with the Oxford English
Dictionary". There has been a lot of belligerence about bad grammar.

    The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
    by Henry Hitchings

"A language," Hitchings writes, "is a transcript of history, not an
immutable edifice." This, he explains, is a descriptivist view: we
speak and write in ways that change over time in response to many
factors, and the job of linguists is to describe what happens and, if
possible, why. Prescriptivists, by contrast, tell us the "correct" way
to speak and write. Critics of the descriptivist position tend to
argue that it favours laziness and sloppy teaching. Surely, they
argue, we can't raise fulfilled and productive citizens who don't know
how to write and speak properly? But that isn't what Hitchings
suggests. Instead, he asks us to understand that, like the language
itself, our criteria for assessing "proper" English are always in
flux. The history of those criteria is "in part a history of bogus
rules, superstitions, half-baked logic… and educational malfeasance.
But it is also an attempt to make sense of the world."

Many language warriors have entered the lists on both sides, some with
strong opinions that now sound baffling. Thomas De Quincey, we are
told, couldn't stand the word "unreliable". Coleridge loathed
"talented". The Australian purist Percy Grainger wanted to strip
English back to a brisk Anglo-Saxon vocabulary: musicians would play
on "tone-tools" rather than instruments, and telephone calls would be
placed by means of a "thor-juice-talker". Previous generations of
language police seem to have been considerably more interesting than
our own lot. The Victorian philologist Alexander Ellis, for instance,
"weighed himself both dressed and undressed every day, always carried
two sets of nail-scissors and a selection of tuning forks, and wore a
greatcoat with twenty-eight pockets, which he called Dreadnought".
(The tuning forks were for testing the pitch of tone-tools.) Even
gumshoes have ideas about proper usage: one unlikely gem cited here is
Rex Stout's 1962 detective novel Gambit, in which the disgusted hero
burns a copy of the new Webster's dictionary because it "fails to
uphold the distinction between imply and infer". It would have pleased
him to know that a couple of years later Audrey Hepburn – fresh from
playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – could still explain the
difference to William Holden in Paris When it Sizzles.

Hitchings tells a good story, but he also cares deeply about intricacy
and nuance. He deals briskly with the ban on split infinitives (the
fault of overzealous Latinists) and terminal prepositions (blame John
Dryden). He is never prudish – there is an enjoyable chapter on
obscenity and censorship – and is particularly critical of
developments that stifle clear thinking, arguing that "political
correctness" risks hiding real discrimination behind a veneer of
ostentatious sensitivity. Interestingly, those who decry PC as an
infringement of the right to free expression are often the same people
who faint at the sight of a grocer's apostrophe. For all their
ideological differences, supporters and opponents of PC are alike in
being linguistic prescriptivists, enforcing arbitrary rules rather
than praising nuanced, careful and varied expression.

Strong feelings about language often reveal underlying anxieties about
identity and nationhood. In the 18th century, "getting English in
order was increasingly seen as a way of solidifying national
identity", and it seems likely that the recent rash of polemics has
something to do with a similar desire for cohesion. Yet it would be a
mistake to think, as some of his opponents will, that Hitchings is
laidback about language. Far from it. The Language Wars asks us to
think beyond tradition, habit and deference, and to consider what we
want from our words. It is a very intelligent and polite call to arms,
but a call to arms nonetheless.


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