language wars

This week’s New Yorker has a review of a new book, The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings. In the book, Hitchens traces disputes over the proper use of the English language over the last century, dividing its participants between prescriptivists, who argue for maintaining language’s rules governing writing and speech and descriptivists, who argue that language’s fluidity allows only description of its changing practices. He aligns himself with the latter while the reviewer, Joan Acocella, takes a more agonistic position, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the various warring sides and observing that “nowadays, everyone is moving to the center.” While the book and review usefully discuss an interesting historical subject, the language war they present was more properly a culture war. Its skirmishes and battles concerned, not with language, but its civilizing effect.

Two issues illuminate and illustrate this point.

First, separating descriptivists from prescriptivists emphasizes the significance of language’s rules while glossing over distinctions within them. Certainly, the one group embraced English’s practical and changing use, its multitudes, while the other sought to restrict and delimit it, through the prescriptive rules that Hitchings uses to name them. Language, however, can not operate without rules. Hitching himself admits “there are rules, which are really mental mechanisms that carry out operations to combine words into meaningful arrangements,” which Acocella rightly notes.

Language, moreover, has different kinds of rules. Anthropologists and linguists observe that language operates syntactically as well as semantically. That is, language has structure as well as meaning and their mutual complement allows it its depth and breadth. An unchanging—or at least, more slowly changing—grammar allows vocabulary and idiom to change without causing linguistic chaos and confusion. This is particularly true of the English language, which includes more words, by far, than any other language and whose richness stems from its historical adaptation and malleability. Its Briton origins survived not only local variation over time, but also absorbed the influences of neighboring Celts and Picts, invading Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans, and extension to the many colonies of Britain’s global historical empire.

Missing the distinction between semantics and syntax, Hitchings mistakes disputes about cultural practice for actual challenges to linguistic integrity. Whether people use “who” instead of “whom” as an object pronoun does not change the objective case—which is why the use of either word is recognizable in its context. Arguments about “ain’t” are concerned with its legitimacy as a contraction, not about contractions themselves. Disputes about proper meaning and style, as much as they informed dictionaries and style manuals over the last several centuries, were concerned not so much with defining language so much as demarcating its legitimate bounds amid historical circumstances driving its expansion: conquest, class, and colonization.

Second, arguments about language often conflate writing and speech without historical perspective on their respective differences. James Gleick insightfully argues in his recent book, The Information, that dictionaries emerged in the early 17th century as attempts to compile and tabulate the meanings of different words, not to assign their definitive meaning. Moreover, dictionaries’ use in assigning spelling arose secondarily, once literacy rose in the 18th and 19th centuries to a rate that tipped society, and more specifically, different segments of society, from a predominantly oral to a predominantly literate—as opposed to a literary, with its class-tinged associations—culture. Again, however, the basic concern was cultural maintenance of specific vocabulary and style and their practical use among respective social classes, not the fundamental character of language.