My Sunday Guardian column.
Textspeak. The word “anyways”. The Twitter hashtag “epic”. Those are among my pet peeves. It turns out that in this, I’m being prescriptive when I should be descriptive. As Henry Hitchings says in his new book, The Language Wars, “a prescriptivist dictates how people should speak and write, whereas a descriptivist avoids passing judgement….So, one says what ought to happen, and the other says what does happen.”
Hitchings sets out to chart “the history of arguments over English”, the ways in which people have tried to control and modify it over the years. Defining himself squarely as a descriptivist, he points out that typically, celebrants and defenders of proper English are celebrating or defending something other than language. Status, snobbery, class, nationalism: all of these are at play. In Chomsky’s words, “Questions of language are basically questions of power” –take the demands for linguistic re-organisation of states in India, for instance.
The Language Wars also examines rules we’re supposed to adhere to, many of which have little to do with grammar and more with outmoded views on the status of English. The infinitive that Must Not Be Split, for example (which the opening voice-over of the Star Trek TV series boldly does); or not ending a sentence with a preposition. The origins of these turn out to be nothing more than a belief by classicists that English ought to mirror Latin. When Churchill was chided for ending a sentence with a preposition, he is supposed to have replied: “This is the sort of rubbish up with which I will not put”.Which would have warmed the heart of Raymond Chandler who, years later, wrote: “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split”.
Hitchings make clear that debates and hair-pulling over the drop in standards of English aren’t new; people have held views on the matter for centuries. Many have tried to straighten out affairs of pronunciation and spelling brought about by the language’s mixed roots. There was, for example, the alphabet devised by George Bernard Shaw after he pointed out that in current English, the word “fish” could well be spelled “ghoti”: gh pronounced like the f in enough, o like the i in women, and ti like the sh in nation. Never caught on, thank goodness.
Among the prescriptivists better known to us today are those such as Fowler and Strunk&White, who insist on simplicity and lack of ornamentation – something Orwell also spoke of in his essay, Politics and the English Language. Hitchings correctly points out that while there’s clearly nothing wrong with being simple and unadorned, equally, there are times one needs to express oneself in a manner that’s more complex. (Watch out for“government-endorsed sophistry and the flatulent rhetoric of politicians and political pundits”, though.)
Hitchings is, of course, against censorship and also defends the use of cuss words, should they be required, but I find him in choppier waters on issues such as those of gender or political correctness. I’m not entirely convinced that the descriptivist attitude is the right one here: perhaps the act of reframing also brings about a refashioning of attitudes, rewiring our brains to promote behaviour that’s more respectful.
The English language, then, is shifting constantly – in the vivid words of Emerson, it’s “a city to the building of which every human has brought a stone”. Robert McCrum writes in Globish that English is “floating free from its troubled British and American past…to take on a life of its own”; thus, some of the most significant changes in our time are occurring not in its birthplace but elsewhere. Hitchings points out that in India, “the language’s roots…are colonial, but English connects Indians less to the past than to the future”. In England itself one comes across “Jamaican Creole, certainly, but also Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Romani and various African Englishes”.One can almost hear editors of dictionaries let out a loud, collective groan.