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English doesn't need your help

Cross this one off your list of worries: You can keep high energy prices, rising ocean levels and the possible loss of your job, but the English language is doing just fine. Leave it alone.

A discussion over at Language Log about a legislator’s statement that measures should be taken to prevent the “devaluation of the language” has led the linguists to the conclusion that making English our official language would be, at most, a symbolic gesture.

One interesting piece of the linguists’ discussion is the way in which this perennial topic has shifted emphasis in recent years, to which I would like to add some additional perspective.

Hysteria about The Danger to English is no novelty. Jonathan Swift, writing in an essay in The Tatler in 1710, bemoaned “the deplorable ignorance that hath for some years reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” He went on to say, “These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third: I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue. …” He favored the establishment of an English Academy to govern the language, an idea that, fortunately, gained no traction.

There was an almighty carrying-on in 1961 when Merriam-Webster had the audacity to produce a dictionary that recorded the English language as people were actually using it, rather than as the self-appointed authorities prescribed. Dwight Macdonald wrote a scolding essay about Webster’s Third International, “The String Untuned,” which can be found, along with “The Decline and Fall of English” and an attack on modern translations of the Bible, in Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture.

In more recent years, as the Language Loggers point out, George Orwell worried in the 1940s that control of language by totalitarian governments would control the way people could think. That is the nightmare of 1984 and the concern that occasioned the famed essay “Politics and the English Language.” Well, he was mistaken, as we saw in the mordant cynicism that was widespread in the Soviet Union (“We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”) and in the ultimate collapse of the regime.

In the 1970s, Eric Bakovic describes, the threat to English was seen as coming from the inside, from ill-educated native speakers unthinkingly succumbing to fads. You may recall that The Threat to Civilization in the 1970s appeared to come mainly from people who used hopefully as a sentence adverb. A New Yorker cartoon, linking the shibboleths from two generations, showed a man saying to another at a bar, Hopefullywise? Did I understand you to say hopefullywise?”

Today, though there is a growing apprehension that teenagers sending text messages will damage the language, the major apprehension about English is linked to the hysteria about illegal immigration — all those people sneaking into the country to take away coveted jobs picking fruit, slaughtering cattle and mopping floors. Our main protection apparently lies in legislation to make English an official language. That’ll show ’em.

I had a little innocent fun a couple of years ago when Taneytown, Md., considered making English its official language: I suggested that the municipality’s own English usage could stand some improvement.

It would be a good thing if government could find a reasonable way to deal with the immigration issue (an effort recently attempted by President Bush and thwarted by his own party) and leave the English language alone.

Unless someone is proposing a return to the purity of Anglo-Saxon, we are left to deal with English as it is: a language developed mainly by illiterate and despised peasants over four centuries when the ruling classes, the Normans, used mainly bad French and Latin; a promiscuous language that has taken on bits of every other language it has ever rubbed against, including Latin and bad French; a world language through the historical circumstances of British and American imperialism; a language that has its own dynamic and goes where it will, despite the feeble efforts of legislators and usage commentators.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:21 AM | | Comments (3)


Amen, brother! While I certainly adhere to the idea that there is a more effective means of communication and a less effective one, the ability of our language to change with each generation shows that "properness" is immaterial in that discussion. People can still communicate quite well without the government stepping in and telling them that there's a better way to do it.

Dear Mr. McIntyre,

First, I am sorry that the Sun and you are having to go through the downsizing stress that is affecting so many newspapers. Your blog is a near-daily source of inspiration, education, and humor (read: strength to carry on), so whatever management tells you, don't think you aren't appreciated out here in the hinterlands.

Second, on the topic of today's post, I perceive a difference between worrying about the quality of English and voting to make English the official language. I work for a North Carolina state agency that often complains about its inability to find private-sector contractors to carry out its programs. Yet those private contractors are not only underpaid relative to what they could earn from a non-state contract, they are required to supply foreign-language interpreters at their own expense, even in rural areas where such skills are rare. A recent poster advertising the availability of interpretive services lists 24 different languages that have significant representation here. If we were to declare English the official language of the state, clients and charities could take the responsibility of finding and paying for interpreters, and we would remove at least one barrier to a sufficient supply of contractors. We'd still probably speak appallingly dense bureaucratese, though!

The Taneytown article was inspired.

Making English "official" in America, in the current immigration panic culture (created to distract the masses from the War on Terror and the declining economy) smacks of racism. I visit the US of'en and I never have trouble understanding people. (Though, I think "aks" for "ask" is a purely American word.)

I'm rarely spoken to in a foreign tongue (does a thick New Orleans or Maine accent count as a foreign language?)

Canada has two official languages, but it was mostly done to appease the French, who wanted to protect their cultural heritage. Fair enough, I suppose.

But, do Americans really think their cultural heritage is at risk if they don't make English official? Are they going to arrest people who don't speak English? Or just take them to their home and shoot them with their legal hand-guns?

I say keep up the good work America. You're providing great laughs for the rest of us.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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