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English goes where it will

The first thing to remember is that English was created by illiterates. Peasants who ripped apart respectable Anglo-Saxon and turned it into some ungodly goulash mixed with Norman French and Latin. English has been lifting promiscuously from other languages ever since, and its mongrel nature makes its spelling a dog’s breakfast.

I suppose we all knew that about English orthography, but David Wolman has looked into the matter more extensively in an entertaining and chatty book, Righting the Mother Tongue.*

Moving chronologically from the Norman invasion to the present, he traces struggles over English’s irregular spelling. You can read for yourself about his “orthography-themed road trip through England” with the distinguished linguist David Crystal; his visit to Merriam-Webster’s word hoard in Springfield, Mass.; his chat with Les Earnest, who has a sound claim to be the inventor of spell-check; and his trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee,** along with a side trip into the scientific investigation of dyslexia.

I don’t think I’ll be giving the game away by summarizing some of the crucial points.

First, speakers of English have been steadfastly resistant to attempts by authority to regulate the language. There is no English Academy determining an official English, and there probably never will be. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had a limited effect on regularizing some aspects of the language with their dictionaries, but even Johnson acknowledged at the end of his great effort that the language goes where it will.

The multitude of efforts to simplify English spelling, some by solitary cranks, others by societies of notables, have gone nowhere, and probably never will. Imposition of reform from above simply does not work.

The Internet, he speculates, with its millions of writers, professional and amateur, wielding and transforming the language, may be as hugely transformative as those generations of Anglo-Saxon peasants who laid the foundation of modern English.

Not everyone will be pleased, which is to be expected. People have been complaining about English falling into corruption since the Tudors were on the throne, and we will have people harping on that string as long as we have viewers-with-alarm and things-were-better-when-I-was-a-boy grouches.

For the rest of us interested in language, English is a mighty river, and we are lucky to be able to navigate it to see the channels into which it flows.

 

* David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, Smithsonian Books, 211 pages, $24.95.

 ** Any suspicions you may have entertained about spelling bees will be confirmed when you read the remark by one of the Scripps champions that math and science are interesting but spelling is "just a bunch of memorization."

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (18)
        

Comments

I spent most of my adult life trying to teach high school students their own language. The inconsistencies of grammar and spelling were daunting for many of them. It didn't help that they were bombarded by examples of non-standard English on TV, so the standard version sounded "weird" to them. As a first step, we should divorce English grammar from Latin grammar and base it on the structure of English itself.

'relate the language'. Regulate?

Word!

@Carol -- you don't need to teach native speakers their own language. You do, however, have to teach them an artificially promulgated dialect thereof, one of whose purposes is to serve as a marker of social stratification. "Non-standard English on TV' is how people actually speak the language. Please do not adjust your set. Programs contain thought-provoking issues concerning language change and the democracy of usage; viewer discretion is advised.

John, one thing that's not clear to me from the lengthy religious debate that you've been kind enough to host :-) is what your opinion is about what should be done, if anything, about Wikipedia. It exists; it's popular; people consult it constantly. Like TV, I suppose, haha. No, seriously, Wikipedia ain't going nowhere; that being the case, what's to be done?

Full disclosure: I lean toward, but am not fanatic about, Wikiphilia, to use the term-in-the-middle here.

I feel compelled to defend participation in spelling bees. I was in the Scripps National Spelling Bee back in 197{CENSORED}, when it was the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. (Robin is a nom de Web, so don't go looking up past contestants to see if my name is there.) Although it is true that for a bunch of adolescents, it may seem like a massive amount of memorization, the canny among them will begin to notice prefixes, suffixes, canonical roots from both Latin and Greek, and phonetic/morphological patterns that truly do help later on in life with communicating on an educated level. Of course, they have no way of knowing that twenty or more years down the road, they may actually be confronted in their jobs or studies with words they "wasted time" memorizing way back when.

Some words from that spelling bee that have come up in my adult life recently include stochastic, weimaraner, nosocomial, peripatetic, risible, nugatory, and internecine. And I remember the first word on my regional written qualifying test was daiquiri, which I hope most of you will agree is a useful word at all (adult) ages.

The real reason for children this age to pursue such activities, of course, is that these activities foster left-brain development. (This is also why children need to study music performance in school. All that touchy-feely stuff about discipline, teamwork, blah blah blah is mush. Reading music fosters left-brain development. But I digress.)

"Les Earnest"?

Did you make that up?

http://www.stanford.edu/~learnest/vita.htm

I could have given you the link to the Wikipedia entry, but -- well, you know.

John, I asked you this on Facebook, but would love to also hear from your blog followers. What opinions are out there regarding texting language? Is this the natural evolution of the mother tongue, given the technology involved? Or is it a passing fad? For example, one of the funniest (in my opinion) Super Bowl commercials was the LMAO commercial. Will that be a dated reference in a few years, or is it here to stay? OMG - IM, IDK.

but...?

but personal Web pages from universities are more reliable? ;)

Well, it is the source for the Wikipedia entry.

"First, speakers of English have been steadfastly resistant to attempts by authority to regulate the language. There is no English Academy determining an official English, and there probably never will be."

I suppose you're alluding to the role of the French Academy. First, other countries that France that speak French often resist French usage, and the people in Quebec are famous for their resistance to French pretenses at establishing a worldwide standard for French.

Second, even though the French Academy was established by the French royal government, and has official status, its opinion is frequently disregarded by the French government. For instance, the Jospin administration chose to call female ministers "madame la ministre" instead of "madame le ministre".

In short, the Academy is pretty much like a potted plant - something ornamental but with no real power or importance.

Precisely. And yet it is this chimera, the assembly of experts to standardize the language and prescribe "correctness," that has been chased by would-be reformers from the time of Jonathan Swift to the present.

If we are considering the quirks of language, Italian may be one of the quirkiest, although I find it to be one of the lovliest. As they told us in Rome, official "Italian" is an invented language. Literally determined by a council of men who sat together and sorted through the myriad dialects of what is now called Italy, the official or formal Italian of today was the language of the educated Tuscan writers of the Renaissance. Most Italians are at the least bi-lingual: they speak the "Italian" they learned in school, and they speak the dialect of their home region. Traveling the the rural areas, you can find communities where the easier common language for the traveler might be either German or English. Reminded me of home...

Having spent half my childhood in France and learned the language in a bilingual school at age 7, I've long had a love for the language, literature, and culture, as well as a bemused affection for the efforts to maintain its purity. I recently picked up The Story of French by two Canadian authors at a used-book sale; I don't recall ever having laughed out loud at a book about language, so I felt compelled to get it.

I think some of the strength of French in its literature has come from the tension between those who want to impose rules and those who consciously break them. You get these occasional eruptions in how the language is used that send the academicians and others scurrying for defensive tools. The language soon settles into its own path.

Raymond Queneau in the 1940s (or 30s) wrote a couple of essays about changing the spelling, grammar, and word development in French to reflect how people actually speak. One of the examples I remember off the top of my head was a suggestion that, instead of the stuffy "automobile," with its Latin derivation, they should call those things a "qui-va-vite," loosely translated as "what-goes-fast." (Similar to the story my father told about the term "vasistas," a reference to an indoor toilet or urinal, derived from Germans discovering it in French houses and asking, "Vas ist das?")

I digress. As somewhat of a spelling maven, though never a bee contestant, I have long felt that the ability to spell a lot of rarely used words does not have much of a relation to the ability to write or otherwise express one's self, any more than an accumulation of facts or even high scores on intelligence tests have much to do with wisdom.

> opinions are out there regarding texting language?

Texting isn't about the mother tongue, it's about orthography. It's primarily an accommodation to technology, or more specifically, accommodation to the lack of capabilities in such things as telephone keypads. Texting isn't having any but the most fleeting influence on vocabulary, and virtually none on grammar. I think we can safely assume that in two generations, texting will seem as quaint as "telegraphic" language does to us now.

Personally, I kind of like some of the text-ese. It can be intriguing. Never got much into the CB language even though I'm old enough and Southern enough to have "been there."

Besides, using text-ese helps me disguise what I'm really saying from my mother when I'm on Facebook.

Wink wink. Nudge nudge.

All right Frank, you punk'd me. The word 'vacillate,' however, came up several times at work today, and that was one of my spelling bee words. So much for rarely used words.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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