Speak proper, or else
The admirable Stan Carey smote the Queen’s English Society and its laughable proposal for an Academy of English last week. It was a mighty blow, but it merely glanced off their carapace, as you can see by examining the comments on his post at Sentence First.
Because the peevish combination of shibboleth and superstition about language, combined with a sad, sad little snobbery about their presumed mastery of the language, renders these people impervious to reason, there is not much point to arguing with them. But you, Best Beloved, have not come here to peeve, so I can say things about language peeving that may immunize you against its poisons.
Martin Estinel of the Queen’s English Society, for example, wants to protect English from being “diluted by foreign influences.” (By “foreign” he means “American.”) Unless he plans to set up an academy to return to Anglo-Saxon, there is no getting around the plain fact that English, British English included, is a wanton little baggage that bears upon its body traces of every other language it has ever brushed against. There are children who know this.
One commenter at Sentence First had this to say: “I love it when people so loudly deride people who are trying to do something good. Many people feel that our language is being spoiled by those who do not know the basic rules of English. The QES is merely trying to provide a place where those rules can be easily found and then used. We all know that English is a living language and people will always disagree about what is right and wrong, but for heavens sake, allow people to try to help.”
No one denies that Mr. Estinel and his colleagues mean well. It is just that their uninformed views are apt to do more harm than good. The person who offers to treat your cancer with laetrile may sincerely mean to help, but it isn’t going to do you much good.
Predictably, another commenter takes a swipe at David Crystal and other linguists who supposedly “argue that all dialects and languages are equal in the eyes or minds of their users. The QES argues, on the contrary, that language variants are not all equal, and that Standard English deserves particular recognition and support. Yes, Standard English resists a concise definition – it is fuzzy at the edges – but is nontheless a real entity.”
I’m mystified by the recurring claim that linguists don’t care about language. They spend their professional lives examining how language works and know a good deal more about it, in its various forms, than the gormless proponents of official English. J.B.S. Haldane, asked to explain what the Creation tells us about the Creator, observed that the Deity appears to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Entomologists are interested in beetles, their variety and diversity, as linguists are interested in the variety and diversity of languages. If Mr. Estinel and his followers presumed to demonstrate an expertise in entomology as well as language, they would be assuring us that one species of beetle is demonstrably superior to all the others. Not much of an advance in Science.
Perhaps Michael Gorman, the author of the comment about David Crystal, could point out for us a linguist who does not think that standard English is a “real entity.” Professor Crystal and the linguists at Language Log all write remarkably clear and forceful standard English — more precisely, standard written English — in both the British and American variants. Their understanding differs from Mr. Gorman’s in recognizing that it is a form of English appropriate for certain purposes and occasions rather than the only form ever to be used.
Some points bear repeating, because the word is apparently Not Getting Through:
English is not degenerating. Jonathan Swift thought that is was in 1712, when he proposed an academy to correct and preserve it, and there is no greater evidence for its decay today than there was three centuries ago, or that such an academy would, or could, accomplish anything useful. Take a deep, cleansing breath.
Standard written English, the form about which the peevers get their knickers in a twist/shorts in a bunch, is a form of the language appropriate for certain contexts and occasions. Other forms of English are appropriate and acceptable for other contexts and occasions. Anyone who has any sense knows this.
Language, like clothing, carries markers of social, educational, and geographical background and class. These forms of information cannot be separated from the information that speech and writing ostensibly intend to communicate. But they should not be given undue weight, either. You can talk posh and imagine that you are a superior human being, but there are those who will see you as merely a toffee-nosed twit.