Our wayward English
Still overwrought over the things the Oxford English Dictionary has picked up on the street? Here’s what a character in Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel, The Rebel Angels, has to say about language:
“Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams. Received Standard English has had it; even American English, that once seemed such an impertinent johnny-come-lately in literature, is fusty stuff compared with what you will hear in Africa, which is where the action is, in our day.”
Those inclined to hyperventilate over changes in vocabulary and usage should keep a few basic concepts in mind:
Language goes where it will.
No one, not the Brits or Americans, not the professoriat or the commentariat, owns it.
As the lexicographer Peter Sokolowski compactly put it, “Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don’t follow orders.”