English is a mess, and so is everything else
Writing is a skill developed only with effort and long application. Speech is something that any first-grader can do. So it is not surprising that those who have achieved some mastery of writing should be vain of the accomplishment, even to the point of exaggerating its importance.
Thus we begin to explain something about the clamoring tribe of peevers. What is implicit in their cant about the purity and precision of language is a set of assumptions: that writing is of primary importance and speech secondary, that written language should be the template for spoken language, and that their particular dialect—in this country, standard written American English; in Britain, standard written British English—calls the tune for everything and everyone else.
What we can discover by reading John McWhorter’s What Language Is (Gotham Books, 228 pages, $26) is that those assumptions crumble upon examination by linguists who have done the research about the ways that language actually operates.* Professor McWhorter, who teaches at Columbia, sets forth, in an entertaining mixture of the formal and the demotic, some home truths about language. The basic one: Languages are a mess.
Languages are ingrown, he says. Left to themselves, “they grow hungrily, ceaselessly, and rampantly into available space,” like kudzu. They are disheveled. Over time they grow messy, develop peculiarities, become “jerry-rigged [probably he intended jury-rigged. Sorry] splotches doing the best they can despite countless millennia of unguided, slow-but-sure kaleidoscopic distortion.” They are intricate, developing ever greater complexities unless something interrupts the tendency. They are mixed. All languages bear the traces of encounters with other languages, and no language is “pure.”
Take English. The orthography may be a nightmare, but the language as a whole is much simpler than most—Professor McWhorter mentions one obscure language that has ten genders. English has been simplified for the same reason that Persian and other trans-national languages grew simpler: “blunted adult language-learning abilities.” The invading Vikings had trouble learning Anglo-Saxon, and so they made mistakes in speaking it and corrupted and simplified it, as did the later Norman French. (Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s grammar.) So we have spelling that is insane, but the other side of the bargain is that we lack a thicket of case endings and verb conjugations.
This then is observed fact, with citations by Professor McWhorter from multiple languages to back it up: The more isolated a language, the smaller its population of speakers, the more ingrown, disheveled, and intricate it will be, learned by small children but nearly impenetrable to adults. The international languages have been simplified, worn smoother, by their friction with speakers of other languages who radically simplify them.
I should mention that Professor McWhorter is also great fun to read. Of the Vikings: “Making do with their crummy Old English, they plugged in so many of their Old Norse words into it that we can barely get through a sentence without them: get, they, wrong, take, anger, bag, low, club, knife (funny what kind of people that list makes the Vikings look like, but from reports it doesn’t seem far off).”
So, to get back to Those People, the ones who fret and fume about the purity of English and its supposed decline into barbarism. English comes from barbarism, and demotic speech continually replenishes and enriches it, as do its sluttish brushes against other languages. All of this is normal, and documented.
Those of us who concern ourselves with standard written English can certainly discuss nuance and precision, and there are indeed rules to observe and standards to uphold, though the latter, which might better be called conventions, are flexible and variable.
But if we were so ill-advised as to take seriously the Queen’s English Society or the other targets familiar from posts at this site, we would run the risk of winding up with what professor McWhorter describes in another context as a “taxidermal artifice.”
*We are fortunate to have access to multiple books that explain, in terms accessible to the laity, essentials about linguistics. You may have read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and, more recently, Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak. Professor McWhorter’s book is an extremely valuable addition to the literature.