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Just leave English the hell alone

Those of you who have any propensity to be swayed by evidence-based argument will not be surprised at Robert Lane Greene’s post today at Johnson about what happens to Spanish among immigrant communities.

To sum up, adult Spanish-speaking immigrants learn little or no English, because it’s hard for adults to learn a new language. (That’s why so many native-born Americans, raised without exposure to languages other than English, are hopelessly monoglot.) Immigrants’ children become fluent in English and know some Spanish. The grandchildren speak English and learn little or no Spanish. The language endangered by immigration into the United States is Spanish.

Thus, you might reasonably conclude, those people clamoring about English-only laws and making English our official language are either uninformed or demagogic.

English, by historical accident—British imperial and economic power, succeeded by American imperial* and economic power—has become a worldwide lingua franca and will remain so, like every previous lingua franca, such as Latin or Greek or Aramaic, so long as people find it useful. But its status as a lingua franca cannot be established or protected by statute.

In fact, it cannot be regulated at all. Lexicographers have long since given up on efforts to legislate meanings and usages, a task that the first great lexicographer in English, Samuel Johnson, ruefully admitted at the completion of his great dictionary was hopeless.

Neither will the fatuous campaign of the Queen’s English Society to set up a royal academy to regulate English and purge it of impurities (chiefly American), the latest in a series of stillborn proposals over the past three centuries, amount to anything. And even if a monarch or Parliament were dotty enough to enact such a proposal, the academy would be impotent, a ridiculous assembly of self-regarding impotentates issuing universally ignored edicts.

If you are sensible, you will follow Candide’s suggestion and cultivate your own garden. You can look to the models of writing and speaking that you admire and imitate them. You can consult dictionaries and usage manuals and weigh their findings against your own sense of where the language is and what is appropriate for your own occasions and audiences. If you instruct the young, you can lead them toward evidence-based judgments instead of shibboleths and superstitions and class prejudices.

Yes, it is your language. But you don’t own it. Just leave English the hell alone. It can fend for itself.

 

*You don’t think the United States is an imperial power? Do you have any idea how many regiments we have stationed outside our borders?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:33 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

This reminds me of the discussions of "Globish" sparked by McCrums book last year. (http://www.economist.com/node/16213950)

Comrade McIntyre, your number has been recorded and reported to the local language commissar. You will be docked 4 points from your monthly quota for suggesting that the language can change from both sides of the barrier.

On a serious note, you drive that point home. When I first came to the states, one of the first words I learned was "washateria," since that's where my mixed-heritage neighbors said I should do my laundry.

That was also one of my first words to be corrected by "native" Texans.

Well said. Enough of this rush-to-legislation mentality.

My maternal grandparents left the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the last century with mouths filled with Yiddish. When my mother and her siblings were growing up, they spoke yiddish at home and English out in the world. When I entered the scene I learned a smattering of Yiddish expressions and a lot of Yiddish vocabulary, much of which is now part of the English lexicon. Like other members of the third generation, I speak English. It's a good thing, too, because otherwise no one would understand me.

Friends in the Southwest have told me about "Spanglish," the merged language that many immigrants and some natives use. I got a demonstration of that on a trip to San Diego, while waiting at a light rail station. There was a family getting on the train ahead of me. The eldest child, a teenager, turned to a sibling and said, "[Spanish that I didn't understand] or whatever."


Marc Leavett,

Following up on your personal take on the serial generational fate of the Yiddish language, I wonder if you had the pleasure of reading Michael Wex's mid-2000's released, most fascinating, and fun book, "Born To Kvetch"?

Wex, a second-generation Polish-Jewish-Canadian who admittedly grew up amongst a motley assemblage of "old farts" (elderly observant, Yiddish-speaking Jews) in both Calgary, Alberta, and my home town of Toronto, brings us a most informative, thorough, and most importantly, (in my view), very humorous account of the evolution of Yiddish------ a language he views w/ extreme, and enduring affection, wonder, and nostalgia.

Just a sampling of a handful of chapters from his book give's one just a foretaste of the light, lively, and enlightening aspects of the Yiddish tongue, in store:

Chapter 4----"Pigs, Poultry, and Pampers: The Religious Roots of Yiddish"

Chapter 5----"Bupkes Means a Lot of Nothing: Yiddish and Nature"

Chapter 10---"A Slap in the Tukhes and Hello: Yiddish Life From Birth to Bar Mitzvah"

Chapter 12---"Too Good to Be True: Sex in Yiddish"

...........and finally, Chapter 13----"It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish"

In reading Wex's engaging tome I couldn't help reflecting on how the likes of writer/ humorist/ director Woody Allen, to Leonard Cohen, and another superb Jewish-Canadian novelist, Mordecai Richler owed varying degrees of debt to their understanding, and appreciation of the Yiddish mentality-----its intrinsic leaning toward the negative, yet retaining a modicum of hope and humor through it all.

Both comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and his buddy-in-humor, Larry David, I would argue, come very much from a clearly Yiddish sensibility w/ their rather self-indulgent, often negatively driven, kvetching brand of humor.

The regular George Castanza character in "Seinfeld", supposedly an italian-American, played masterfully by actor Jason Alexander, a nominal Jew, was the ultimate schlub, the chronic neurotic who was ever scheming to work less, and maximize his sexual conquests. (Which were few and far between, and generally unsatisfying.)

With his annoying characteristic dithering, whiny demeanor, to me George was almost channeling the classic hapless loser character that Woody Allen had perfected over his many years in stand-up and film. Not too shabby a role model. But I digress.

I'm currently reading a compendium of short stories by the celebrated Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. His fictional tales, many steeped in deprivation, interpersonal angst, and Eastern European folklore, and myth, for me conjure up the flights of visual fancy depicted in the lyrical painterly works of the famed Marc Chagall, harkening back to the austere, yet in some ways, simple, idyllic life of his tiny 19th- century Russian shtetl.(sp. ?)

Oy! .......... I'm getting hungry. (It's currently a little after high-noon, L.A. time.)

Hmm.........to nosh, or NOT to nosh, that is the question?

Canter's Deli, in our L.A. Fairfax District beckons.

Deli scenario: Cheerful, portly waitress queries----"The regular, sweetheart? Hot Corned Beef on rye, home fries, slaw, coffee/ black, and a schtickel of dill pickle?

Moi---"You read my mind..... as usual. Could you please hold the schmear, Ester dear? Thanks doll."

Love that deli kibitzing.

"Yiddish (definitely) spoken here!"


ALEX

Alex, can't resist this one. When my younger son was 5 or 6 I was driving him home from a friend's house, listening to NPR, and the story was about a Jewish cookbook. The interviewer was helping the woman who wrote the book peel a whole head of garlic for a special Friday night chicken soup. The garlic was supposed to enhance virility so that the husband could perform his "marital duties." At this point my son piped up, "Mom, I have a question!" I dreaded what it might be, but I asked him what he wanted to know. He said "What does a whole head of garlic look like?"


Dahlink,

"Kids DO say the darndest things!", indeed. (I miss old Art Linkletter. A very sweet, most decent man.)

Thanks for that neat little story, Dahlink. Truly, 'out of the mouths of babes'.

However, hate to be a darn petty 'schtikeler' here, but I thought the term was a "bulb" of garlic, not a "head"; made up of a tight cluster of individual wedged segments, called "cloves"? Of course, you may be quoting the NPR host, or the interviewed author's words, so no real biggie.

I do know that "head of lettuce" is kosher in normal parlance, though.

Dahlink, regarding Jewish "marital duties', a number of years back, an actual lapsed Conservative rabbi acquaintance, at a special family-and-friends seder gathering in his home, revealed that some observant married Orthodox Jewish couples employ a specially configured bed sheet during full coitus, w/ a conveniently positioned hole in-the-middle, for modest, yet apparently effective 'coupling'.

Boy! Talk about taking the romance, and sensuality out of love-making. (Guess that's the whole point.) Clearly, in taking most of the full-contact sexual pleasure out of intercourse, dutiful, almost mechanical procreation then becomes the imperative for these very religiously observant folk.

No Talmudic Kama Sutra-like variations here, let alone changing the sheets.

Don't reckon if even copious doses of the magic garlic herb could leaven this odd prescribed love-making (?) scenario.

But to each his/ her own.

As the Good Book states, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

Amen to that.

ALEX

Alex, you are correct that most people say "bulb" of garlic, but my memory says that the NPR story used the term "head." When my husband and I were first married we lived in German-speaking Switzerland, where I was
delighted to learn that in German a clove of garlic is a "toe" (Zeh).

Ah hell, let's just all learn Latin and get it over with already.

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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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