Sunday, February 1, 2015

As changeable as language

I usually prefer reading fiction in my spare time but for the past few weeks, I have been reading nothing but books on grammar and linguistics. That's because I recently read that a new edition of my favourite grammar will be published in the middle of this year. You might ask what good a new edition does to anyone. Language is no different from the mobile phone or the computer. It changes all the time. In fact, it mutates much more rapidly than anything else I know.

When I was a lad, I was made to spend a long time studying the distinction between "shall" and "will". This may sound ludicrous to those of you who are not familiar with the complexities of English grammar and you may very well think I was a little thick to have to grapple with something so apparently easy. But it is far from easy. Even the grammarian Burchfield himself referred to this as "immensely complicated". And this is not the only problem with English grammar. There are many other such immensely complicated aspects of grammar that those of us who do not have to study them are blissfully unaware of.

But language belongs to the masses and follows the law of democracy and the masses do not like to put their minds to anything that is immensely complicated. Within a decade or so, the English-speaking public put its foot down and the immensely complicated distinction between "shall" and "will" has all but been relegated to the pages of linguistic history.

How do you think I felt when I first discovered that I had pored over Jespersen (that's the grammarian who wrote the longest thesis on this subject) and the tracts of the Society for Pure English only to be told years later that all those rules no longer applied? Naturally, I wanted them to continue to apply just to justify those otherwise wasted hours of my childhood.

But that's not how language works. Purists can scream blue murder but nothing can stop the inexorable progress (or deterioration, as purists would insist) of language.

Most of us don't like to suffer for nothing. I remember reading in the newspaper about an interview with teachers in England who insisted on cautioning students against splitting their infinitives. One of them said his teachers used to rap him on the knuckles every time he split an infinitive and so he continued to rap his students on the knuckles when they split their infinitives.

More than 3 centuries ago, Daniel Defoe (the chap who wrote Robinson Crusoe) proposed the formation of a Society to regulate and police the use of English words. It did not come to anything. A century later, Samuel Johnson with great foresight says in the Preface to his Dictionary that it is not possible to "embalm" the English language. He speaks of the futility of any attempt to police language and before referring to the inability of the French Academie to stop the tide of change in the French language, he says this which is best quoted verbatim:
...sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
Those who know me well must know that I'm always opposed to any attempt to control or regulate the language. Do we correct all errors and if so, how far back do we go? Take the word adder which we all know to be a snake. It started life as a nadder but over time, it became an adder. I suppose if you say "a nadder" repeatedly, it doesn't take long before it sounds like "an adder". And that's how we get the word "adder". Do we go back in time and insist that the poor snake should be known by its original name, nadder?

As I eagerly wait for the publication of the new edition of my favourite grammar, I have been going through some of my very old books. Some of the entries cannot help but bring a smile to the face.

I remember reading this just as I was leaving my childhood and entering the cusp of adolescence and becoming a teenager and I remember asking myself if such a common word could possibly at one time have been in dispute. That's how mutable language is.

No comments:

Post a Comment