English is not going to the dogs

Those of you interested in the ‘usage wars’ I mentioned in my post about descriptivism and editing may want to set a couple of hours aside sometime to watch this lively public debate on the topic hosted last year by Intelligence Squared.

The loaded title, ‘Between You and I the English Language Is Going to the Dogs’, invites the sort of bewailing you hear from linguistic conservatives worried that semantic drift, slangy innovation and nonstandard usage are imperilling English. But two members of the four-person panel counter this alarmist clamour.

Speakers for the motion are Simon Heffer, who reliably conflates standard English with ‘correct’ English, and John Humphrys, who rambles sometimes amiably but seems a bit out of his depth.

Speakers against the motion are Mary Beard, who brings a welcome dose of perspective (and non-maleness) to proceedings, and Oliver Kamm, whose excellent book Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage tipped me off about the debate. Kamm is articulate and persuasive and has a nice line in polite exasperation: ‘Gentlemen, get a grip!’

The debate is chaired by Erica Wagner, former literary editor of the UK Times, and can also be downloaded as an mp3 from the Intelligence Squared page.


27 Responses to English is not going to the dogs

  1. Ooh, thank you, I know some people who *so* need to hear this… I’m going to share this on G+ straight away!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Meirav! And enjoy, if you decide to watch or listen to it yourself.

      • Oh yes, I definitely want to watch this!

      • Finally got round to watching it – fascinating! though I kept feeling like heckling… all those times when people talked about “proper” or “correct” usage when what they really meant was standard English…

        so annoyed with the false dichotomy that kept popping up, as though it’s a case of either teaching kids The One True Way or leaving them without any knowledge of the conventions they need to know in order to get a job.

        also: I almost want to start a Mary Beard fan club.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Thanks for reporting back – I’m glad you got around to watching it. It is a bit frustrating at times, since the speakers are operating from such different assumptions, some of them false. The inability to see standard English for what it is – a socially privileged dialect, no more grammatical than any other dialect – leads to endless confusion and antagonism.

          • yup, exactly. and people even think they’re wrong when they’re not – Heffer catching himself using singular they and saying it was an error… so many eyerolls, so little time…

  2. nugget59 says:

    This issue tends to cramp my writing muscle. I get so concerned about HOW to say what I want to say that I forget WHAT I wanted to say. Interesting topic.

  3. As with so many things, the people who most desperately need this are the last people who will bother taking a look at it …

    • Stan Carey says:

      Even those who do look at the debate are unlikely to be swayed if they tend to be intransigent. There’s a striking example in the video itself: someone in the audience bases her conclusions on completely imaginary versions of what she thinks Beard and Kamm said, in order to confirm what she already felt. If we’re not careful we hear only what we want to hear.

  4. Barrie says:

    Thank you for drawing my attention to this debate, Stan. I’ve shared it with a Facebook group I administer where I hope it will generate some discussion.

    It was depressing that more members of the audience were not swayed by the arguments of the opposers. Oliver Kamm was the star of the show. Mary Beard was OK, but Kamm might have had more robust support from someone like David Crystal (or you!). I think the opposers lost a few opportunities by not making more of the linguistic legitimacy of nonstandard dialects, by not emphasising just how few the points of disagreement over Standard English are and by not celebrating the success of English as a world language.

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome, Barrie, and thanks for sharing it. The vote counts were dispiriting in that many people had made up their minds and seemed firmly set on their assumptions. I don’t think I’m biased in thinking that Kamm and Beard – Kamm in particular – won the debate by a yawning margin. Heffer and Humphrys, when they weren’t agreeing with their disputants’ points, were missing them altogether. It wasn’t an especially fruitful debate, but it did seem to sway a significant number of audience members, and therefore probably a lot of online viewers too. I hope so anyway.

  5. astraya says:

    At what point was English perfect, anyways?

    • Stan Carey says:

      By an astonishing coincidence, right about the time those who believe in it were being educated in it. Only those linguistic changes that occur in their lifetimes are to be deplored.

      • Chips says:

        Has there ever been research into linguistic rigidity being linked to “the time those who believe in it were being educated in it”? Intuitively it is true, but would love to see some analysis of the “going to dogs” proponents educational backgrounds!

        For me language change, adaption and innovation are sources of delight … and not just in English. If that means language is going to the dogs, bow wow!

      • Stan Carey says:

        That’s a good question, Chips. I don’t know off-hand, but like you I’d be interested to know of any systematic study of this. I totally agree that language change is a source of delight (even if some innovations aren’t immediately appealing). Those saying language is ‘going to the dogs’ may be just revealing their bias against both young people and dogs…

  6. […] of the criticism rehashes the old complaint that ‘the English language is going to the dogs‘. For instance, in her blog at Chicago Now, MBA Mom complains […]

  7. Imagine how different the debate would be if only they could agree on what the question was.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That would mean agreeing on the meaning of essential terms like ‘grammar’ and ‘correct’, which I don’t think they would. They’re operating from very different and incompatible premises.

  8. I think the main point of genuine contention could be expressed like this:

    “Are people today less equipped with the skills they need to use language effectively than they were in the past?”

    Perhaps if that had been the question, there would have been more genuine debating and less of the rampant agreeing with each other that we heard.

  9. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan: interesting. Thank you.

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