On Twitter yesterday, Bryan Garner shared a quote by Arthur Schlesinger on language usage that I hadn’t come across before; it seems to be from Schlesinger’s 1974 essay ‘Politics and the American Language’:
The purity of language is under unrelenting attack from every side – from professors as well as from politicians … and not least from those indulgent compilers of modern dictionaries who propound the suicidal thesis that all usages are equal and all are correct.
There’s a lot going on there, so I’ll break it down a bit. The elided material after ‘politicians’, by the way, clunkily extends the list of attackers to include newspapermen, advertising men, men of the cloth, and men of the sword.
While we can blame men for many things, this ain’t one of them. Politically Schlesinger may have leant liberal, but linguistically he was reactionary, if that line is any indication. Its points are ignorant and extremist (‘attack’, ‘suicidal’? Come on), and laden with false premises and invidious doom-mongering.
As the Pet Shop Boys sang, I’ve got a different point of view:
To elaborate: If English were not so gloriously impure, so amenable to borrowing willy-nilly from other tongues from the year dot, we may not be speaking it today. If it survived at all, its reach – geographically and expressively – would be more provincial.
This capacity to absorb bits of other languages is a feature, not a bug. Anyone banging on about a language’s ‘purity’, unless it’s a computer language, or a constructed language that has never been used in conversation, needs a history lesson, stat.
In a previous post on linguistic declinism, I wrote:
Given how intimately language is part of who we consider ourselves to be, and the degree of perceived control it allows us, it would be understandable if some people used it unconsciously as a hook on which to hang their worries about an uncertain future. So they lambast anyone they believe is damaging the language, blaming them for the onrushing end of everything they hold dear. It is a kind of naïve linguistic eschatology.
Sure enough: Just before Schlesinger, in his essay, lashes out at language change and its dispassionate chroniclers the lexicographers, he worries about broader societal concerns and ties them explicitly (and question-beggingly) to the ‘pollution’ of language:
Other developments hastened the dissociation of words from reality. The rise of mass communications, the growth of large organizations and novel technologies, the invention of advertising and public relations, the professionalization of education – all contributed to linguistic pollution, upsetting the ecological balance between words and their environment.
He then acknowledges that a living language ‘can never be stabilized, but a serious language can never cut words altogether adrift from meanings’. True, and there are people who would do this. But by conflating such aims with any use of language he doesn’t like, or doesn’t consider ‘pure’ enough (whatever the hell that means), Schlesinger fatally enfeebles his own argument.
His jab at lexicographers may seem bizarre, but he was writing in the era of the controversial Webster’s Third, which strongly politicized the debate over usage. W3 replaced W2’s judgemental labels (‘incorrect’, ‘vulgar’) with more enlightened ones like ‘nonstandard’. W3 outraged the purists and prescriptivists who saw English as under constant attack from all sides; the New Yorker called the book a ‘massacre’.
So when Schlesinger said lexicographers hold all usages to be equal and correct, either he was being disingenuous or he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of both language and lexicography. I’m sure it’s the latter. How much of Schlesinger’s fearful nonsense Garner agrees with, or sympathises with, I don’t know.