English is not pure or in peril

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.

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22 Responses to English is not pure or in peril

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Hooray for puritanical language critics. I note that Schlesinger uses the word “pollution”. Was he referring to the more “pure” meaning of the word from the 14C, or God forbid, its contemporary meaning? Because of course, back in the 14C, “pollution” meant, according to my reading, the “discharge of semen other than during sex”. While I have nothing against masturbation, I would suggest Schlesinger was a linguistic wanker.

  2. Vivian says:

    A good definition of “pure English” is ‘the set of English words and their thoroughly established meanings.’ For example, if, in this comment, I were to use “Elephant” to refer to the English language, I would be using impure English—because no one else has used or does use “Elephant” thus.

    But people can, and ‘elephant’ could come to mean “English”; wise prescriptivists understand this trivial point. They don’t denounce the struggle over the meaning and creation of words, which is the descriptive-prescriptive war itself; they heartily take part in it. For, they understand, it will always exist, since no natural language is, as you truly write, stable.

    What they are chiefly fighting, however, is the moronic tendency, of many ‘enlightened’ linguists and sloppy writers, to consider impure usages—i.e., (1) new words defining something new or old and (2) old words newly defining something new or old—to be, since birth, just as established as pure usages.

    Impure usages are not, by empirical fact, just as established.

    Yet, though the dividing line between pure and impure usages is vague and always will be, once an impure usage grows in popularity and begins to be used about as frequently as a pure usage, then prescriptivists, if they are wise, consider it part of pure Elephant, or English. Thus, wise prescriptivists think “hopefully” is fine as a sentence modifier, that “decimate” is fine as a word meaning “destroy,” etc. They just want us to be careful with our language by using, for the sake of precision, usages that are established.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t think it’s useful to consider English in terms of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ usages at all. The ‘dividing line’ is not just vague: it makes no sense to me, implying as it does that on either side there are clear categories with definable boundaries.

      Looked at diachronically, most English words have multiple meanings that emerge and fade, shift and meander constantly, overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another outright. If everyone were to avoid usages in transition, those usages never would transition, and the language would suffer through stunted development.

      Similarly, a word’s usage may be disputed for centuries, yet it may be commonly used and understood, even as part of standard English. If we shunned all contentious usages until they became part of the exalted set of the fully established (and who would decide that?), we would needlessly impoverish our vocabulary and our expression, and we would condemn countless items to a hopeless catch-22.

      Incidentally, the ‘descriptivism–prescriptivism war‘ is a misnomer, to my mind. And I think the term ‘moronic’, given its deeply unpleasant historical associations, is best dropped unless the intention is to insult.

      • Vivian, regarding your use of “pure” and “impure”:

        Things in the world that can be so described in any but the loosest metaphorical sense are materials consisting of a consistent composition. It is possible to speak of “pure salt,” of “pure water,” and I recall a soap that was advertised as “99/100 percent pure,” which is about as pure as anything gets in our world.

        The imprecision of using such adjectives to describe a phenomenon as insubstantial and multifarious as language fails even as a metaphor. Characterizations related to the social semiotic aspects of usage are more likely to approach something like precision. Identifying words as used among Oxonians/warehouse workers in the US Northeast urban corridor/Wyoming cowboys/Malibu surfers” etc. can be field verified. Your use of “pure” and “impure” impresses me as social semiotics in overdrive – more confusing than meaningful, except in certain socio-economic circles.

  3. joan osullivan. says:

    Leant liberal? Even if its correct, its ugly

  4. JJM says:

    Objectively speaking, “language purity” is a meaningless qualification.

    • Vivian says:

      I’m not sure what you mean by this. If it means what I think it does, then, yes, I agree; you’re right: In objective reality, the division between pure and impure language exists only in (some) minds subjectively. But such imaginary divisions are still helpful. I am grateful to wise prescriptivists, like Mr. Garner, who not only write extremely well, thereby giving a model of how to write, but who also usefully points out, in meticulous detail, which usages are pure—i.e., well established and in good standing with a great number of highly literate people. I find Garner’s work idiosyncratic, perverse, infuriating, lovely, and invaluable.

    • Stan Carey says:

      JJM: For a natural language, I agree.

  5. bevrowe says:

    Let’s see how this sentence from Schlesinger stands up to a pure language test: “upsetting the ecological balance between words and their environment”

    ‘upset’: this originally meant to set up or erect. So that completely reverses his meaning. Good start.

    ‘ecological balance’: it is hard to see the logic or coherence of this metaphor.

    ‘balance’: there are dozens of meanings for ‘balance’ in the OED. None of them seem to fit this usage as the two thing put on the balance are so disparate in nature.

    ‘words and their environment’: this is a sloppy way of referring to words and the environment of their users.

    Pure English? I would call this phrase ill thought out and pretentious. And that’s just the way it’s expressed. If we turn to its intended meaning …

    • Stan Carey says:

      Nicely done, Bev. Etymologically he is on thoroughly shaky ground. Schlesinger has strong feelings about how language should behave, but these feelings are at odds with reality. So his arguments don’t even begin to cohere. I’m reminded of Orwell’s terrible ‘rules’ for writing, which he himself rightly and routinely ignored.

  6. Teresa Pitt says:

    If English were not so gloriously impure … we MIGHT not [not ‘may not’] be speaking it today. Sorry, but I felt I had to point out this error.

  7. AR Duncan-Jones says:

    Much of what you write, Mr Carey, is, as usual, sensible & interesting. But one or two addenda.
    1. “Cutting words adrift from meanings” – Language does at times become dissociated from reality, and not only in such egregious fashions as Trump both proclaims and evidences. Not only is advertising and political discourse full of “unreal” uses of language, but even everyday conversation will find itself saying things which on reflection are not accurate because of sloppy thinking leading to or sometimes provoked by sloppy word usage, whether noun classification or verbal confusion or &c. We need not go to a fully Kafkaesque situation, such as those shown in your link to the appalling contexts that Masha Gessen so carefully describes, to find ourselves misrepresenting the world as we really know it to be. It is an unfortunately general condition, to find oneself in “helpless confusion” (and my thanks to you and Ms Gessen for this Confucian elaboration of the confusion). Of course this is not an unmixed curse – what would become of “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, for instance, and literature generally ?

    2. Lexicographers (by and large) do their best – and would be the first (or sometimes the second) to admit that they may fail. Even the OED, with almost unlimited scope and space, makes mistakes, and my cherished Robert makes many, either on grounds of impenetrability or through lack of precision and errors of omission (leaving aside a text that is hard to read, and etymologies that are rudimentary). But there are still some people who attempt to lay down the law, and refuse to believe that words – at least as used by human beings – can adapt, Humpty Dumpty fashion, to mean almost anything and its opposite.

    3. Quibbles. “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.”

    – Surely “we might not be speaking it today”, and “If it had survived at all”. And I do not know the meaning of “stat.” Is it a Latin apophthegm ? A satirical use of “stet” ? (misprint for “Stan” ?)I look forward to being instructed.

    Footnote: @Chips McKinolty: there is a long tradition in at least English literature of sexual activity being described as pollution, and it is indeed used as a euphemism, but I believe you are unduly prescriptivist in thinking that to be its principal use in the 14C. When Wyclif writes in Judith iv.12 (not 10 as in OED) “and the holi thingus of hem in to pollucioun”, that would normally be translated nowadays by e.g. “profanation and reproach”, there is no particular sexual connotation. The joke, however, can stand.

    Note: these comments were accidentally deleted, and Mr Carey has kindly allowed me to re-post them. I hope I have not bored too many of you by doing so.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you, AR.

      1. Yes, and I would extend your point to encompass virtually any domain where language is used. Advertising, politics, and colloquial chat are commonly associated with ineloquent or sloppy expression, often a result of unclear thinking, but it occurs in more elevated registers too, such as academia and even literature. Schlesinger’s alarmist rhetoric, quoted above, is as good an example as any. The principal problem, I find, is more usually at the level of syntax and argument than word choice. Turning a noun into a novel verb (or vice versa) can, if done skilfully, hone a point. Many critics attack such a technique reflexively, just because the result is unfamiliar or nonstandard; I think this is a good way to show that one lacks understanding of how languages thrive.

      2. Agreed.

      3. Stat is an adverb meaning ‘immediately; at once’; it’s short for Latin statim. Not every dictionary includes it, but you’ll find entries in M-W and AHD, among others.

      Had I reflected on it (instead of publishing the post in a rush, before going offline for the weekend), I might have switched to might as the more ‘proper’ usage. But having consulted Merriam-Webster’s exemplary Dictionary of English Usage, I’ve decided to leave the may as a curious anomaly. M-W says that commentators since the late 1960s ‘have noticed and been puzzled by uses of may where they had expected might‘. It quotes several examples of various types (hypothetical and past-tense), and concludes:

      No one has a satisfying explanation for why these substitutions occur, and we are as stumped as everyone else. Here is about all we can tell you: we have more British evidence for the substitution (and more notice is taken of it by British commentators) than we have American evidence. But we do have both. The substitution is more frequent in speech than in writing. […] We may be seeing here a slow shift in the boundaries between may and might. But we also find a commentator or two worrying about examples where might has replaced may. Our advice to you is to use may and might as they naturally occur to you and not to worry about it.

      Shocking as such advice will seem to some, I’ve decided to heed it and not worry about the usage on this occasion. In a more formal context, I might write more conservatively. But it’s an interesting illustration of the grey areas we’ve been discussing.

      • ardj says:

        Forgot to say, thanks for stet – if I had not been so careless, I could even have looked it up in the OED. ‘might …had’ – disagree with M-W here, but, ah, language changes, dammit

  8. amandachen says:

    >How much of Schlesinger’s fearful nonsense Garner agrees with, or sympathises with, I don’t know.

    Unfortunately I can guess, amirite.

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