Language today is partly tame and partly wild, and the two will always be in tension. —Lane Greene, Talk on the Wild Side
It’s funny how many people profess to love the English language yet express this mostly by moaning about how others use it. Turns out they only love one dialect: the formal English they were taught at school. Other varieties receive their scorn and condescension. Everyday developments like dropped sounds or shifts in meaning are taken as signs of imminent linguistic ruin.
To fear that change could so corrupt English that it would slip into terminal decline is to misunderstand what language is and how we use it. No language in recorded history has ever devolved into grunts, but that hasn’t stopped people worrying that English will, if their favourite scapegoat – young people, managers, Americans, northerners, anyone not white and middle-class – carries on ‘mangling’ it the way they do.
If you have concerns about English being degraded, grab yourself a copy of Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language by Lane Greene, newly published by Profile Books (who kindly sent me a copy). In fact, if you’re at all interested in language change and the remarkable efforts people have made to thwart or control that change, you’ll find much to enjoy in Greene’s book.
Contemporary discussions about usage show language to be a subject bedevilled by misinformation: everyone’s an expert, yet people defer to any Jane or Joe Soap on the street, even to the most absurd cranks, in their anxiety not to break any rules. Peeving is rife in popular discourse: as Greene puts it, ‘The public conversation about language is dominated by a kind of middlebrow irascibility.’
Much of this ire arises because of ignorance about the difference between normal and formal English. Formal English has an important but limited role; normal English, as its name suggests, is what most English-speakers use most of the time. Purists and peevers often fail to realise or accept that normal English is usually perfectly appropriate. Here’s Greene:
Elegant formal written language isn’t the only form of language that matters. Language is a many-faceted thing. Slang and dialect, jocular play with non-standard forms, teen-speak, text-speak, corporate jargon, political waffle and all the other kinds of language typically loathed by the letter-to-the-editor type have their places. These forms are not a threat to language’s health. Their persistence shows that they fill a need. Not all language is well behaved, nor does it need to be.
This idea of filling a need recurs in the book, at different levels. Certain usages emerge and may be considered abominable at first, but if they are useful they stand a chance of surviving and spreading. On a broader level, a deeper truth obtains:
Scientists have never found a language that has fallen to pieces. It’s not in language’s nature. Humans need it to do too many important things.
Talk on the Wild Side is not just another corrective to misguided ‘corrections’. It looks at many different efforts to engineer language. Seven essay-like chapters delve into ways that would-be improvers have sought to tame or fix language. One explores how languages change over time, lopping off bits of words and then fusing bits together again – to no ultimate harm. A brief history of machine translation shows how efforts to automate translation with algorithms were doomed by their very premise.
Among the most ambitious attempts to refashion language are experiments in language creation. Greene zeroes in on Loglan and Lojban, invented to be logical in a way that natural languages cannot be: Will thought itself be clearer in a language with no ambiguity? These endeavours, though intriguing, haven’t caught on among the masses, and even their fans acknowledge their limitations. (I was glad to find John Cowan, author of The Complete Lojban Language and often seen around these parts, feature in this chapter.)
Greene covers the language beat at the Economist and won the Linguistic Society of America’s journalism award in 2017. With this background he offers astute insights into the politics of language, national and personal, including a useful review of Orwell, Lakoff, and techniques of persuasion in the time of Trump. He moves things along at a good pace: the book is a modest 215 pages, excluding notes; it’s easy to imagine another author struggling to say as much in under 300. The result – or the cause – is a pleasing briskness:
If sounds and words are part of the system, grammar is the system. And many people are convinced that grammar is in decline. Happily, this is bunk.
Greene, an avowed polyglot, has a deep interest in language that is evident all through the book. Every language, he writes, ‘is a unique product of humankind’s genius’. He knows, too, when to bend the rules. Describing comma splices as ‘rare in edited prose today’ (though I’ve a file with 30,000 words that shows otherwise), he still knows they’re an option when the occasion suits:
Thought isn’t language, language isn’t just grammar, grammar isn’t usually what the hardiest of grouches think it should be.
Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language is thoroughly recommended – to language fans, critics, educators, and learners – for its good sense, admirable attitude, and thoughtful commentary on the nature of language and the infinitely varied and complicated ways we use it. It’s available from the publisher at the link above or from your preferred bookstore. And how great is that cover art by Sinem Erkas?