People fall into two categories regarding their attitudes towards language, says Lane Greene in the introduction of his second book Talk on the Wild Side. Prescriptivists are would-be interventionists, worrying that it will go to the dogs if not looked after; whereas descriptivists accept that changes can and do happen and try to work out how and why. Talk on the Wild Side is written to reassure prescriptivists that their worries are unfounded. The central point of the book is that languages are alive: they are in constant flux. Some innovations stand the test of time and get incorporated into the language, some don’t, but no language has ever fallen apart, says Greene, a linguistic journalist who writes a column for The Economist.
The book takes the form of seven chapters, each one of which almost stands alone in its own right, illustrating a different aspect of the complexity and robustness of languages in general. The concerns of the prescriptivists are seen off in the first two of them. Using synthetic languages as an illustration, Greene shows that striving for total logic in a language is unfeasible (and possibly unlearnable). Next there’s a chapter dedicated to debunking common grammar misconceptions and denouncing the ‘experts’ who peddle them (‘they’ to avoid a gender specific ‘he’ or ‘she’, a common bugbear of grammar pedants, has been in use since sometime in the fourteenth century, apparently).
Having fulfilled its main premise, Talk on the Wild Side is now free to roam through all manner of interesting and more or less related topics. By way of proving that languages are quite complicated, Greene cites the difficulties of reliable machine translation – still painfully inaccurate after sixty or so years of development.
A chapter on language as an ecosystem explains how so many words in English ended up being pronounced so differently to the way in which they are written. (French, another language resistant to innovation, also has many silent letters, whereas more modern languages such as Italian and Turkish are written pretty much the way they are spoken). This segues neatly into a discussion of the theories on how languages evolve, and where English might currently stand in the cycle.
Next, we move on to dialect. It seems that what distinguishes a dialect from a language is often politics or sheer luck:
“The English this book is written in is the descendant of one of England’s many different dialects, but it happens to be one that was spoken in a triangle of important English cities, London, Oxford and Cambridge, at a critical period around the rise of printing.”
‘Changing register’, moving between formal and informal language, is covered in the contexts of politics and education. Greene argues that formal situations call for formal language; in other situations a more casual approach is more appropriate. He cites research which shows that it’s counterproductive to correct children who use informal language or dialects at home, and that teachers get better results if they explain the need to use more formal language in some situations. He also talks about the British education system’s current enthusiasm for grammar and how that came about.
“Linguists, who truly love grammar, describe it as the set of rules that generate well-formed sentences in a language. But the schoolchild learns, … that grammar is a set of rules for torturing your natural sentences into an unnatural form that will satisfy a teacher.”
Changing register is becoming an essential skill even for politicians: whereas at one time politics was conducted entirely in formal register, these days politicians need to be able to vary their way of speaking according to their audience. And although the framing of an issue can to a certain extent sway voters, Greene begs to differ with Orwell’s view that language is key to fixing politics.
Greene is a journalist first and a linguist second: Talk on the Wild Side is pitched for the curious amateur. As an enthusiastic but uneducated language nerd, I found it fascinating.
Any Cop?: I’m not convinced that this would actually win over a prescriptivist but it’s given me loads of ammunition for the next time I get into an argument with one.