I am a language fiend. I have nightmares about incorrect apostrophes. I enjoy wrestling with (and using the term) semantics, and will interrupt people mid-sentence to praise them on the use of a good word. In short, I find language fascinating – but I realise not everyone feels the same. Why is this? Am I just an obsessive compulsive with an over-analytical mind? Possibly, though I don’t think that’s the real problem. I feel language, and the study of it, simply gets bad press.
Of course, the field of language study doesn’t help itself – think of the word “linguistics”, and your mind will usually furnish you with images of dusty old academics, holed up far from reality in the basements of university libraries, poring over the minutiae of punctuation and phonology. Even Lynne Truss’s seminal Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which opened the floodgates for a whole range of books offering humorous takes on “the state” of modern English, failed to improve the image of language enthusiasts. Instead, it gave rise to a wave of irritating “Grammar Fascism”, whereby empowered linguistic stick-in-the muds like me see fit to correct the usage of those simply trying to conduct a normal conversation. However, despite its successors becoming regulars in my Christmas stocking, I never actually finished ESaL, finding even an amusing a book on punctuation to be too much like hard work.
This was an epiphany for me: much though I loved to analyse language and prided myself on using it well, in this book, I had found my limit. I knew semi-colons were important and found the abuse of them unholy, yet I couldn’t bring myself to read a whole chapter on where to put a dot and a dash in a sentence. I had gone past the point of caring, worn down by the long sections on commas and apostrophes. “This,” I thought to myself, “must be what it feels like for everyone else.”
Lying there on my bed in my parents’ house, I had unwittingly discovered the crux of the problem. It is not that people in general are unaware of how language works (though some undoubtedly are); they simply do not care enough about it to worry about the difference an extra comma makes, or whether to say “fewer” rather than “less”. The majority of society sees language simply as a tool for communication and, as long as they get their message across, most people are happy not to bother about the finer points. So much of what we say and write can be understood from context, so why make it more difficult than it needs to be?
Of course, prescriptivists like Truss would argue that it is precisely this attitude that is leading to the deterioration of our language. Indeed, the title Eats, Shoots and Leaves itself refers to a joke where bad punctuation results in a surreal misunderstanding, and it is obvious that a basic understanding of the rules of any language is necessary for successful social interaction. But this misses the point. Constantly reminding people of their errors does not usually make them want to understand more about how language works. It puts them off. It can derail their train of thought, undermine their argument and make you seem like a pompous buffoon into the bargain, especially if the meaning of what they were trying to say was clear anyway.
Besides, language has always evolved. It is an instrument for communication, and adapts to suit our needs. Remember reading Shakespeare or Chaucer at school, and laughing at how poncey all the characters sounded? The famous line “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” employs a word – wherefore – that has fallen out of use in modern English, but still served a purpose in Shakespeare’s time. Of course, we all took it to be a flowery way of saying “where” at first, but our teacher soon put us right on that one. It actually means “why” – not in the sense of “what caused you to have that name?” (which should be pretty obvious, even before the advent of sex education), but in the sense of “what purpose does it serve?” or “what good does it do?” We don’t speak like that now because, although very poetic, the Bard’s language seems cumbersome and impractical in the modern world, where everything moves much faster. Words like “wherefore” become obsolete because we don’t need them; “why” works fine unless you’re talking to an idiot.
Language is a fascinating subject – it has at least as much to offer as, say, history, or music. It is always relevant, constantly changing and forms a key part of our social and cultural identities. But while our televisions and magazines are filled with “talent” shows and documentaries on World War II, language still gets very little press coverage – and even less of it is beneficial, due to the potential complexity of the subject and the elitism of many of its proponents. With this blog, I hope to go some way to setting the record straight by presenting language as I see it: an intrinsic part of everyday life and a gateway to understanding the world.
In the meantime, feel free to correct my grammar in this article.