Why people get peevish about English

There are few topics – religion and politics are probably the best examples – which generate as much entrenched opinion as language, particularly English.

Linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum, language users, notably Oliver Kamm, even Merriam-Webster’s largest English style guide, have been trying to undermine the prescriptivist approach to English for many decades. Go back and read the reference grammars written by Henry Sweet and Otto Jespersen from over a century ago, and you will see much the same message as that in the more enlightened writings about English today.

The recent essay by Oliver Kamm published by the Wall Street Journal brought another tirade of support for prescriptivism, and spilled over onto Slashdot. Scrutiny of those comments reveals nothing new. The arguments put against a descriptive approach to English grammar and usage are, without exception, the same as discussed by Pullum, Kamm, and many others. No one though has come back with anything to counter the descriptive approach: in advancing the same, broken points, those who consider that prescriptivist grammars, etc., are needed still do not see the flaws in their case.

I believe that there are two issues which merit re-examination.

Language as communication, and the requirement for precision and rigour

Probably the only valid issue raised by prescriptivists is the requirement for language, particularly English which is the official language of administration and law in almost 60 sovereign states, to be sufficiently precise for legislative acts, standards, scholarly communication, and the like.

Anyone who has worked with legislation, law, standards, or in academia is fully aware that each has its own register. Indeed, different standards bodies, legislatures, and academic disciplines have their own sub-registers in which words assume quite specific meanings, and grammatical forms may be very different from those of written Standard English. In Europe, this is so well developed that it has become a matter of jokes.

For example, European Directives invariably start with an inordinately long sentence of the form
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND THE COUNCIL OF THE EUROPEAN UNION, Having regard to the Treaty establishing the European Community, and in particular Article 175(1) thereof, Having regard to the proposal from the Commission, Having regard to the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee (1), After consulting the Committee of the Regions, Acting in accordance with the procedure laid down in Article 251 of the Treaty (2), Whereas:
[following which is an enumerated list of objectives]
[which then launches into the directive proper, including definitions of words which have special meanings which are local to that directive.]

The ‘meat’ of the directive then consists of sections laying out requirements, typically starting with a phrase such as
Member States shall take the necessary measures to
in which the word shall has a register-specific meaning of obligation, quite different from its rapidly diminishing use in the future tense.

Even overlooking the eccentric capitalisation and other styling, there is no way that anyone familiar with Standard English would consider writing (or speaking) in that way.

So anyone familiar enough with formal communications of this type, in which precision is a key requirement, will know that they do not use the same register as those used by other writers and speakers of English. Thus the requirement for this type of rigour and precision in communications is not an issue for a descriptivist approach to Standard English. As long as the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader are in a common register, and understand one another, there is no need for prescriptivism in other more generally-used registers.

The Mother Tongue

I raised this issue in my review here of Oliver Kamm’s book, and would like to flesh it out a bit more now. Interestingly, not one comment identified this explicitly as the reason for being prescriptivist. However very many of the comments have this as a common underlying reason for not wanting language change.

Currently, and very roughly, there are around 400 million people in the world who speak English as their ‘native’ language, that is the language which they used during childhood. However there are around 400 million who speak English as their second language, which may have been learnt during childhood but was not that used in their family, and around 700 million who speak English as a foreign language. In other words, only a quarter of English speakers are using their ‘native’ language when they speak or write English.

Prior to 1900, and in many areas well into the twentieth century, few English speakers communicated with those outside their own immediate area, and most only spoke with others of the same social class. Regional dialects in the UK and US were marked and distinctive, most having their own vocabulary and some even having their own grammar.

Over the last half century, not only has English proliferated in its use across the world, but communication in English between individuals and groups who are widely scattered geographically (and linguistically) has increased in unprecedented fashion. The combination of rapid international travel, widespread dissemination of mass media such as American movies and TV programmes, and most recently the Internet, has brought the whole world into contact with one another.

Although it is not clear whether the rate of linguistic change in English has increased as a result of this changed pattern of communication and growth in non-native speakers, what is clear is that native speakers of English are now exposed to more English which differs from their own native dialect. In 1900 few British English speakers would have heard American English being spoken; today it is possible for a British English speaker to hear only American English during the entire day, if they choose appropriate TV channels.

Developmental linguistics has shown how important acquisition of first language is. Although the (strong) Whorfian hypothesis, that language determines thought, is generally rejected, many (perhaps all) people carry over childhood influences and behaviours into adult life. Many of these are among the things that we hold most dear, despite often being irrational, sometimes ill-fitting an adult world of change.

I believe that our first or ‘native’ language, that used for communication between child and carers, usually that common to our earliest education, first friends, and initial memories of life, holds a particular place as the Mother Tongue. It has strong and deep emotional associations, with poems learned during childhood, and with the culture and social circumstances in which we are each brought up.

For the majority of those who speak English now, their Mother Tongue is a different language. Being exposed to different Englishes and apparent change in English lacks the emotional connotations of change in their Mother Tongue. But for the minority who may still internally recite long-superseded versions of prayers, or poetry remembered from childhood, reading and hearing such different English is deeply unsettling.

The response of those for whom English – and an English which becomes progressively more different with advancing age – is their Mother Tongue is often therefore to try to freeze its ‘rules’ as they were during their childhood. In an ever-changing and unsettling world, they want to cling on to one of the few constancies in their life. But they cannot give any rational and defensible reason for doing so.

Furthermore, as most lack linguistic training, the arguments that they put are often based on flawed accounts of their Mother Tongue. Geoffrey Pullum, Mark Liberman, and others on Language Log, Oliver Kamm, and many others have highlighted how, for example, prescriptivist edicts about passives often reveal that their perpetrators do not know what a passive is.

This does not, of course, make all those who are prescriptive about English also those whose Mother Tongue is English: sometimes ideas rub off onto others. Equally there are many whose Mother Tongue is English who are ardent descriptivists.

The way ahead for English

If those whose Mother Tongue is English and who are prescriptive as a result were the majority of English speakers, then a campaign to enforce stasis in the language might have limited chances of success. However, given the above facts about modern English, prescriptivism will not only fail under the far greater force of change, but prescriptivism will steadily die out.

Some prescriptivists point to one possible consequence, that English will shatter into two or more languages. Although unpredictable, the sheer number of English speakers and their constant exchange would appear to make that unlikely. Equally, the possibility that change in English will become so rapid that speakers will be unable to keep up with that change, appears impossible.

Languages and their users determine rates and directions of change. That perhaps is the most important conclusion of all, and which seals the fate of prescriptivism.