Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Linguistic Change Doesn't Equal Linguistic Decay (Necessarily)

I've started reading a fascinating book, The Lexicographer's Dilemma, with the catchy subtitle, The Evolution of 'Proper English,' from Shakespeare to South Park. Click here for an excerpt, though I encourage lovers of the English language to buy your own copy or, better yet, borrow one from the library.

The writer, Jack Lynch, poses the question: How is it "wrong" if everyone speaks that way? Going back centuries, every generation has bemoaned the degradation of the English language. Kids these days, they don't know how to talk or write. But language necessarily evolves; the rules, he suggests, are less important than usage. We can't capture and crystallize the English language and say that this is the only way to speak it correctly. Technology changes, and the way we communicate changes; thus, focusing on what is "correct" puts undue anxiety on speakers and writers alike. Bad grammar, he says, can result in good writing, just as good grammar can result in bad writing.

As an English teacher, I read this book with great interest. I recognize the arbitrariness of the rules, the way language is used to impose and enforce a power structure. But I also recognize the power of language as a means of communication. I see the need for clarity and unambiguity in certain contexts. I see the importance of learning how to writing and speak "Standard English" because of the way our society works. Again, it's a fascinating book.


Nana is doing much better. She's still in the hospital but much closer to her old self. I've spent most days this week with her, and I'm lucky that my jobs afford me the flexibility to do that. I'll share a quote from my brother's godfather that my dad quoted on his own blog:

Loss, and the grief that comes from it, is one of the greatest occasions of deep and sad feeling, and it’s one that is socially acceptable. When we lose a beloved friend, wife, husband, child, parent, or maybe a possession or a job, we feel it’s okay to feel deeply. But we must broaden that. We’ve got to find a passion that is also experienced when we have it, not just when we’re losing it. And we have it all the time. Don’t wait for loss to feel, suffer, or enjoy deeply.


Sevach said...

Amen to both sentiments in this post.

Funnily enough, I think because I have gone through the process of grief several times in my youth, I am not afraid to feel deeply or passionately about things. I suppose I am used to reassessing what is important and what is not, even though I often lose my way and tend to focus on the wrong things.

Also, seconding you, there is a difference between bad grammar that nevertheless maintains or invents a new eloquence, and bad grammar which renders the sentence unreadable. Sadly, I get A LOT of the latter from my students.

mkcillip said...

Sometimes old rules make it difficult to convey a specific meaning. Over the years, I've come to eventually appreciate even (usefully) split infinitives!