Whose Language Is It, Anyway?

  Jerome Shea       January 5, 2008      Weekend Wonk

A friend sends along an item from the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Reign in those vocal chords.” Uh oh. The English teacher in me feels at once very annoyed and very tired. And it is as bad as I expected. Turns out, the Oxford University Press, in regard to its dictionaries, has decided to accept as correct spellings which were once deemed incorrect in certain stock phrases. OUP will accept these solecisms “simply because a lot of people use them.” For example, careful people, people who pay attention, will write—have always written —“REIN in your enthusiasm; we’re not out of the woods yet,” recognizing the equestrian metaphor. But there have always been—and will always be—those that write “REIGN in your enthusiasm…” and the OUP has decided that they, too, are now correct. These shock troops of the unwashed can now also get away with “vocal chords,” “baited breath,” and Lord knows what else.

A black day, my friends.

Or maybe not, although I do think the OUP decision is a particularly egregious example in the never-ending tug of war between the prescriptivist camp and the descriptivist camp in language use. What do the two camps signify? Well, does somebody (or, more likely, some body) make the language rules that we all should abide by?* Is it the job of language mavens to PRESCRIBE how we should behave in our speech and writing—and heaven help those who get out of line? Or do language rules and language change arise more subtly—organically, if you will, and slowly—and is the job of the linguist simply to DESCRIBE and document changes without passing judgment on them?

Let me put it more starkly. Who owns the language? A cabal of English teachers…or all of us? Who decided that “I don’t got no money” is wrong, or, as we say, “bad grammar”?** Who decreed that the past tense of the verb “to lead” is not “lead,” as I often see in student papers, but “led”? More to the point, if students and journalists and whoever else persist in spelling it “lead,” like the metal, who is to say that it will not eventually become “correct,” Shea’s tender feelings notwithstanding?

I doubt that anyone would deny that language is an invention of the people—all the people—who use it. Where else could it possibly come from? The real argument here is over what constitutes “correct” language, and how to enforce it. That’s where we English teachers (and dictionary makers and other poobahs) come in. That’s also why, when the guy next to me on the plane finds out that I am an English teacher, an awkward chill descends. We all take language seriously. I am heartened by that, just as I am heartened that we all take education seriously. But he and I are both relieved to go our separate ways at O’Hare.

A notable example of a people who try to police their language is the French. The Academie Francaise was established way back in 1635 to dictate to all good Frenchmen what is correct French and what is not. New words and new uses are rigorously debated and a judgment is passed down. It is a risible failure. The elite fuss and fume, but the (French)man in the street still refers shamelessly to le weekend and le Big Mac, par example!

Mais alors (Sorry. French was my second language once), it can’t be done. Language is organic. It changes, despite the raging of us English teachers. It grows. I used to recount with mock horror to my grammar students a change I discovered not only within my own lifetime but within my own family, when son Dan broke something (a fishbowl, if memory serves). “I’m sorry, Dad!” he wailed. “But I did it ON ACCIDENT.” That “bad grammar” appalled me much more than did the water and broken glass on the floor (we did rescue the poor fish). “ON accident”! Mon Dieu!

But in fact if you tell anyone under thirty—and believe me, I have—that the “correct” locution is “BY accident,” as it certainly was in my day, you will get a very funny and probably pitying look. Language changes, and neither our piety nor wit “shall lure it back…or cancel out a word of it.”

But wait! Don’t fall on your Bic yet! I’ll be back next week with more.

*Like not ending a sentence with a preposition.

**Let us at least clarify a couple of terms, “bad usage” and “bad grammar.” What gets people’s dander up is bad usage. Bad grammar is, technically, something that a native speaker would never say. It is the difference between “I don’t got no money” and “John is being very tall.” You may deplore the first construction, but you cannot deny that some native speakers use it. In the second case, the speaker has just got off the proverbial boat. The first speaker gets our deep scorn, the second our condescending forgiveness. After all, he said it on accident.

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