English is a democratic language. Vox populi, vox linguae. As soon as 51% of people say something in a particular way, then it becomes correct.
Incorrect English usage. Now there is a minefield. Do not even venture there. “Incorrect” implies that there is such a thing as “correct”, and what is “correct”? Who are you to decide what is and is not correct? On whose authority? And here you find yourself in the firing line.
French has the famous Académie Française. Italy, the renowned Accademia della Crusca. Other languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Hungarian, Polish, German, Arabic, Greek, Russian, Korean and Turkish, have equivalent academic bodies who act as custodians of language as a regulated, monitored and supervised form of expression. They have someone who takes on the responsibility of separating the right from the wrong in grammar, spelling and usage. It is even a position that invites respect.
In England, imposing rules on the language would be instantly considered as undemocratic and an attempt to restrict personal freedom and human rights. You may have been taught that the singular possessive form takes apostrophe, s (as in Tom’s car) but it would be dictatorial and intolerant of you to impose that view on others, who may choose to use apostrophe, s, to illustrate the plural of a noun (as in fish and chip’s, frequently seen listed on the menu blackboards of our beloved pubs).
English is a living, ever-evolving language, and the general belief is, that constricting it within rules would stifle its progress. English is not a carefully pruned rose; it is the free and unruly, miscellaneous plant that takes over the garden.
English is currently the most useful and the most functional language in the world. It is readily available and easy to grab – like a fast food burger. You can have it with any combination of prepositions. So what, if you get them mixed up? Nobody will look down on you, or even correct you – that would go against your human rights, apparently. English is freedom.
English is communication. Why strain your brain learning half a dozen synonyms, when a single word does the trick? The adjective ‘nice’ is a wondrous, multi-purpose, one-size-fits-all, adjective. Nice person, nice food, nice weather, nice house, nice music, nice clothes. Thanks to the supersonic evolution of English, ‘nice’ has outgrown its original 14th Century meaning – stupid. Why burden yourself with vermillion, crimson, scarlet, burgundy and terracotta, when plain old red will do. Why bother with an elaborate dish when you can just fill the hole in your tummy with a cheeseburger? You do not need to spin words like a filigree pattern of silver to get your message across. Let us go back to basics, and adopt a grass roots approach to communication. The Ape-Man coined it perfectly. “Me – Tarzan. You – Jane.” And communication was established.
Sakru Haluk Akalin – Head of the Turkish Language Institute – said, “The limits of your language are the limits of your world.”
I would add, that our language tells the world who we are. So let’s show them.
© Scribe Doll
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Though much of your post seems to favor the so-called “democratic” side of things, your tone at various points leads me to believe you are being somewhat satirical, and that a fattening, non-nutritious overly sloppy burger of a language is really not what you want. As a person with a vested interest in the correct (but not fascistic) use of generally accepted AND accredited language, I really hope you are being satiric. For example, the dangling or misplaced modifying clause is something that many people make mistakes about these days. A day or two ago, in a well-received romance novel, I ran across a sentence with a misplaced modifying phrase which ran something like this (please excuse the topic, it’s what was in the novel): “Erection in hand, the door slammed behind him.” Now that’s a door worth knowing! Do you see what I mean? A door doesn’t HAVE anything like an “erection,” and the modifier is actually meant to modify an unnamed human actor–it makes the attempt at passionately erotic discourse laughable to imagine the door in action! Yet this and other stylistic errors (not to mention grammatical and spelling errors) turn up constantly these days in writing which we are supposed to take seriously as well-written! There’s a lot of room in the English language for change and innovations that are necessary (such as the change from a masculine gender subject/object etc. to a bi-sex referent when the sex of the character or person involved is unknown). By this I’m referring to the use of “he or she” “him or her” and variants such as “he/she” “him/her.” The use of the plural “they” to signify this is not accepted these days by all authorites, though it has received a wide acceptance in the public, and I myself think this is a case where some margin may be allowed. But the original culprits aren’t always who we think they might be–for example did you know that the original person who made up the rule to use “he” and “him” as universal referents was a feminist female, living a couple of hundred years ago, who owned and managed a printing press with her husband? And it’s also true that numerous great writers since her time have used the plural “they” form, so it’s not just something that people are right to point the finger at now as evidence of decline (for anyone interested in reading an article on this particular grammatical act, I think the article occurred in an issue of The New York Magazine (weekend ed.) a year or two ago). Anyway, just speaking for myself–and I’m apologetic that it is at such length, but I have taught both critical and creative writing and also literary courses, and as a teacher and writer I appreciate a well-written sentence– some rules about grammar and style are bendable and changeable, and others must not be broken. As you correctly note, prescriptive grammar (what should be written) has to change sometimes to accomodate descriptive grammar (what people actually say), but everywhere there are agreements and contracts to be negotiated, and I can’t help but feel that language use is another of these areas. Sorry to be such a windbag, but you have hit a sore nerve, which aches like a bad tooth!
I confess, it grates me when I hear ‘they’ indicating one individual of unknown gender. Personally (and I know many people are against this), I wish we had an equivalent of l’Académie Française or Accademia della Crusca. Another thing which irritates me, is “centre ‘around'” (the whole point of centring is being still – otherwise, one ‘revolves’). When I went to a French school, for a few years, correct grammar was paramount. Back in Britain, however, the fact that many people use a particular form becomes accepted. I sometimes wish English grammar had a firmer spine. For me, grammar rules are important as a parameter. People should be taught this parameter, and then it entirely their choice, whether they subscribe to it, or take a stand against it. Picasso was perfectly capable of painting classical, conventional-looking paintings. His veer towards Surrealism was, therefore, a choice on his part, and an exercise in freedom. I believe that everyone should be allowed that choice and that freedom – something impossible, unless they are taught grammar in the first place. You cannot validly rebel unless you know the rules against which you are rebelling. Don’t get me started… :–) It’s the kind of topic I would quite happily discuss for hours (though I am no expert – any grammatical knowledge I may possess is entirely self-taught). I love grammar. It’s the skeletal structure of a language, without which all collapses.
I think we’re saying the same thing in different ways. There is middle “democratic” ground, of course, and that’s so-called “demotic” fiction (a form of writing which often uses dialectal voice(s) or variants. If a whole novel–for example James Kelman’s “How Late It Was, How Late” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”–is written in dialect, it’s called “skaz” after Mikhail Bakhtin). The main thing to decide is who is speaking in the narrative voice. Now, assuming that a person who can write perfectly good English as far as style and grammar decides deliberately to speak in another voice, a country voice, for example, well and good. But as you point out, when someone writes badly because they don’t know any better, it doesn’t really leave an impression of virtuosity, just of carelessness or ignorance. And as you point out, Picasso is an excellent example of someone in a field other than literature who knew the rules and deliberately broke them. Creative work is about rule breaking sometimes, but I agree with you that the rules must first be known. I admire your having the nerve to say so, because this point of view is getting shouted down a lot these days.
Are you following “Anglophonism” @ WordPress?
His blog is one of my favourites when it is about English Language and the history behind…
Hope you like as well.
Not yet, but thank you for flagging it up. I’ll take a look as soon as I can.
Although you are right in much of what you say – for instance that English is a democratic language which grows and develops much like the British Constitution- I don’t think it is as free a language as you make out. Fast food such as burgers helps a lot when you are starving but I am sure that even you would not want such a diet every day. Food comes in many tastes and forms and so does language.
The basic language you depict may be OK for getting round. As a foreigner wishing to be understood on our shores it is perfectly adequate; but I want to express some of my views and delights in the language I use. Although lips are usually red I may wish to compliment my young lady by saying she has crimson lip, or ruby lips. Similarly she will be a little disappointed if I talk about her blue dresses when she takes a lot of trouble to choose clothes that set off her golden (hazel) (auburn) (silver) hair and bring out the sparkle in her sapphire-like eyes. In similar fashion I should like to think that whenever I speak I am being judged – Am I kind? Am I polite? Do I seem the sort person you would like to talk to again other than for asking the way to the rail station?
All this is only about spoken English. When it comes to the written language is seems to me to be another ball game. The language Shakespear used is greatly different from ours and well illustrates your point that language changes and develops. All English changes in many subtle ways depending on when it was written (e.g Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas Jane Austen) The important thing for the modern writer – even if only a sign writer- makes sure that what the reader reads contains the exact meaning which the writer wished to convey. A silly example is the different meanings of while. In the north it means until whilst elsewhere it means during some time. This can be crucial for road signs which read “Wait here while the lights are on red”
Brilliant! I shall advise my students of the 14th Century meaning of the word “nice” next time I find it scattered across the pages of their written work, which will undoutedly be this week!
lol…just sent the Wiktionary etymology of “nice” to a friend who always insisted on using the term “kind” rather than nice. Also attached the Urban dictionary definitions of kind for her as well.
love the cartoon, lost me on the text …. far too many long words I didn’t understand!