Word Up

I hate ‘puritans’ of language. Hate is a strong word, but I really do. You know the type, the pretentious stormtroopers of the grammar Nazi party: the feckless, condescending jerks who seek desperate intellectual credit by spouting endless nonsense about their false passion  for and knowledge of The English Language.

I’m not talking about those who respect correct spelling. I’m talking about the smarmy ones who peer down their beaks at anyone whose Facebook status is missing a comma and wince whenever ‘who’ is used instead of ‘whom’.  They clutch their little orange Penguin Classic paperback tightly and find joy in their pompous judgement of texts. It is of zero importance to them that something reads enjoyably or naturally or poignantly. It can be so overwrought and tedious your eyes would tear up and refuse to read it, but so long as it is cleansed of demonic split infinitives, non-reflexive pronouns and (gasp) stranded prepositions, then it gets their stamp of approval. Well, to these people I repeat the withering retort that may or may not have been said by Sir Winston Churchill: “This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.”

There is nothing wrong about being passionate about language. I love it, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. But it’s just so fascist to think the joy of language is to sniff out the zee radicals and punish them in zee manner befitting zee crime. I believe the true joy found in language is its artistic malleability. The written word yields great power when used cleverly, not necessarily correctly. Churchill’s quote demonstrates this deftly, cheekily – utterly brilliantly. True mastery of language is not to adhere to linguistic law but to bend its supposed boundaries and rules to craft a message with wit, intention and impact. The message is always more important than immaculate grammatical piety. Think of the ‘spoon’ scene in the Matrix. There is no spoon. Of spoon, there is none. Cut to Keanu Reeves’ vacant expression aaaand there it is. It all makes sense now.

Words and punctuation are just the materials to create language. They are imbued with their own meanings and purposes, but they are there to be manipulated, reshaped – reforged. Language is alive. It evolves over time, it empowers those who use it and it defines the culture they live in. But it can only do so if it’s able to move as nimbly as society itself. Worrying over correctness of words is like sheltering a child from the world; safeguarded from evil, but denied the opportunity to grow and flourish. If you really loved language, you’d let it be free. You wouldn’t allow it to perish, imprisoned on the pages of stale dictionaries and reference tomes.

So, if I casually slip in a ‘totes’ mid-conversation without a need to explain its meaning – where’s the problem? New words come, old words go. Words have to change. They need to adapt so they can continue to survive in the vibrant ecology of language. We naturally decide what sticks; we adopt the terms and idioms that offer us enough sense to improve communication and reject those that don’t. Why did so many English words shed the letter ‘e’ from their posteriors? Why is it that Americans and British use semi-colons differently? For the same reason our modern banter is a delicious, steaming casserole of leftovers from ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Germanic speak: you cannot quell the course of nature.

'Sir, I'll remind you it is a serious offence to expose your dangling participle in public.'

Sure there must be something keeping us from falling into complete linguistic anarchy – but it’s self regulation. I believe the rules are ‘should’ not ‘must’. It’s not engineering – you build intangible structures with language, not bridges that could buckle and fall into the sea and claim thousands of lives with it. The only thing at risk of collapse is meaning, but that’s a relative concept.

If we insist on composing a list of rules, they should be flexible enough to change too, when the time is right, or when someone shows us a better way. William Shakespeare cared not for Propere Englishe. He wrote for his audience: the great unwashed, the toothless and uneducated. His words today are vaunted today as the absolute epitome of English eloquence and mastery of phrase, and perhaps that’s because in the 16th Century there were no defined rules of grammar.  In fact, its the shoulders of the Bard and contemporaries such as Sir Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe (who some believe was Shakespeare), that carried the English language into a new era – to it’s very own enlightenment. These literary pioneers enriched language by expanding the vocabulary, giving words more life and purpose. Nouns and verbs meshed; phrases were coined; words were invented, extended, inverted and upended. The number of words Shakespeare is responsible for introducing to the English tongue is something in the region of 2,000. It’s staggering, and it confirmed his place as one of the most important people in English history. But today, as the English language sits wrapped and bound with more locks and shackles than even Houdini would dare wear, anyone daring enough to experiment with words so liberally is a linguistic heathen.

Well, besides the fact that  no-one can ordain themselves the right to police language, I think the language pedant’s problem has nothing to do with their love of language and pain at seeing it tampered with. It’s that they are scared of the fact that they really do not have control over something that’s used to apply some sort of class superiority over others. Education is the foundation of class-division in a Anglicised society; centuries ago it was having an education at all, these days it’s about exclusive schools and the supposed quality attached to that. Proper English, it seems, is a projection of this educational superiority, not talking like a commoner and all. But, like all nobility in history, they fear the peasantry. Land barons forever dreaded the day they’d awake to peer out their castle window and see the entire townsfolk lined at the crest of the hill, hoisting pitchforks and baying for blood. Well, that innate fear of uprising exists within the pretentiousness of the language pedants. ‘The commoners are after our words and heaven knows what atrocious evils they will commit upon them!’

Well, as long as peasants with pens continue to mangle, mutilate and maim the English language, I’ll indulge the apparently sadistic pleasure. Language is rad, like totes rad.

And here, doing it a shitload betterer than I, is Stephen Fry making the same argument.


One Comment on “Word Up”

  1. artiris says:

    Love this one Chris. And totally into “bending boundaries and rules” of language (well of anything really). In fact, I think to be able to do this cleverly is a sign of a highest degree of literacy. I’d say that in any “craft” (i.e. film, art, music, poetry, whatever) the rules are first learned only to be eventually elegantly broken. The artistry is in breaking them.

    One thing I love about not being proliferate in English is that I sometimes unknowingly “invent” some weird expressions which at times my friends come to really like. The lack of knowledge allows me to be playful with the language which I would maybe not dare to do if I knew it perfectly. I am less brave to go down that path in my native language.

    I’m just realising that my first and second paragraph are contradicting. Hm, nothing unusual…


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