Guarding the gates of English
Photo by Elias Gayles / CC 2.0
Students are anxious to learn it. Dictionaries try to define it. Media outlets develop extensive style guides for it. Governments try to control it.
What sounds like a new crack epidemic is, in fact, just a language: English.
We live in a world surrounded by many different types of English. You can enjoy the weird and wonderful offerings of Urban Dictionary, smile when an Indian businessman asks you to prepone your meeting, or watch The Wire and realise you need subtitles.
But ‘proper English’ is still a desirable commodity – and big business. So who gets to decide what it is?
Dead white males
In 1876, the Prussian Minister of Culture, Aadelbert Falk invited delegates from all the German-speaking territories to Berlin, to attend the fabulously named ‘Conference for the Establishment of Greater Unity in German Orthography’. German was reformed and standardised, a process that continues to this day, with the most recent changes in 1996.
France went one better and established the venerable Académie française in 1635, the final authority on all matters pertaining to the French language. It is still alive and kicking today – naturally, its 40 members are known as ‘Immortals’ – with an official dictionary that blows a big fat raspberry towards English, insisting on courriel instead of email.
So why isn’t there something like this for English?
The history of the English language is not that of ordered change or reform but rather that of a great staggering beast, lurching from continent to continent, shaped by accident, war and chance. Whether you blame geography, cultural difference (or perhaps indifference), or colonial expansion, the fact remains that there is no single institution to which English speakers worldwide can point to and say: this defines correct and proper English.
Leather and paper
Dictionaries have always been considered the traditional guardians of established language, and in the case of British English, none more so than the Oxford English Dictionary.
Its remarkably detailed system of quotations, many submitted by a man in a mental asylum, is the linguistic equivalent of fossil bedrock: heavy (over 60kg), tough to dig through, and richly rewarding if you have the tools and the patience.
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Noah Webster was setting out to change the way Americans wrote and spoke. He was by all accounts severe, correct, and humourless, which may be why he wrote a dictionary – one that altered the course of American English forever. Maybe one of these days the US might even tacitly acknowledge his impact by making English an official language.
For over a century these dictionaries were unassailable fortresses. But the digital age is steadily eroding their foundations and challenging their authority.
When did you last use a dictionary? Was that before or after the last time you looked at a Microsoft Word document and saw a squiggly red line under a word? You probably used the autocorrect function, or perhaps you went to an online crowd-sourced dictionary like Wiktionary. It’s certainly faster than going to the shelf, but how much do you trust it?
Many meta-lexicographers (an excellent word to throw around at dinner parties) have long believed that users regard dictionaries as repositories of linguistic truth rather than indicators of actual usage. How we should speak, not how we really speak.
But if enough people use it, at what point does it become ‘proper English’?
David Foster Wallace claimed in 2001 that American language was in the midst of a Crisis of Authority. Today, English as a whole is in the midst of an ongoing Crisis of Identity.
It is simultaneously the language of a faded colonial superpower and its former colonies, the language of a fading superpower, the language of Hollywood, the lingua franca of business, science and the Internet, the default language of international travel, and probably a source of dread for many millions of young schoolchildren across the globe.
Size matters. The volume and speed of English flowing around the world, through phone lines and cables, at airports and in hotels, is greater and faster than at any previous point in human history. It’s hard to monitor and even harder to control. The grammar police, whose furious letters were once a staple of the Letters to the Editor pages, are being drowned in the flood.
The tech giants are key players in tracking and shaping this flow. Predictive text and spell checkers are already arguably more powerful than any dictionary.
Let’s not ignore another set of traditional gatekeepers, those who teach English, either as a first or a second language, and provide testing and accreditation. They have to be authorities: their business model relies upon a very specific definition of ‘proper English’. When Foster Wallace was teaching in American colleges, he often found it helpful to explain to bemused students that Standard Written English is simply a sub-dialect of English – no more or less correct than any other.
The idea that usage + time = acceptance can be seen as democratic or as a sign that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, depending on your perspective. The ‘rules’ of correct English – and the gatekeepers that guard them – are essentially reactive forces. Can they keep up with the speed at which the language is evolving?
For all its insistence on rules, what feels right in a language is often precisely that. We are constantly told that mastering a foreign language means developing ‘a feel’ for it.
“I know it when I see it”, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography.
Perhaps we could say the same about ‘proper English’.