November 16, 2005

Language and Liberty

The most delightful and insightful popular history of the English language I've read is Robert Claiborne's The Life & Times of the English Language: The History of our Marvellous Native Tongue. Several aspects of Claiborne's treatment are especially interesting. First, he is not shy about celebrating the English language as the greatest vehicle for communication in the history of humankind. That's not jingoism: Claiborne points out that English has three times as many words as its nearest "competitor" (French) and continues to borrow and create words at a faster pace than other tongues, thus making possible a range and subtlety of expression that no other language can match. Second, he connects the incredible flexibility of English with the flexibilty of Anglospheric customs and institutions: for Claiborne, language and liberty go hand-in-hand. More than any other major culture, the Anglosphere has been open to emergent orders rather than imposed orders; not for the British or Americans the centralized linguistic planning of the Académie Française. No, folks in the Anglosphere are pretty darn libertarian about language, which is not unconnected with the fact that they tend to be more libertarian about society as well. Not surprisingly, Claiborne comes down closer to the linguistic descriptivists than he does to the linguistic prescriptivists. After all, our language has always been changing -- from Indo-European to proto-Germanic to the Old English of the Angles and Jutes and Saxons to the Middle English of Chaucer to the Modern English we know today. Common sense, good taste, and clear expression are always in style, but prescriptivism is mere muddleheadedness. An English settled and prescribed for all time would not be our free, living, ever-changing English. A free folk need a living language. May we English-speakers always have our language and our liberty.

(Previously posted at one small voice.)

Posted by Peter Saint-Andre at November 16, 2005 10:20 PM

One of the interesting questions for the rest of this century will be what effect Anglosphere convergence will have on the language. India is the most obvous example; as English usage continues to penetrate the non-elite classes of India, and as India continues to enmesh itself commercially and socially with the Anglosphere, it is hard to see how there will not be substantial crossover vocabulary from Indian English to the English of the rest of the Anglosphere. This will be particularly true once Bollywood figures out how to make films that appeal to the rest of us -- if Hong Kong could do it Bollywood certainly will.

We don't know where the other influences will come from; there are bound to be some surprises. That's what makes it all fun.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 16, 2005 10:55 PM

One of the interesting questions for the rest of this century will be what effect Anglosphere convergence will have on the language. India is the most obvous example...

Hmmmm...well, as I type this comment, like any right-thinking blogger, I'm in my pajamas...

Posted by: Rand Simberg at November 16, 2005 11:53 PM

"Hmmmm...well, as I type this comment, like any right-thinking blogger, I'm in my pajamas..."

In a bungalow, by any chance?

Whoops, see, it's already started!!

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 17, 2005 12:17 AM

English's lack of centralization isn't always positive. I'm an ESL teacher and one of the things that annoys me is the lack of a normative grammar a la Grévisse. There are so many aspects of English grammar that I can't explain to my students because I simply can't find the information; or it's so contradictory, it's useless. My students hate English pronunciation and spelling which they regard as totally irrational. I concour, isn't it telling that in America, children compete in spelling bees while here in Quebec and the Franchophonie compete in dictées?
Further, I wouldn't be surprised if English has one of the highest rates of dyslexia among its youth I had immense trouble with English spelling as a kid and I still have to consult a dictionary to make sure with some more complicated words.
As I pointed out in a previous comment, I accept the futility of persuading the Ansglophones to reform their spelling but I vehemently insist that the English language have a normative grammar book. The hedgehog can contribute positively to the gothic fox's inordinate love disorganization.
Finally, don't forget that chaos has its limits and English can't let itself become so chaotic that it become irrational and incomprehensible.


Posted by: xavier at November 17, 2005 06:49 AM


Don't let the idea of 'chaos' fool you.

There is a kind of free-market for words. If a word is useful then it is adopted into the language. If it is not then it is abandoned. It is not that there is no order imposed on the English language so much as the order is imposed by all of its speakers. This works in much the same way that the invisible hand works to direct the economy more efficiently than the central planner ever could.

Posted by: mark at November 17, 2005 07:34 AM

I vehemently insist that the English language have a normative grammar book.

How French. I can see the foot stomping.

Isn't that why we take Latin, to learn grammar?

What's wrong with a copy of Fowler's 2nd edition if you want something about English?

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at November 17, 2005 09:14 AM

Xavier. As to a normative grammar, there are several, so pick one which will be generally accepted and use it. The point should be "functionality" not "correctness".

It is also false to say our spelling is irrational. It is rather full of embedded historical vestiges which tell us something about the origin of the word. This also has overlap with other things in English culture. Trying to "rationalize" spelling would strip out a lot of real data. Silent letters, etc. give cues to the meaning of the word, latin or german analogs, etc. A core vocabulary can be memorized on a rote basis, then more acquired by reading. Plus, we have spellcheck now.

Posted by: Lex at November 17, 2005 09:23 AM

As to English orthography, count me on Lex's side. The issues are insuperable. Whose pronunciation do we use as canonical in order to map pronunciation to spelling? How do we handle homonyms? Shall we spell meet like meat, mettle like metal, mast like massed? As to English grammar, it is quite untrue that English is chaotic. Flexible, sometimes irregular, but not nearly as challenging as, say, the grammar of Czech or ancient Greek (two fairly knotty languages with which I'm familiar). My experience teaching English as a second language is that the most challenging aspect of learning English (aside from difficult sounds like "th") is all the idioms. Many native speakers use a plethora of idioms, which are hard for non-native speakers to understand ("I'll go to bat for you", "he's a real lightning rod in this discussion", "that's the pot calling the kettle black", "now we're cooking with gas", etc.). Idioms are fun and often memorable but not easy to learn since there are so many of them. My $0.02.

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at November 17, 2005 09:54 AM

you vindicate my point eh? That Anglophonse have to head off to Latin, Greek or inflective languages' grammars to better learn their own. ;) Aaa that's my problem with English grammar books, they focus on mechanics- when to use the comma, the controversy about the split infinitive but none that I've come across explain to the student/readers why words that end in -ch (churches) take es in the plural and not s. Why some word that end in y change to i before adding es but other words don't. None discuss the great vowel shift and so on.
One last point, it was thanks to the Normans, that English became the dominant language it is. Sometimes, the hedgehog's penchant to rationalize, orgainize and systematize things really help out the fox.

As I've pointed out it's not me who regards English spelling as irrational; it's my students who are deeply fed up with crazy spelling and the various plurals. There's a humourous book entitled
Spelling dearest: the nitty-gritty of English spelling. I sympathize with the authour's complaint but it's futile to advocate spelling reforms but I still hold that a normative grammar that settles certain issues (like the split infinitive controversy) would be appreciated by non-Anglophone learners.
That's very nice but non-Anglosphone speakers, they don't care about consensus loquatori (the consensus of speakers) what they want to know is this word correct, licit or still in use? In short, they want an authouritative source and the the bewildering variety of grammars and dictionaries dissatisfy them precisely because there so much conflicting advice, they can't judge which to accept or reject. In fact, I'll predict that English will have to adopt-reluctantly- some of the hedgehog's traits to satisfy anxieties and concerns of non-Anglopshone learners/speakers.

To all:
This is the one issue where the hedgehog is more right than wrong even though I accept some of the fox's position about language.

Posted by: xavier at November 17, 2005 10:16 AM

The free-market approach works well for vocabulary, but we don't really have a free market in spelling approaches any more. We seem to be stuck with the legacy software of publishers and school districts. This wasn't always the case; Webster introduced his system merely by publishing a dictionary -- an entirely private act. I'd be in favor of regularizing English spelling to some degree, provided it wasn't just a brutal rationalization. Maybe get it down to having only two or three pronunciations for any given set of letters. Any new orthography would have to take an evolutionary approach and respect the multilayered nature of English, which is part of its strength. But we could at least clean up the embedded foreign words spelled on entirely different systems which we are expected to know how to pronounce. If you see an unfamiliar word off foreign origin, it's sometimes hard to tell whether to pronounce the j in the Spanish, German, or French pronunciation. Or just maybe in the English version. With the increasing digitization of all printed material, the transition costs of adopting new spelling systems is probably falling, so it might be a good time to think about the topic.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 17, 2005 10:24 AM

What about introducing accents for the 'new English' spelling? I'm pretty sure that the ph->f would be easily be accomodated. the T/TH I guess will have to stay.
It's interesting that French and German are less free in accepting new words but have less qualms to introduce new spelling as the need arises.


Posted by: xavier at November 17, 2005 12:18 PM

Xavier: Personally, i'd be happier to not have the accents, although commercial practice and the influence of Spanish may accomplish the same end whether we like it or not. Actually, I think the Pitman teaching alphabet would be a good place to start -- they use ligatures to unite the most common two-letter combinations in English, and thus eliminate much of the confusion among possible alternative pronunciations. It was designed as a teaching tool, a sort of visual training wheel, and allows for easy transition once the basics have been learned. However, since retained neotenic characteristics is always a useful strategy in evolution, there's no reason why it can't just be a permanent feature. After all, from now on, we will have a permanent population of adults learning English -- why not make the whole language a teaching exercise? That way you could still use a ligated "ph", which signals Greek roots, but it would never be mispronounced. It also has the maximum back-compatibility with the existing (rather large!) installed base, which is a desirable feature.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 17, 2005 01:44 PM

English has changed my life. It has taken me to places I'd never thought I'd go to and it's helped me fulfill dreams that would have been completely out of reach, had I not been an English speaker. It's still shaping the way I see the world and it's still a joy to grapple with its often frustrating complexities.

To all my friends in the Anglosphere: you have every reason to be proud of your marvelous native tongue. Cherish it!

Posted by: Felicia at November 17, 2005 03:23 PM

Thanks. I googled the Pitman teaching alphabet and it seems a reasonable spelling system. I hadn't thought of ligatures instead of accents. I suppose downloading the fonts to update the major wordprocessors would be easily accomplished.
I've been thinking about words that have a double l but aren't palatized (aka intelligent) it would be neat to introduce the l geminada (l.l) for such words.
I'm curious as to how Spanish will encourage English to adopt accents for the letters? Would the acents be a teaching device or a fundamental part of the language?


Posted by: xavier at November 17, 2005 03:36 PM

Most American are getting familiar with Spanish orthography though commercial products, Spanish names in the news, etc., and have become familiar with the Spanish use of accents (and tildes, for that matter). It is easier to understand than the French use of accents. So it is possible that Americans might start to use an accent for unusual stresses. The Catalan l.l is sensible and doesn't involve changing the type fonts. However, if a Pitman-style system is adopted, then to be consistent one would ligate the double l for palatized uses, and the unligated ll would be assumed to be unpalatized.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 17, 2005 05:05 PM

Well, as an Internet protocol geek by day, I have to say the idea of requiring non-US-ASCII characters to render English scares the bejeesus out of me. Yes, I'm all for Unicode and UTF-8 (the technology I work on has supported them since 1999), but lots of computer programs are still pretty oblivious when it comes to internationalized character sets. Good luck getting them to change. :-)

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at November 17, 2005 05:11 PM

Good point, Peter.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at November 17, 2005 05:20 PM

Reforming English orthography in the interests of phonetic consistency calls for elimination of the letter C, as we already have K and S. I doubt this will fly.

The argument that English spelling should be reformed in the interests of foreign students is also a non-starter. I've never heard this argument applied to any language but English. Few native English speakers expect other cultures to make wholesale changes in their linguistic norms to make our studies easier; that is known as respect for the other.

Posted by: Brett at November 18, 2005 06:29 AM

I'll bet you look like a right pasha blogging away in your pajamas, Rand. Quite the pundit, eh? Are they khaki, by any chance? Gosh, talking of India, I wouldn't half love a good curry and nan!

Re the notion of totally unnecessary accents - vast numbers of people learn to speak English adequately, and spell English adequately, without the superimposition of foreign accents. English doesn't have poncey accents.

Posted by: Verity at November 21, 2005 01:54 PM


"you vindicate my point eh? That Anglophonse have to head off to Latin, Greek or inflective languages' grammars to better learn their own. ;) "

Uh, no. The Latin fetish is a habit derived form the former cultural hegemony of Latin. Actually Latin is more misleading than illuminating when you are studying Englsih Grammar. The idolization of Latin has been a really roadblock in some cases. One of the best grammars of an American language was written by the man who translated the Bible back in the late 1600s into some Algonkian language. He knew no Latin, so he did not try to deform the language he was studying into its categories.

"As I've pointed out it's not me who regards English spelling as irrational; it's my students who are deeply fed up with crazy spelling and the various plurals."

The students are not the judges of what is or is not acceptable in the data they are studying, I would think. They should quit their bitching and try Chinese if they don't like English spelling. And as for various plurals, English is not a patch on Irish or Welsh or German. Besides, non-s plurals are not that common in the language.

"That's very nice but non-Anglosphone speakers, they don't care about consensus loquatori (the consensus of speakers) what they want to know is this word correct, licit or still in use? " That may be what they want, but then it is the task of the teacher to induce them to grow up. Life and English are not so simplistic.

But you are dead right about the general uselessness of English grammar books in teaching grammar. For one thing, they depend too much on useless Latin models, and for another, they are written by native speakers who take for granted all the really difficult features of the language. For instance, I haven't seen one grammar used in schoools that explains the rule for using the progressive tenses versus the habitual tenses, or that explains covert categories and how they figure in that rule. Thus there is a prefectly clear difference between "I am eating an apple" and "I eat apples", observed absolutely regularly, and also there is a perfectly clear reason for the difference in meaning between "I love her" and "I am loving her" (covert category - experiential verb becoming an process verb when it appears in the progressive).

Likewise you never see in these grammars any real discussion of the epistemic/evidentiary system in English - the subjunctive and the various irrealis constructions, which form a bewidering jungle. There is not only the plain old subjunctive, but there are the forms involving were and might, denoting various degrees and varieties of the remoteness of the propositon from observed reality.

And then there is my personal pet peeve, the blithe treatment that indefinite and definte articles get. This one routinely reduces Korean students to tears. Oddly Chinese students seem to get it fairly easily, even though Chinese has no overt category of definite. It's not complicated, but no one seems to bother.

So in the main I guess I agree with your point.

Posted by: Jim at November 22, 2005 04:02 PM