The Magazine

Ain’t Necessarily So

Who speaks for the English language?

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By JACK LYNCH
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Considering how much ire these hangups, fixations, and antagonisms have provoked over the centuries, Hitchings remains admirably evenhanded, neither a hidebound reactionary nor a wild-eyed revolutionary. He has many descriptivist tendencies: He recognizes that change is inevitable, and reminds us that many of the things we assume are traditional have in fact never been the practice of serious writers. And he repeatedly chastises those who argue in bad faith. Purists often base their arguments on the need for clear communication, but those arguments can be unconvincing. No real person is in danger of misunderstanding “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Let the taboo ain’t and the double negative do their worst.

But Hitchings isn’t entirely on the descriptive side. He has his own pet peeves and eccentricities that he refuses to disavow; in fact, he admits to wincing when he sees his name altered by incompetent users of apostrophes in phrases like Hitching’s book. Even as he decries some of the sillier so-called rules, his own prose would receive a seal of approval from even the most demanding Mrs. Grundy: The prohibition on split infinitives is a poorly grounded prejudice, but Hitchings doesn’t split his own infinitives. Most of all, he recognizes the tendency we all have to think we alone have found the sweet spot between ignorance and pedantry. My favorite rules are essential to proper communication while your favorite rules are old-fashioned superstitions. Those who follow fewer rules than I do are illiterate dunces, while those who follow more rules than I do are stuffy purists.

Hitchings’s background prepared him well for this subject. His first book was an account of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language: not, as legend would have it, the first English dictionary—not by a long shot—but the first really great English dictionary. After that came The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, a lively overview of loanwords and the process by which words enter the language.

Hitchings, a Londoner, draws his examples almost invariably from British English, with the result that some American readers may feel lost from time to time. But most of the book makes sense anywhere in the English-speaking world. The first few chapters offer some meditations on the philosophy of language before giving a general history of English, a language once spoken by just a few tens of thousands of Germanic tribesmen on an island off the northwest coast of Europe, now spoken in some form by perhaps a billion people.

The finer points of the language may seem dry—comma placement and the fate of objective-case relative pronouns may be less than thrilling to most readers—but Hitchings keeps the discussion animated, offering interesting digressions on politically charged topics like political correctness, feminism, globalization, and the English-only movement. Hitchings knows that language can never be separated from morality and politics. This leads him to take on subjects like the relationship between language and national identity, as with Theodore Roosevelt’s impatience with what were being called “Hyphenated Americans”​—​Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans​—​more than a century ago. “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism,” Roosevelt declared in 1906; “I think the most un-American thing in the world is a hyphen,” echoed Woodrow Wilson a decade later.

And politics is still tied up with ideas about the language. The political right today tends to cluster on the prescriptive end of the spectrum—think of the late William Safire—but it’s not at all obvious that conservatives should be prescriptivists. On the one hand, resisting linguistic “decay” is consistent with a fondness for tradition and maintaining standards against the ravages of relativism. On the other hand, history shows us that the language won’t stand still without serious intervention, and that sort of intervention is often toxic to the right. A changing language, after all, is an almost perfect model of the free market. It’s telling that, while many of the major world languages have official academies to rule on what’s right and wrong—the Académie française is the most famous—no English-speaking nation has an official governing body, probably because of the long Anglophone tradition of liberty and a distrust of institutions and social engineering.