Consider Language • 5 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
It's a strange thing, language. On the one hand I find myself wanting to understand all its rules and struggling to enjoy the sort of prose which talks about 'less mistakes' or 'if I was to make a mistake'. So much so that I found myself writing a text message the other day and looking for the semi-colon key; nothing else would quite do. On the other hand, those of us who write or work with books for a living often forget that language is old and books are new, so the written word cannot possibly be at the heart of language in the way the spoken word is. While books explaining and emphasising the rules of English are popular, they're not nearly as interesting as books exploring the evolution and the continual metamorphosis of language. It's fascinating, at least to me, how languages divide and combine, and the forms they can take. Pidgins and creoles spring up and diverge from the parent languages that their vocabularies are sourced from. And the 'rules' of English have constantly shifted.
Yes, standardisation is important and we all like to know whether a sentence is 'correct' or not, but really, it is rather haughty to believe that there are people who can't speak their native language 'properly'. They may not speak it according to the accepted 'rules', but everyone speaks grammatically by their own set of rules, and almost always by the rules of their native linguistic community too. I've written before about how for a while, the language of Aquitaine was the noble French, until the capital moved North and it was reclassified as a peasant tongue. I've also talked about how saying 'I was, you was, he/she was' for the singular and 'we were, you were, they were' for the plural is the logical way to speak given the history of our language, but accidents happen, and slightly weird dialects - which happen to be spoken by the minority in charge - end up outlawing the perfectly consistant and sensible usages of the low-status majority. And as for 'rules' like not ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting an infinitive, does anyone really believe that they are important, necessary or a real aid to communication?
To learn heaps more, I heartily recommend dipping into John Mc Whorter's The Power of Babel or Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct.
It seems to me that linguistics is full of interest because it brings in knowledge of history and patterns of influence, thought and the development of our brains, the nature of communication, and teaches us about other cultures. And it is fundamentally egalitarian because no other approach makes sense. Modern English is a trade language and it's a bit of a mess, with the withered remnants of a defunct case system; it's littered with pieces of dead languages (like the Old English plurals: children, oxen, brethren); and most of its words aren't assembled from smaller units that make sense to us the way German is, giving it a rather opaque vocabulary.
The languages of developed nations in general are neither impressively complex nor laudably simple. The dialects spoken by the richest and best educated communities are no more rational, accessible or distinguished by their merits than the speech of Cornish fishermen or Scottish crofters. And Standard English is neither truer to its history than most rural dialects nor more in tune with modern times than the slang-filled cant of many teenagers. There just is no basis for the historical accidents of one dialect being considered more 'correct' than popular alternatives beyond the decision of those in charge to prefer their own speech as the template for standardisation rather than someone else's. It's almost impossible to delve into linguistics without becoming more respectful of the way other people speak. Though it does also help one apply the arbitrary rules of our betters, so there's something there for everyone.