Book World: Carolyn See reviews 'Lexicographer's Dilemma' by Jack Lynch

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By Carolyn See
Friday, December 4, 2009


The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to "South Park"

By Jack Lynch

Walker. 326 pp. $26

This delightful look at efforts through the centuries to define and control the English language turns out to be a history of human exasperation, frustration and free-floating angst. People tend to go nuts around the English language. Of course, most of us are nuts anyway, but the language is always there, in the ether, or staring at us from a page, and if we're feeling particularly cranky, it never fails to provide a ready excuse for us to fly off the handle. I get afflicted with that crankiness when a television anchor describes a Chihuahua rescued from drowning as "very unique," or a woman I scarcely know pronounces "forte" as "fortay," or when a close relative of mine, when she descended (with enthusiasm!) into the life of the underworld, began to say, "He don't." I wanted to tell her, "Commit any crime you like. Just don't murder the language while you're at it!" Many of us are irritable most of the time (unless we're in love or just bought a motorcycle), and our language continually offers up imperfections and anomalies for us to be irritable about. In the words of a waiter who once brought me a menu in a way-too-authentic Chinese restaurant, there's always "something in there you're not going to like!"

Jack Lynch, who also has written on Shakespeare and edited Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, gives us not a history of the English language but a history of those who have tried to make sense of it. He divides them into "prescriptive" and "descriptive" linguists: The former try with all their might to purge the language of undesirable words and constructions; the latter, acting on the theory that the language is untamable, simply try to describe its current use. (That, too, seems futile often enough -- like describing a tidal wave as it booms by.)

After an amusing and very interesting introduction, Lynch begins with John Dryden. (Don't worry: Lynch dutifully goes back later to 1066, the Norman Conquest and the "marriage" of Anglo-Saxon and French.) But Dryden -- famous, esteemed by all (or most, anyway) -- was one of the first English writers to revisit his work and revise it in accordance with certain rules of Latin grammar. One of the reasons this book is so much fun is that you get to see how relatively new and recent and lively modern English is. At the end of the 17th century, Latin grammarians were just becoming influential in English society. The English language itself didn't have a formal grammar, but Latin did, and it seemed sensible to think that the rules of this revered dead language might easily be applied to bumptious, wildly growing, very-much-alive English. Dryden set about lopping prepositions off the ends of his sentences (they're not called prepositions for nothing!) and spent time sticking his split infinitives back together.

The idea of "good" English as opposed to "bad" was coming into play. This, Lynch says, had to do with the rise of the middle class -- a set of interlopers who had had the luck and nerve to earn some money, and thus aspired to fake their way into the outer realms of the ruling elite. One of the necessary tools for this was knowledge of how the language was spoken and written by those who lived at the top.

For those who have taken their share of English classes, all this material might seem familiar, but that doesn't diminish the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Swift, in the 18th century, being driven ape-crazy by the use of contractions like "wouldn't" and trendy abbreviations like "mob" for the Latin "mobile vulgus" (fickle crowd). "Mob" had the effect of "very unique" on Swift, and years after he first wrote a screed on the topic, he still flung himself into a rage when a woman he knew used the word in conversation: "Why do you say that?" he railed, "never let me hear you say that word again." When the woman asked what she should say instead, he answered, "The rabble, to be sure." People are crazy, that's the long and the short of it, and even with one of the biggest, most imaginative and attractive languages on the planet, they will discover ways to fiddle with it. After Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which, although certainly opinionated, was largely descriptive, there arose those pesky, prescriptive Latin grammarians who did everything they could to hammer English into a Latin mold. Then, when the American Revolution came along, a patriot named Noah Webster compiled a uniquely American dictionary, taking the opportunity to thumb his nose at Johnson in the process. Then came the long decades in which a group of dedicated scholars labored to put together the Oxford English Dictionary. The first installment appeared in 1884, the last in 1928. A lot of very learned people got sick and died during the execution of this valiant project, and as soon as it was finished -- sooner, even -- it required extensive revision. And more revision. And then came the hordes of people with nothing better to do with their lives than to carp about the differences between "who" and "whom" and a mountain of split infinitives, because the language, besides providing a convenient subject to be enraged at, also offered a refuge for otherwise unemployable cranks.

The unseemly squabbling never lets up, actually. The author revisits the tempest in a teapot that recently surrounded the teaching of ebonics in the Oakland, Calif., school system. (The critics went out of their way to be both racist and smug.) And before that, there was the scorn heaped upon the editor of Webster's Third New International Dictionary, a man who thought it helpful to include words that people were using by the dawn of the '60s, like "hipster" and "drip-dry." Scholars went berserk, of course. And that's what this book is about: humans going berserk. In the end, this language mania is probably preferable to sitting on the couch watching television, enduring an angst-attack over how Kate Hudson lets her jaw go slack when she smiles. That's truly crazy, which is why we're fortunate to have a language over which to pitch our fits.

See reviews regularly for The Post.

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