You Are What You Speak

Robert Lane Greene

Created on Wednesday, October 12, 2011.
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Outlines the change in English grammar and usage across the centuries, and why grammar- and spelling-sticklers don’t quite get it.


“Today’s English writing conventions were made up piecemeal over centuries. Those rules change, just as “silly” no longer means “innocent” as it did centuries ago. Educational standards may drop, and slightly fewer people may be skilled at using the written conventions of the standard dialect than at some point in the past. But then again, most people will never be skilled writers anyway, ever, for the main reason that they don’t need to be. Elegant use of written English simply isn’t needed for most people’s daily lives. As Truss noticed in school, there are, after all, sex, music, and a whole host of other things to spend time on. It is people who are decent writers themselves who, strangely, discover that mastery of written mechanics is the ultimate coin of human worth.”


“Of course being sensitive to language makes people more likely to detect and resist dishonest language. This isn’t because language has some mythical power to make people smarter. Being sensitive to science is a big step in learning to detect and resist dishonest language. Being sensitive to history is a big step. Being sensitive to political philosophy, logic, economics, and even mathematics is a big step, because all of these things are learning, and knowledge creates aware and critical citizens. There is nothing magical about language in this regard. Knowing the difference between “infer” and “imply” is no more likely to create a skeptical, bullshit-detecting citizen than knowing the atomic weight of uranium or the capital of Niger. Smart people of all types don’t tend to be hoodwinked so easily.”


“The Basques speak a language unrelated to any other known on Earth. This is rare globally and unique in Europe. (Though Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian are not related to their neighbors’ languages, for example, they are related to one another.) Basque’s distance from its neighbors can be seen in almost any common phrase: dos cervezas (two beers) in Spanish is duas cervexas in Galician, dues cerveses in Catalan, but bi garagardo in Basque. Basques proudly claim to be those who resisted the Islamic invasion of the eighth century most successfully, holding out in the mountains of northern Spain.”


“Create a state that everyone hates and then yoke it to an official language, and both the language and the state may fail. Create a society people want to join, such as the international community of English speakers or a modern, tolerant South Africa, and it is never necessary to force a language on anyone.”


“[Regarding the perceived pushing-out of the English language by the foreign languages of immigrants] But English isn’t even just as dominant as U.S. Steel in its near-monopolistic heyday. Today, Microsoft would be a better comparison: millions of us can’t get through a day without using a Microsoft product, especially its ubiquitous Windows operating system. But even an analogy with Microsoft can’t do full justice to the worldwide power of English. One can imagine Microsoft disappearing in fifty years. English is all but certain to be even more dominant then than it is today. There simply has never been a linguistic success story like it in world history. The above is so obvious to the rest of the world that it takes an American to miss it.”


“Language, through natural evolution, recruits metaphors from the concrete world to represent abstract ideas. When the first political bonds began to form, there was no previously existing need for the word “independence,” so someone had to coin it from the idea of physically hanging from something else. Over time, metaphors become worn out and dull until they are no longer seen as metaphors. Did you ever realize that “behind” came from a bodily metaphor meaning “near your hindquarters”? So much of language develops this way that the linguist Guy Deutscher refers to language itself as “a reef of dead metaphors” (itself a vivid metaphor).”


“Language — slander and “fire in a crowded theater” aside — is not a means of hurting other people. It is human expression itself. It is the spontaneous composition of thought and emotion through speech and the slightly more considered composition of the same things through writing. Language is not law; it is in fact a lot like music. Speech is jazz — first you learn the basic rules, and then you become good enough to improvise all the time. Writing is somewhat more like classical composition, where established forms and traditions will hold greater sway. But nobody sought to punish Franz Liszt for using Hungarian folk songs in his compositions, nor to put Jimi Hendrix in jail for playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar (though Jimi did spark indignation). We need to put away the idea that someone speaking a way we don’t like is some kind of offense against the public order.”


“My father used to tell this old joke: A Georgia student visiting Harvard asks a passing student, “Excuse me, can you tell me where the library’s at?” The Harvard man says, “Here at Harvard, we do not end a sentence with a preposition.” The Georgia boy thinks for a second and tries again: “Sorry, can you tell me where the library’s at, asshole?”

I love this joke for two reasons. First, though I’m among the few nerds who would care, it exposes the Harvard man’s pedantry for what it is: a memorized superstition (“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition”) masquerading for a real, if unfounded, rule that he doesn’t really know or understand (“Prepositions should come before the words they relate to and not at the end of clauses”). The Georgia boy wins by being just as superficial: if I can’t end a sentence in a preposition, why not just add another word? But the real joke is this: the Harvard show-off really is being an asshole. To reply to an honest question that is perfectly understood with grammatical outrage is a sin against decency. It shows that the stuck-up Ivy League man is really grasping, insisting on the letter of the law rather than taking the casual syntax of the Georgia student as a gesture of friendliness and solidarity. The joke isn’t that Georgia boys are dumb but that Harvard assholes don’t know when to insist on the rules. (The linguist’s bonus joke is that the rule is stupid anyway.)”


“In the Arabic case, many Arabs remain unhappy that the language they speak every day isn’t a “real” language like the standard Arabic of books and newspapers. Many endure a feeling of distance from written culture and nagging linguistic insecurity. This is an ironic result of extremely successful prescriptivism: the standard language was frozen by prestigious grammar codifiers, but the spoken language moved so far along that a thousand years later, writing and speaking require two different languages. (English and French prescriptivists, take note: this is what “success” looks like in the long run. You can freeze writing, but you will never be able to freeze speech.)”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
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