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Tug of war

Language history and we, part two (actually, a conclusion)

I am continuing with my running comments on Valerie Fridland’s recent book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English. (See the blog post for last week.) Hers is a feminist perspective, and she suggests that most or even all changes in the history of English (or language in general?) owe their origin to women. Women, she says, have been pressed to speak “proper,” and this pressure “has helped the direction of language over time, for example, ushering the shift for Middle English –th to –s on verbs (doth to does) or the rise of periphrastic do (I do not know versus I know not…, p. 59). I would not mind seeing some solid proof of this statement, especially because it is important to distinguish between the emergence of a certain phenomenon and its dissemination. For example, did women introduce the ending s, or were they instrumental in its conquest?

This is a hotbed of language change.
(“The Fair” by Egbert van der Poel, public domain)

Fridland continues: “The fact that women were less literate and formally educated than men in those days may have allowed them to use language more creatively, less tied to the oppressive written convention that, by the eighteenth century and later, stifled natural linguistic variation” (p. 206). And how was it in the thirteenth century, when even some kings could not sign their name, and in preliterate societies? The relevant source for early Modern English (the book by Henry Cecil Wyld) is mentioned in the text but not referred to, and a complicated problem is given short shrift. I also wonder whether Fridland has read Wyld or only knows about his research. The bulk of private letters from the past (Wyld’s main source) is not too large, and wide-ranging conclusions from what has survived should be drawn with caution. Language change usually starts among the most uninhibited speakers, the democratic strata of the population (men and women), those who do not care whether they speak “proper,” though no single formula covers this process.

Other than that, I sincerely hope that women are not responsible for all the main novelties in Modern English. Let us look at the split infinitive, an old chestnut in the scholarship on English usage. I won’t even try to touch it but will mention the fact that in recent memory, people began to say I told him to never do it again; to not attend this meeting was a mistake; he decided to, for a change, go there, and so forth. Hamlet would not have said to be or to not be, and I doubt that Ophelia would have enjoyed the newest version.

He is literally rolling in money.

Here is one example illustrating a structural cause, combined with the societal push, to advance language change, that is, to make people accept it. English distinguishes between adjectives and adverbs: she is beautiful versus she sings beautifully. German makes no distinction here, and English may also be on its way toward eliminating it. I have heard more than once: “She sings beautiful.” A newspaper article states that so-and-so got tested different than anybody eIse. I don’t know whether women or men more often say so. In this case, “culture” urges us to be conservative and “proper,” while the system (here, only here!) appears to be a destructive force, and the “democratic push” may prevail, because English has been simplifying its structure for centuries: the fewer distinctions in morphology, the better. If this happens, educated people will rue the change for a century or so and then get used to it, but meticulous research rather than sweeping generalizations will be needed to trace every step of the process.

Now back to business, which, in this case, has nothing to do with “system.” One chapter in the book is devoted to reinforcing adverbs: actually, literally, absolutely, wholly, completely, and so forth. Fridland asks: “What is wrong with them?” I agree, nothing at all, but here, too, in my opinion, Fridland tends to overstate her case. I seem to have once quoted the following sentence from a student’s paper: “The First World War actually began in 1914.” Of course, it did. I fully (completely and whole-heartedly) agree. But that sad sentence shows how low our verbal culture is. What should have served reinforcement has turned into a buzzword. Fridland quotes Mark Twain: “Tom was literally rolling in wealth” and a similar sentence from Great Gatsby and asks: “Why all the fuss?” (p. 122). For the reason I mentioned last week: “Quantity has become quality.” If you pepper every sentence with completely, literally, wholly, actually, very (or even better, veryvery), the currents of speech will turn awry and lose the name of action. This is like shouting the whole time. Who will listen? My student, quoted above, was “lost for words” and filled in the space with what she took for a respectable-looking adverb. Editors are right in expunging the phatic fluff that pretends to be content.

It is me!
(Photo by Jonah Brown on Unsplash, public domain)

One of the chapters in Fridlands’s book is devoted to the (in)famous they. A word of warning: I am not dealing with the nonbinary community here. Their usage is their business. Here is a digression, to show how tricky pronouns may be. In the past, they had three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. What did people say about a husband and wife or boys and girls in one group? The usual choice was they, masculine, but Icelandic was smarter and opted for the neuter form. Usage tends to override grammar and common sense. It’s me is correct. But they invited my husband and I is still wrong, though more and more people say so. Swedes abolished the honorific pronoun corresponding to English you, as applied to a single person, and Icelandic has never had it. Kings and queens used to call themselves we. Good for them. Dual pronouns (for we two and you two) have disappeared from all the Germanic languages, but Icelandic uses it for the plural! English, most uncharacteristically, has generalized the plural form you for all occasions, and it is now used in addressing a group, a single infant, a prime minister, and a cat. Nothin’ doin’. (Fridland is fully supportive of the in’ form, and I hope will take my badinage in stride.)

But once again, back to business. Many years ago, I wrote a fiery post against sentences like “When a student comes, I never make them wait” and was attacked by a group of colleagues who, allegedly, found this usage in Middle English texts. Of course, they did not: for centuries, this vague they has been used only in reference to pronouns like someone and anyone. One of my correspondents did discover a statement in rather old medical records about a patient referred to as they. Unfortunately, our exchange had no continuation. My colleagues did not admit defeat. They just stopped noticing me, and we keep coexisting on different planets. In the past, students were mainly or only males. Therefore, it was natural to say: “I never make him wait.” But him has always been awkward. “If a passenger loses his ticket”? “When a writer begins his narrative”? Thus, the bulky his or her emerged.  In our memory, the plural began to save the situation: “…when writers begin their story…” and “…when passengers lose their tickets.” Not too elegant, but sensible. By contrast, to call a single author, a single student, Mary, or singular John they (“If John calls, tell them to wait,” overheard many years ago) is ugly and silly. The push is from political correctness, rather than from system or necessity.

An old chestnut.
(Via Pxhere, public domain)

Fridland is not afraid to tackle the most controversial aspects of English usage and is always on the side of progress in language. It may not be so bad that some sticklers for etiquette and retrogrades like me keep fighting this trend. Society needs both motors and brakes. Being always on the side of progress, Fridland also uses a style that must appeal to her prospective audience. She is charmingly slangy: grungy slacker, trussed up white folks, shit happens, and their likes will endear her to her young readers and colleagues from the “in circle.” To be at the forefront of linguistic change, she even uses the phrase this begs (= poses) several questions (p. 118), though I hope that the phrase from whence it cameth (p. 152) is a typo, rather than a joke. Nowadays, arguing for the good in bad English is a promising enterprise. Besides, as Hegel taught us, all that is reasonable is real and all that is real is reasonable. In other words, whatever happens is for the best in this best of all worlds, as long, I would add, as we can distinguish reason from folly.

Featured image: Marine Detachment Resiliency Day, US Government (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Your blog reminded me of another language phenomenon. When I was taking Japanese in the mid-1980’s, the professor discussed Japanese women’s language, but we didn’t concentrate on it. Now I want to learn more about women’s languages in general.

  2. Jim L

    Social and linguistic change need more than brakes and motors. Steering is necessary to move in the right direction. Thank you for trying to guide our English communication toward clearer understanding rather than accepting change uncritically.

  3. Peter Warne

    The dual form has indeed disappeared from all the Germanic languages. Almost. It is still in use in my own native Carinthian. I have only heard it used for greetings and parting (Grüaß enk, pfüat enk especially). However, I have never heard it used incorrectly, whether by a male or a female – it always refers to two people.

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