Monday, May 24, 2010

English speakers ain't misbehaving

One of the great pleasures in life is listening to a linguist talk about how nonsensical certain rules of grammar can be. (Ooh, Dr. McWhorter, don't stop!)

By nonsensical rules I don't mean the innate rules of the English language. No parent ever has to tell little Johnny: "No - don't say 'boy the.' It's 'the boy.'" Nobody makes that kind of mistake. Nor am I talking about unnecessary if slightly useful rules like those involving perfect tense. If a man runs into the room yelling "The king has been shot!," the tense means not only that the king was shot in the past, but the shooting also has implications for the present. Nice, but we probably would have known that anyway.

No. I'm talking about two guys (Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray) who wrote prescriptive grammars in the late 1700s that were reprinted endlessly and have affected people right up until the present day.

They honored Latin and Greek as the pinnacle of language perfection, so they wanted English to be as much like them as possible. Hence rules against split infinitives and the horror parents still feel when hearing little Johnny say: "Billy and me are going to the store." Latin is very persnickety about that stuff, so "me," as a subject, has to be "I." Oh yeah? Who says it is so for English? Lowth and Murray.

(Incidentally, McWhorter points out, it is impossible to apply this rule consistently. If somebody asks you, "Who did it?" and you point to the two perpetrators across the room, you say "them." Those two people are the subject, so you should say "they," but you don't want to sound like an idiot.)

Another dumbness involved the idea that the loss of any word is the dreaded decay of your language. Languages always lose (and gain) words, and in the late 1700s, the word "whom" was quickly disappearing from English. Lowth and Lindley rescued it. Thanks a bunch, guys. Now generations of English speakers, including you and I (me?) have to be formally taught how to use "whom," because otherwise English no longer marks "what" and "who" for three cases (genitive, dative and accusative). (Say what?)

Then there is the dumbness that says English has to perfectly logical. Guys, NO language is perfectly logical! Even Shakespeare used double negatives! Nevertheless, the prescriptivists decided that two negatives equal a positive. That's fine in math, but as McWhorter reports, "every single nonstandard dialect of English uses double negatives worldwide, as do thousands of languages!"

(None of this means I personally don't rue certain language changes. I mourn the fact that so many people seem to fail to get the distinction between uninterested and disinterested, for instance, and I cringe when people use "beg the question" to mean "raise the question." But there is a difference between useful nuances and rules based on myth.)

We're probably stuck with these myth-generated rules, blessedly silly as they are. (Try getting a job as a newspaper reporter if you don't know them!) But that doesn't mean we can't lust in our hearts for a better English world. You and me, for who dumb rules don't make no sense, deserve better.

(If you easily understood what I was saying in that last sentence, tell me what exactly was "wrong" with it, and why, without sounding like some guy in late 1700s England who is wearing a goofy wig and seems to be inordinately proud of his calves.)

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