Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tilting at language change

I had the not entirely welcome distinction, among my high-school set, as being the only teenage boy who actually enjoyed being forced to read Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." But enjoy it I did. Such a perceptive woman. But, man, could she ever mess up our English language.

What's interesting, of course, is how we've messed with hers.

John McWhorter, my favorite linguistic dude, notes a few little "mistakes" that jar the modern ear. Austin has a character say that "She was small of her age." Someone greets a visitor by saying, "So, you are come at last." And, describing a meal, "much was ate."

Just 200 years ago, all of these things were perfectly proper for Austen's upper-middle-class characters to say.

About the same time, McWhorter notes, one William Cobbett wrote an English grammar consisting of letters to his 14-year-old son in which he admonished the kid to use the correct wording, such as "I bended," "loaden," and, for the word spit, "spitten."

Twenty years earlier John Walker's "Pronouncing Dictionary of English" recommended pronouncing the word dismiss as "diz-miss," cement as "SEE-ment," and balcony as "bal-COH-nee."

And, up to about 1870, when discussing a house under construction, one would say that the house is building. To say a house is being built was, I'm sorry, somewhat vulgar.

I know, maybe I should have gone into linguistics. But I vividly remember, as an aspiring journalist, reading book after book by "English mavens" decrying the decay of the language. These days I just label all the authors as so many Don Quixotes.

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