English Changing

Frank Kermode

That language changes, and that we cannot prevent it from doing so, is a fact known to all, though some of us can no more contemplate it with resignation than we can death and taxes. It is two thousand years since Horace noted that good old words die, and that new ones must, on the right occasion and with proper modesty, be introduced. Yet even modest and necessary neologisms displease the modern humanist, and he is likely to be equally severe on what he regards as the abuse of old words. Professional linguists take a calmer view, and may even go beyond the limits of mere description and argue that change can tend to renovation rather than decadence.

The State of the Language is a large and defeatingly miscellaneous collection which represents these points of view and a great many more besides, though everybody is in one way or another concerned with change. The editors appear to be cautious renovationists, but some of their contributors are certain that the English language is going to hell in a basket. It is usual to relate the ruin of the language to a more general social or cultural collapse, as Ben Jonson did, and this view is intemperately represented by Ian Robinson. He holds that the decline of the ceremonious style in the House of Commons is a clear indication of national decadence in this ‘century of the common man, of the “media”, and a “public opinion” definable by poll counts, the age of universal first-naming, free love, estate duty, and the Sun newspaper’, to say nothing of our joining the Common Market. It is no coincidence that the best political styles belong to Enoch Powell, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn and Michael Foot, all men ‘committed to working on and defending the idea of the United Kingdom’. As it happens, Mr Powell himself contributes a piece on ‘The Language of Politics’, in which he concludes that although speeches are briefer and politicians a bit more prone to use clichés, ‘the language has remained remarkably standard; in terms of a century, in the mouths of politicians, English now is hardly to be distinguished from English then.’

Still, there are other arguments on the side of the decadence party. Kingsley Amis contributes his elegant though not unfamiliar jeremiad on the loss and confusion arising from the habitual misuse of certain words: flaunt for flout, refute for deny, perpetrate for perpetuate, and so on. There is the notable case of jejune, now, because of a fancied association with French jeune, thought to mean something like ‘puerile’; Amis has found it written in italic to show that it is a French loan-word, and even, with bitter triumph, spelt jéjeune. And it is hard not to wince at one’s daily encounter with such abuses. This very day, in a BBC news bulletin, somebody called Christmas a ‘crucial Christian feast’: how I wanted to tell him to reserve the term for Easter! Almost daily I hear the forms homogenous and heterogenous on the lips of colleagues who are leaders of modern thought; and although a measure of resistance seems called for – at any rate one shouldn’t do it oneself – in the end I daresay homogeneous and heterogeneous will be superseded. Long ago I campaigned for the use of the word demean in what I called its true sense (as in ‘Though greatly provoked, he demeaned himself admirably’), but then I found the wrong usage (‘You only demean yourself by talking to her’) in Howards End (1910), and discovered that the mistaken association with ‘mean’ was old enough for Johnson to record it in his Dictionary. Now the wrong usage is right, and mine is obsolete, as the ‘right’ sense of jejune, and the ‘correct’ homogeneous, may be in a hundred years or less.

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