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.

I am saying, half-heartedly conservative, that some resistance is a good thing, because to slow the rate of change is a good thing; it is in the interest of keeping up communication. There are, however, professors of literature who think we should rather go along with or encourage change. Christopher Ricks writes on clichés, contesting the common view that their prevalence is a sign of decadence: since we can’t beat them, he says, we ought to join them, or rather change them and use them in surprising ways, like the poets Geoffrey Hill and Bob Dylan, who is admired for altering ‘Take it to heart’ to ‘Take it to your heart.’ No cliché is irredeemable; we should seize on them, give them, so to speak, a new loss of life, and so contribute to the renovation of the language. Another professor, David Lodge, says a good word for the English spoken in Marin County, California, as recorded by Cyra McFadden in The Serial. Marin, a ‘high-energy trip with … happening people’, is near San Francisco, ‘the consciousness-raising capital of the western world’. Lodge is heavily into its slang, really gets behind it, and by implication behind and into slang in general, for, he says, it ‘defamiliarises the concepts it signifies’, as poetry does: in fact, he calls slang ‘the poetry of ordinary speech’, which I thought satisfying until I asked myself what, in that case, poetry was the poetry of.

The expert view, as I’ve said, seems to be that there is nothing to worry about; Randolph Quirk, who has surveyed modern English like nobody else, affirms, in his usual learned and jovial manner, that English-speaking humanity is doing pretty well; that foul language is not more prevalent than it was, merely subject to a different social distribution. Some nasty habits have been dropped, and we are ‘in better shape’ than we were in the time of Dickens. This is heartening, but there are other contributors who think there is plenty to worry about. David Reid has a sombre essay on the inadequacy of the language (as used by journalists, sociologists, psychiatrists, even theologians) to deal fittingly with the Jonestown massacre. He thinks the reason for this failure is ‘the horrible ease with which we find categories for enormity’; the jargons being ready to hand, we can dispense with the lexicon of good and evil. I am impressed but uncertain: what was lacking was perhaps not the appropriate language but a writer good enough for the job, and he may yet turn up. Anyway, the use of special forms of language to enable us to accommodate rather than steadily contemplate horrors of all kinds is surely understandable. The jargon of doctors, here discussed by Diane Johnson, is only in part a means of keeping the outsiders in their place: it also converts human disaster into a manageable professional problem. The risk is that the sublanguages we create in order to make tolerable a particular form of life or activity may come to reshape our world, as languages will, and that we should then live in the limited and absurd world they have made. Such thoughts often occurred to me when I was in the Navy, where one’s life assumed a preposterous conformity with a world made by a language designed to make life crude but bearable. Nathan Silver, characterising the cant of architects as sloppy, long-winded and derivative, nevertheless calls it ‘efficient’, a contribution to the dialectic of ‘new talk and new form’. But perhaps their work is explained by their language – so often out of phase with the world the rest of us inhabit.

Some of the gloomier contributors believe that the state of the language is such that we are in danger of being manipulated by unscrupulous users of it. And it is true that one contributor, formerly the chairman of a great bank, seems to argue that Business needs not less double talk but more. So there is some reason for Dwight Bolinger to say that we need to be more aware of what is being done to us; we should try to be metalinguists, and cultivate a metapragmatic awareness of our own language. To remain metalinguistically naked, he warns, is an invitation to predators, especially admen, who use ‘crooked speech’ and violate the Cooperative Principle of H.P. Grice. Terminology apart, there seems little difference between this advice and the kind we got in our youth from such books as Thouless’s Straight and Crooked Thinking, and Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose, which advocated commonsense logic as a protection. It is hardly news that we may be corrupted by language.

Still, Bolinger is clearly onto something when he suggests that one way of acquiring a metalinguistic knowledge of one’s own language is to learn another one. But although he is a professor of Romance languages, he regards this as a pretty ‘drastic’ solution. How fortunate, then, are children who are compelled by their circumstances to be bilingual, who have, from the start, a ‘reflective awareness of language as a symbolic system’. But with the world as it is, these advantages may not be as great as they seem. Jane Miller, in a memorable essay on bilingual children in London schools, shows that bilingualism (and in one classroom you can find English-speaking children whose native languages are Egyptian, Greek, Urdu, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, French Creole) is regarded as for the most part an educational disadvantage. The native language is usually associated with poverty; to succeed in English, which usually means satisfying a teacher whose object is to make the pupil proficient in ‘correct’ written English, may sever child and parent, the life of thought and the life of feeling. Failure to give such satisfaction indicates that the child is backward. Mrs Miller sees why teachers choose correctness, but she thinks the cost of the choice too high. It may impoverish not only the children but the language. Judy Dunn’s article suggests that a similar loss may occur when mothers fail to understand the needs of children learning their own language. They are marvellously well-equipped, and delight to play with the infinite possibilities for fantasy that open to them in their early years of linguistic experiment: but mothers, ignorant or fearful, may suppose that such fantasies betoken disorder or future unfitness, and inhibit not only their children but the language itself, at the point where a new generation is renovating it.

It appears, then, that even if one believes, as I do, in slowing the rate of change, it is possible to do harm by unimaginatively inhibiting it. By retarding it one aids communication, not only with one’s more sluggish contemporaries, but with the past. There are several very good pieces in this book about new kinds of English – the English of women’s liberation, of gay lib, of the drug-user; and some that demonstrate how seriously one ought to take Black English as a language. But it is remarkable, I think, that all these invasions of standard English have been contained; all parties understand one another without difficulty, despite the apparent randomness and violence of the intrusions. On the other hand, the losses entailed by authoritarian inhibitions may be incalculably great.

It happens that the rights and wrongs of these attitudes are sharply at issue in current arguments about Biblical translation and liturgical revision. On the whole the clergy want change (renovation) and the humanist laity want inhibition. This interesting, though special, case is the subject of a good essay by Margaret A. Doody. She thinks the changes that are overtaking Anglican and Episcopalian liturgies at present are not simply ways of making matters clear to the laity. For example, the penitential aspects are toned down – to dwell on unworthiness, says one reviser, was ‘a deep-seated need of medieval and post-medieval psyches’. Such alterations destroy the whole rhythm of the service, and the movement from naked unworthiness to a confidence bestowed by grace. Doody notices the differences between ‘we have sinned against you … by what we have done, and by what we have left undone’, and ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us’ (perfectly intelligible, surely?). Not only have the ‘things’ disappeared: the order of not doing and doing has been reversed, and the question of health is not raised. The petitioner no longer refers to his sins as ‘intolerable’. ‘Being loved by God,’ says Doody, ‘is never having to say you’re sorry … ’ In short, she thinks the revisers are hostile to the language of the liturgy because they are hostile to the liturgy. We are lamenting the loss not of antique pronouns and verb forms but ‘of substance and of a whole activity’.

This is very persuasive. Revisers and translators appear to believe that if you make the language sufficiently flat and boring (‘clear, natural and unambiguous’) it will become transparent upon the mysteries beneath it. The anxiety of learned parsons to make the true sense of the Bible available to laymen is understandable, and the problems of Biblical translation seem to me manageable, since the AV (archaic from the beginning) can stand on the shelf by new versions incorporating modern scholarship. But the liturgy is a different matter: you have to choose. I should certainly choose 1662 over the new versions: it seems absurd to call it unintelligible, or beyond explanation. It’s old-fashioned, of course: for instance, it does a lot of doubling – ‘devices and desires’, ‘erred and strayed’, ‘acknowledge and confess’ … But this kind of thing not only marks a particular style (as Hamlet, marked by the same kind of doubling, distinguishes its manner from the manners of the other great tragedies) but it also extends the sense, in ways it would take space to demonstrate. Lawyers, whose language is here discussed by David S. Levine, know about this: if formulas such as ‘devise and bequeath’, or ‘signed, sealed and delivered’, were originally marked by redundance, time has often desynonymised their components.

In the liturgy as elsewhere we should be ready to choose a measure of archaism if it suits the purpose, and if change is likely to be damaging. No gain in instant intelligibility would compensate for the loss of Shakespeare’s original language. But the implication is, I think, larger. Language change is inevitable but must be controlled in the interests not only of communication but of preserving what is decently or mysteriously ambiguous. The job of the clerisy is not merely to care for clarity, but also to keep the language as complex and flexible as it needs to be, so that we may continue to live in a world that is not constituted entirely by unambiguous communicators but also by poets and even by saints. I think therefore that Margaret Doody’s defence of archaism establishes her as of the same party as Jane Miller and Judy Dunn: the party of creativity, and, manifestly, the party to join.

Finally, this book has 63 contributors, all supposing, as all suppose, that they are well qualified to speak about language. Of only a few could it be said that the book would be better off without them. Others have escaped mention in this review because they didn’t fit, though they might, for another reader, be the best reason to buy the book. I have in mind an excellent and important essay by Julian and Zelda Boyd on ‘Shall and Will’; a polite but penetrating inquiry by Quentin Skinner into the method of Raymond Williams’s Key Words; Michael Tanner on modern philosophical language; and at least half a dozen more. The editors refrain from pretending that this is an orderly collection; I doubt if anybody could say it wasn’t diverting.