Public Words

Randolph Quirk

  • Language – the Loaded Weapon by Dwight Bolinger
    Longman, 224 pp, £9.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 582 29107 0

There is a path in the rather dense forest of linguistics that respectable academics have been rather shy of treading in the past fifty years. This has not been so much because of the briars and potholes as because they haven’t liked the direction in which it was heading, they haven’t liked the footprints they could recognise, and above all, perhaps, because they have preferred to follow in the wake of contemporary trail-blazers claiming they were off to somewhere new. Not that the track sign-posted ‘Towards a Better Language’ has been deserted: far from it. Yet another reason for its unattractiveness to the fastidious professional has been that it has been tramped enthusiastically by a stream of people whom he has seen less as explorers than as amateur do-gooding missionaries. With a pretty divided sense of mission at that.

Most numerous have been those with the relatively limited goal of making a ‘better language’ of the one we’ve got: creating le bon usage by restoration and regulation (often, as this example hints, through some such august body as the Académie Française). In the English-speaking countries, they have been especially active from the 18th-century Bishop Lowth in England, Richard Grant White in the America of a century later, to Fowler and his successors in our own time. Many of them found they were ‘doing well by doing good’, as Tom Lehrer puts it in another connection, and the popular profitability of Emily Post linguistics has been another (though surely minor) reason for despising it in academic circles.

A more select party has been less concerned with elegance and correctness than with fundamental problems of communicating by means of any among the Babel of natural tongues around us. These languages were hard for other peoples to learn, they were encrusted with treacherous metaphors that concealed the true meaning, and they were ideal weapons for deception in the hands of the unscrupulous. Bentham picked up the trail, following the footsteps, not of Lowth, but of an earlier bishop, John Wilkins, as well as those of Leibniz. That thinking could be influenced and twisted by language concerned Bentham’s contemporary Von Humboldt and an ‘academic’ line proceeds to the work of Sapir and Whorf in the first half of the 20th century. A more ‘therapeutic’ line was developed by such men as Korzybski and Ogden, the former promoting a linguistic hygiene called ‘General Semantics’ (designed to catch out the knaves), the latter a watery form of universal language, ‘Basic English’ (in which knavery was supposed to be impossible).

The footprints we miss include those of Whitney, Sweet, De Saussure, Trubetzkoy, Jakobson, Bloomfield, Martinet, Firth, Bloch and Chomsky. And it is not merely that mainline linguists have been busy on trails of their own: it is the fact that the main line has been heading in a direction that seems totally the reverse of the path I’ve been discussing. The concern of the orthodox linguists has been to examine the human language faculty as it actually appears to operate: to accept it as it is and try to understand its rules and mechanism. Such popular versions of the mainstream as there have been (not all that popular, in fact, and wildly misunderstood) have tended to take an anti-therapeutical stance, encouraging people to use their natural linguistic gifts naturally and to feel confidence in them. All dialects are equal in the sight of the linguistic lords (even though most of them chance to speak in hieratic accents remote from the demotic they praise), and the language of the Harlem black is ‘purer’ than anything you hear in the Chase Manhattan where nervous forelock-tugging has mixed a clerk’s natural English with things (s)he’s plucked from higher up the social tree. Some of the more enthusiastic by-products of this orthodoxy have reaped a bad press for what is seen to be a vulgar, anti-clerisy permissiveness – not surprisingly, when we recall that Bob Hall’s book attempting to popularise orthodox linguistics was entitled Leave your language alone.

What we have lacked is anyone on the therapeutic path who has seriously studied the implications of descriptive linguistic work. Even a scholar as polymathic as Ogden had for Bloomfield and Firth a contempt that was the harder to shake for the little he would read of their work. But equally, precious few among academic linguists have bothered to concern themselves with the goals of those like Ogden who sought to liberate people from their subjection to the hiding persuaders; or of those like Fowler who sought to cultivate a more widely-spread taste for well-formed speech and writing.

Among the precious few, Dwight Bolinger has made contributions that are especially precious. An immense body of solid descriptive research (primarily in English and Spanish, and always marked by sharpness of insight) puts him firmly in the camp of academic linguists. But he has never been unconcerned about the social relevance of linguistics, and increasingly since his retirement – perhaps, more significantly, since his removal from Harvard to California – he has been drawn into the controversies over linguistic minorities, ‘sexism’ and other current issues. In 1975, his brilliant Aspects of Language came out in a second edition twice the length of the first. The additions, such as a valuable chapter on ‘Language and the Public Interest’, not merely reflected the fresh explorations of the preceding decade but a wanderlust (or lust for wonder) stimulated by the oldest mysteries.

His new book is precisely devoted to language and the public interest and seeks to interest a wide public. Confident in the unshakable respect of his peers, he can engage himself in issues like the jargon of psychobabble or the tautology of ‘the reason is because’, without giving the impression of a dowager on an afternoon’s charitable slumming. He can sympathetically explore Korzybski’s General Semantics without the fear of being thought to have fallen for its exaggerated and misleading claims. He can frankly endorse the goals of therapy without losing sight of (or seeming to lose interest in) the goals of theory. With Jeremy Bentham explicitly in mind, he exposes the way in which language is used to deflect attention from the ‘product’ to the ‘package’. The chapter concerned bears as its title the reassuring words of a chocolate manufacturer: ‘We reduced the size because we didn’t want to increase the price.’

From so gentle a man, the loaded gun image is perhaps something of a surprise. But it certainly isn’t just a gimmick for the cover: it recurs insistently throughout the book (‘Loaded language, like loaded firearms, can be hidden where least suspected’), and it is a measure of just how seriously Bolinger takes our plight at the receiving end of linguistic sniping, whether from the sharpshooters in advertising and politics or from the dumdum bullets of the shamans, knocking the life out of language they claim to ‘defend from corruption’.

He is rightly hard on this sort of terrorism – at any rate as practised in America: he is transatlantically courteous to what he sees in Britain as ‘such respected scholar-shamans as H.W. Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers’. The ‘American species’ are to be exposed for their élitism, their antipathy to minorities, their horror of change, and (of course) their gross inconsistency, itself born of ignorance and prejudice. But Bolinger just as rightly acknowledges and respects the ordinary person’s concern for standards and his demand for guidance from the experts, well aware that ‘shamanite values are those of a majority of writers, critics, editors and other members of the literary community’. So he devotes one of his concluding chapters to an all too rare attempt by an academic linguist to show how much better guidance could come from academic linguists (if only they would take the trouble) than from the blinkered amateurs to whom virtually alone the public can at present turn.

If they have been disinclined to worry about correct usage, on the one hand, or covert deception, on the other, most orthodox linguists have been even more reluctant to get involved in linguistic engineering. Languages are in a constant process of natural change, but deliberate attempts to change them are at best futile, at worst gravely damaging to the society concerned. But Bolinger (and increasing numbers of others) would deny that it is futile, and would point to the limited success of ‘language-planning’ exercises in a wide range of countries, from Israel to Indonesia. And Bolinger is more willing than most to see that the damage to society is likely to be rather greater in failing to make deliberate linguistic change.

One chapter is devoted to ‘A case in point: sexism’, where the linguistic indignities to which women have been subjected are compared to the traditional ‘innocent merriment of racial slurs’, as in ‘Eenie-meenie-miney-mo’. Reflecting upon expressions like black-hearted, James Baldwin wrote recently that ‘for a black writer in this country to be born into the English language is to realise that the assumptions on which the language operates are his enemy.’ So, admits Bolinger, are corresponding assumptions the enemy of women. He sees women’s libbers, not as sour misandrous (perhaps anandrous) trouble-makers, kicking against the pricks, but as valued allies in making language and society alike more sensitive and responsive. However, in reviewing the pressures of the past decade that have yielded such modest alleviation as Ms and (chair) person, he also admits that changes in linguistic response can often merely disguise, not remove, the assumptions. He would have seen further evidence of how hard it is to unload ‘the gun of sex-biased language’ in a London classified advertisement a couple of weeks ago: ‘Salesperson wanted, to work with two other ladies.’