Conservative Chic

Michael Mason

  • The Politics of Culture and Other Essays by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 245 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85635 362 0

Should we use ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, or ‘infer’ to mean ‘imply’? What about ‘hopefully’, and ‘whom’, and the present subjunctive? This is the stuff of innumerable dinner-party arguments, vehemently conducted, and generally leaving in the mind a nasty sense of muddle. It often happens with controversies of the vehement, intractable sort that separate issues have become mixed up with one another. If we approach them piecemeal, it turns out that there are answers after all, but diverse answers to the diverse problems that have composed the muddle. The American journalist John Simon has for some years been writing a column in Esquire in which he takes a conservative view of linguistic change in true dinner-party fashion: opposing almost every innovation in contemporary usage, and mixing up several independent considerations in the process. Pieces from that column published between 1977 and 1979, together with a few other items, were put out as a book in America, and the collection recently appeared in Britain.[*]

In America the question of linguistic correctness has an additional strand that makes it even more confusing than it is in Britain. The tendency to change in American usage arises partly from the presence in American culture of large groups whose linguistic origins are not English, or at least are far removed from standard English. This is not, or not yet, as conspicuous an issue in Britain, and when it is noticed, the intrusive language is perhaps most likely to be American English. So British linguistic conservatives will probably find the American linguistic conservative, John Simon, barbaric in usages such as: ‘the listener is locked into a schema of two-way partitioning from which no one can escape.’ Simon dislikes change that comes from special linguistic groups as much as any other variety. His remarks about it are as violent as anything in the book (and he is one of the most aggressive journalists writing at the moment in America). Into the mix of arguments on this topic go social ones: Simon is confessedly inegalitarian. In Britain, too, the issue of correct usage is connected with social stratification, but generally, at the dinner parties, it would be unusual to hear as much reference made to élites as Simon makes, just as it would be unusual to hear expressed his kind of attitude to the influence of culturally-based varieties of English (American English apart). Over here the squabbles are more restricted: to the broad fact of linguistic change, the appearance of allegedly incorrect language generally, and the status of the usage enshrined in various dictionaries and grammars.

What sort of case does an out-and-out conservative like Simon manage to put up when it comes to such questions? He has two main arguments for the need to maintain the authority of the more prescriptive books on English usage, though he does not seem to realise that the two are independent of one another. Sometimes he tells us that English would deteriorate to a point of very serious inefficiency if we disregarded the books. On other occasions he urges that there are certain advantages in using a variety of English for which comprehensive rules happen to have been formed. The difference is between the necessity for the rules if language is to work, and the desirability of the rules on other grounds once they have been formulated. Only the second line of argument deserves to be taken seriously. Human language has for the most part – that is to say, all over the world, and in some quarters for perhaps a million years – done very well without formulated rules. ‘Very well’ is, indeed, far short of the truth. Languages developed from origins admittedly inscrutable, but certainly rudimentary, to essentially their modern forms without any assistance from grammarians and lexicographers. There is a kind of sacrilege, if Mr Simon’s light-minded bigotry deserves such a weighty term, in his failure to think about this achievement of human civilisation.

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[*] John Simon’s Paradigms Lost was reviewed by Randolph Quirk (LRB, Vol.3, No 20).