Who whom?

Christopher Ricks

  • The English Language Today edited by Sidney Greenbaum
    Pergamon, 345 pp, £12.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 08 031078 8
  • The English Language by Robert Burchfield
    Oxford, 194 pp, £9.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 19 219173 X
  • A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik
    Longman, 1779 pp, £39.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 582 51734 6
  • Words by John Silverlight
    Macmillan, 107 pp, £17.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 333 38010 X
  • Faux Amis and Key Words: A Dictionary-Guide to French Language, Culture and Society through Lookalikes and Confusables by Philip Thody, Howard Evans and Gwilym Rees
    Athlone, 224 pp, £16.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 485 11243 4
  • Puns by Walter Redfern
    Blackwell, 234 pp, £14.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 631 13793 9
  • Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism edited by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 222 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 19 212236 3

Trust a Director of Freshman Rhetoric to say that ‘the study of language is inherently interesting.’ He would, wouldn’t he? He trusts so. This big batch of language-books brings out that the most interesting argument going is, yes, the feud between conservatives and radicals about correctness and usage. The only snag is that this is also the most boring argument going, since it is not going anywhere. Like all feuds, it is, in being addictive, both interesting and boring. Partly this is because the enlistments are so briskly predictable: literature people are élitists or meritocrats more or less, and linguistics people are egalitarian or more. But mostly the argument is so grippingly tedious, a vice, because the terms of the antithesis – descriptive v. prescriptive – are metallically insensitive. As with the analogous grind of nature and nurture, the genuine interest of it all is never going to be released until someone comes along who is both knowledgeable and imaginative, not only about the inadequacy of the antithesis itself, but about some better way of speaking which would offer an advance. There is no sign that this is likely to happen. True, Sir Peter Medawar effected a brief release when challenging his field’s version of the nature-nurture antithesis with the instance of innate potentialities never to be actualised unless the environment were right. But feud is collusive, and the parties usually round on anyone who threatens their grim fun. Linguistic conservatives and radicals have no intention of stopping lobbing grenades at each other. Meanwhile there is increasing evidence, necessarily scattered evidence, of combatants on both sides who have lobbed the pin and kept the grenade securely in the mouth.

While we wait for someone to come and help us out of this violent and wasteful mess – a philosopher, perhaps, to show the flies the way out of the flypaper – we can at least try to locate some of the disputed areas that she or he will need both to subdue and liberate.

One is the area of authority, and of its good and bad angels, the authoritative and the authoritarian. Linguistic conservatives like John Simon, who sometimes seem not only not to mind being disliked but to thrive on it, do not shrink from such acts of authority as will promptly be branded authoritarian – a word wielded in Sidney Greenbaum’s tour de task-force The English Language Today. Conservatives need some of T.S. Eliot’s steeled insouciance: ‘I think the virtue of tolerance is greatly overestimated and I have no objection to being called a bigot myself.’ Meanwhile the radicals, who yearn to be widely liked (the devil of deference having been expelled, the seven devils of likeability take over the scrubbed house), are inclined to present themselves as transcending the problems and seductions of authority. Yet both sides are liable, though for opposite reasons, to delight improperly in the exercise of power. For if the new descriptivists proclaim ‘Power to the people’ in making usage the only criterion of whether something may be said, there is then for them an immediate opening-up of rich new possibilities of authority and authoritarianism. For who is to tell the people how the people are (is?) using their (its?) immense language except the indispensable new class of panoptic logocrats? ‘Who whom?’ is famously a political as well as a linguistic question. Robert Burchfield in his deft and delightful book still hopes that it is possible to be a true liberal (that is, only wishy and not washy), so he says that ‘the formal distinction ... is breaking up but should be maintained where possible.’ (Would it really have been impossible for him to give, on the previous page, ‘Whom are you voting for?’ instead of his ‘Who ...’?) But the difficulty with the radical’s ‘Who whom?’ is that it invites Michael Frayn’s reasonable regression: Who asks ‘Who whom?’?

The blurb to the wonderful vast new Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk-Greenbaum-Leech-Svartvik) says truly of its quadrumvirate that they are ‘acknowledged to be leading authorities in the field of English language’. If they are authorities, then, as human beings and as an institution, they are susceptible of authoritarianism: and in certain respects they are even more intimidating as a priesthood than were such old mandarins as the Fowlers or Gowers. For if you wanted, under the old regime (which acknowledged that it was a regime, and didn’t pretend to be a Citizen’s Advice Bureau), to know what was correct, you could look the matter up in a small book that was not technical, not dauntingly intellectual, and not dour. Of course the whole business promulgated the values, but moral and spiritual as well as social, of the boss-class – who ever thought otherwise? (And who would suppose that Sir Randolph’s doesn’t promulgate them, the boss-class having been supple – old consciences with new faces?) But under the new dispensation, if you want to know if something is ‘acceptable’ (not ‘correct’, natch), you need to be able to find your way about a 1779-page book which is as regal as a palace, as intricate as a maze, and as inviting as a tall wall bottle-spiked. Oh, I managed, as any reader of LRB would manage. But there is an element of pretence in imagining that such language studies, or Greenbaum’s collection of essays, must be anti-élitist and egalitarian.

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