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.

The old authorities were scrutable to the point of transparency; they formulated rules, often indurated, for which they gave succinct, reasonable and often inadequate grounds. The new Guardians, Wellsian, are often inscrutable, while deeply humble as priests are at pains to be. They are the advocates of trusting the people (Usage rules, OK?) while at the same time being the warders, the only conceivable knowers really, of what exactly it all is that the people do say. (And don’t forget that it changes all the time, so these memorious authorities are going to be always on duty and indispensably in business.) Information-retrieval is clout. It would be marginally less intimidating to have to remonstrate with Sir Ernest about his sense of social decorum than with Sir Randolph about his data-base. For the data-base – decision as to what a datum is, access to its innumerable items, comprehension of it, training to expound it – is the new locus of power, the polite revenge of the clerisy upon the democratic egalitarianism to which it pays lip service. New priest does well to accuse old presbyter of authoritarianism.

Averting their ears from any possibility of hearing a tu quoque, the radicals insist that it is their enemies who constitute a priesthood: ‘the death-of-language writers are self-ordained priests’ (James Stalker, in Greenbaum). John Silverlight, in his excerpted columns about usage and abusage that constitute Words, is prompt to make clear that he is playing down, not laying down, the law: ‘What I am not, to the disappointment of some colleagues, is a self-appointed “guardian of the purity of the language”.’ Of course he isn’t, he is an Observer-appointed observer of the language. But an inauthenticity is observable once you realise that, given the commanding heights (lunch with Sir Randolph, we are told, at Antoine’s in Charlotte Street), an observer has more, not less, authority these days than the old-style guardian.

There is a great deal of threatening in the essays that make up The English Language Today. But then radicals are not liberals, and it is gullible of liberals to suppose that they can make common cause with something as illiberal as the new linguistic dogmatism. The insistence that these professionals possess ‘objective data’ should not be equably accepted, since it is of the nature of data to be responses to particular interests and ideological assumptions – as these very same people (there being a powerful energy of political protest in many of these essays) would be the first to say of any other field of discourse than their own. But what should be actively repudiated is the claim that there are ‘objective studies’ of language change and language use which show people like Simon to be wrong. For the realm of values which Simon is engaging with, whether one concurs with his values or not (I mostly don’t), is one that is not compatible with such sophisticatedly professionalised naivety about objectivity. Simon seems to me no more authoritarian (or subjective, come to that) than his adversary here:

Many studies by linguists over the past several years confirm that language does indeed function as one of the criteria for assessing social status, so Simon is right, language does bear this symbolic function. The legitimate arguments on this topic are whether language should serve as a symbol of social status, and whether the correctness items listed in usage books are in fact the linguistic features listeners use in making social judgments. These arguments are open to proof from research ...

This is an extraordinary claim to make, that research in linguistics could prove (though the author goes on to grant that it probably won’t) ‘whether language should serve as a symbol of social status’. The authoritarian may not be the individual who makes dogmatic judgments but the professional who assumes dogmatically that all the important matters of judgment fall within his professional jurisdiction and indeed provability.

But then the whole matter of description v. prescription is clouded by the strife, by dust and heat. Coercion takes many forms. It may be equally, though differently, coercive to say that a particular turn of phrase is ‘unacceptable’ as to say that it is ‘incorrect’. The meaning and tone are not the same, and the coercion is a pressure towards a different upshot, but coercion it still is. In the 19th century, there was ‘a shift from the more relativistic view of language use as a question of “propriety” to the more absolute view of “correctness” ’. This may be true, but the writer’s displeasure in it is left underdescribed. For propriety is capable of being quite as prescriptively coercive as correctness. As for the terms which are carefully and ubiquitously intimated in the Grammar, acceptable/unacceptable, they sound to me no less minatory than correct/incorrect. I’d actually rather be told that my behaviour had been incorrect than unacceptable, the latter so flat and lethal. The radicals, or permissivists in some ways, naturally prefer not to say ‘unacceptable’ unless they really have to, even though the other word is regularly ‘acceptable’. They are aware that they would be in danger of being found – or seen – to be prescriptive after all. Hence the slide in the Grammar by which the antithetical word to ‘acceptable’ turns out to be something askew and good-natured:

It is acceptable to say:

I stared at her more often than I should (have)
should have done.

But it is odd to use the simple present or future shall/will alone as the partial contrast in the comparative clause:

* I liked her better than I do.
* Tom saw Betty more often than he will.

But power there grows out of the symbol of an asterisk, the star-chamber symbol for ‘unacceptable’.

Not but what there is a regular attempt to palliate the charge. It is a pity even to seem to be agreeing with Roy Harris, who not only does not believe that ... but doesn’t believe in most things (dictionaries, for example), but I judge him right to have insisted (LRB, 21 February 1985) that the Quirk-based Longman Dictionary is prescriptive, and that it only makes things worse by endlessly saying ‘disliked’ where it means ‘disapproved of’. I am myself glad that the Dictionary is prescriptive, but the placation may win enemies and lose friends.

Such a rhetoric is everywhere to be found in the anti-prescriptivism people. Silverlight pretends that his disapprovals become something else when he casts them in the form of something about little old him: ‘My own pet regret’, ‘And it still grates on me,’ ‘Eyebrows are going to be raised.’

Silverlight likes simplicities. ‘He was recording the history of the English language; he was not telling people how to use that language.’ ‘Lexicographers do not bless or condemn changes in usage: they record them.’ This is clean-cut kidding. But whatever lexicographers have to do, grammarians must locate authority somewhere if they are to compile a grammar at all. The supremacy now granted to contemporary usage used to be granted to a wider sense of what constituted usage, since the meaning of a word was understood as an agreement not only between people in the present but between the present and the past. The new dogma, in its positive pleasure in and subservience to obsolescence, is perfectly of its day, and probably carries the seeds of its own obsolescence. The new dogma is just as prescriptive: it just locates elsewhere the authority for finding things unacceptable, in a different place or rather in a different conviction about history in relation to time. For the moment, the grammarians still have to face the problem of the momentary, of whether or not to cede senses and usages the moment they are claimed or misprisioned.

No one, not even the doughtiest dottiest conservative, would deny that in the long run, in language as in everything else, the de facto becomes the de jure. But there had seemed to be advantages in not always immediately acquiescing in the de facto. The usage-obeyers (or rather the obeyers of immediately contemporary usage) find themselves embarrassed by any time-lag. Sometimes they just bluff. So Silverlight concedes that ‘envious’ and ‘jealous’ are ‘used synonymously more often than not’ (more often than not), but wishes that they weren’t and even brings himself to argue that they shouldn’t be. The Grammar, with its fall-back invocation of ‘nonstandard’ (it is not a book likely to be much read by users of nonstandard English), finds itself saying that some usages are ‘nonstandard but widely current’. All of this conversation is then enlivened by the regular appearance of Wittgenstein on wheels. Philip Thody and Howard Evans, in their bonhomous Faux Amis and Key Words, are happy to have Wittgenstein say, just like that, that the meaning of a word is its use. But Wittgenstein did not think the matter that simple. Burchfield prefers the more ample and flexible thought of Wittgenstein that ‘a meaning of a word is a kind of employment of it.’ As for me, if I were to offer a snatch of Wittgenstein, it would be the even more supple variation on the thought: ‘Practice gives the words their sense.’

The anti-prescriptivists accuse their opponents, usually unjustly, of being ignorant of or indifferent to the fact that languages change. They then prostrate themselves before the inevitability of change. Silverlight positively thrills to historical inevitability. ‘Now if this feature has any guiding theme, beyond the expression of a fascination with words, it is belief in the uselessness of fighting usage.’ ‘Usage is irresistible, and there is no profit in arguing with it.’ Even Burchfield, who hankers for robuster possibilities, keeps saying that the prescriptivists ‘had no power to prevent such changes’. ‘There is little [liberal for ‘no’?] doubt that most [not all, then?] of the new features that are intensely disliked by linguistic conservatives will triumph in the end.’ ‘No amount of praying, begging, or of formal legislation will stop them happening.’

There is something inevitable about the professional linguist’s insisting on inevitability, but there are difficulties about the conviction all the same. Why are these people so sure? The answer is that they attend to the changes which survived, and then maintain – easily but vacantly – that it is of the nature of changes to survive. There is no difficulty in showing that changes are irresistible if you have in mind only the ones which triumphed over resistance: 100 per cent success rate! But the history of the language, as soon as you think about it, is littered, like a Steinberg landscape, with usages that came to ruin, with neologisms that died as neonates, and with every kind of linguistic fossil. The things that are still alive, on the other hand, are – needless to say – still alive. But their dead siblings and ancestors are dead. Burchfield unacknowledgingly knows this, and gets quite poetical about it without letting it temper his blithe pessimism. He says of the ‘hard’ words in Cockeram’s English Dictionarie (1623) that they ‘include some caught in a lost glacier of literature – for example, commotrix (“a maid that makes ready and unready her Mistris”) “parentate” (“to celebrate ones parents funerals”), and “periclitation” (“Jeopardie, hazard”)’.

Now it may be argued that none of those lost words was told to get lost. No individual or group effort ever effected anything here. But this would be another argument: would be, indeed, an argument, and would have to call upon something more than a thrilled say-so about inevitability. Reading these language-books, you find yourself waiting for the moment when, yet once more, you will be told that Swift opposed the word ‘mob’. Swift lost. Collapse of stout prescriptivist party. But the cases when a word won are naturally better known to us than the cases when a word lost. For Swift opposed many of these monosyllabic loppings: ‘such as phizz, hipps, mobb, poz., rep and many more’. (This they usually don’t quote.) A couple of those survive (one barely); the rest don’t. I don’t know, not being a linguistic historian, whether their not surviving had anything to do with intelligent strictures passed on them by great, and greatly influential, men. But I’d not adopt the mere axiom of a linguistics professional who was somehow sure that nothing that the likes of Swift ever said could possibly have made any difference.

In any case, there is a further difficulty about this yearning for human ineffectuality and linguistic irresistibility. (One of egalitarian democracy’s Pyrrhic victories is this widespread sense of human ineffectuality.) For there is now great energy, with professional effort, devoted exactly to ‘linguistic engineering’ – a conscious dedication, for instance, to extirpating sexism from the language. (The Grammar puts its power to the service of this elbow, often nudging its readers, with feminist sexism, into Heads women win, tails men lose.) Many of Greenbaum’s contributors write passionately of such possibilities, in school and out of it. But if there can be a willed improvement of the language, why couldn’t there be – as conservatives claim and as the linguistic engineers deny except when it suits their purposes – a willed opposition to a deterioration of the language? The professional linguists don’t really know where they stand on these questions of the relation of a language to a culture or a society and to political and social well-being or health. They fiercely repudiate the enemy’s belief, and explicitly scorn ‘value-judgments’ and the idea of a ‘connection between the health of a society and the quality of the language it uses’. But when it comes to political judgments, there is prompt judgment of ‘linguistic malpractice’. (Reagan and Thatcher, of course.) Certain usages, it is drily said, are considered ‘to stigmatise their users as uneducated, unintelligent, or even morally reprehensible’. But there is no sauce for the gander, since sexist usages – though still culturally dominant and therefore elsewhere authoritative – are found not only reprehensible but corrigible. Fine. But it is not clear why certain beliefs allow you to pass moral judgments and to effect change while others forbid you to pass judgments and to oppose change. Can there really be so simple a confidence in change?

But then neither side has a monopoly of reprehending. Such popularisers as Simon and Safire (genuinely popular too, which is a problem for anti-élitists, who are only ever read by the élite) are indeed often brutal of phrase. But it doesn’t seem to me that the advocates of tolerance (by which they mean not disapproving, which evacuates the concept of tolerance) are any less brutal. ‘Verbal brutality’ and ‘name-calling’ are deplored, and we are to ‘teach tolerance’: but it is not clear that tolerance will be taught by essays which are willing to use so callously insensitive a phrase as ‘the death-of-language camp’, or to say of Simon and Safire: ‘Like Hitler, the English Mafia offers a world view to people who have no other.’ Often the tone is more equable, but the substance no less disconcerting. The editor of The English Language Today prefaces Morton Bloomfield’s and Donald Davie’s essays: ‘Writing also from the point of view of a poet, Davie urges that students be taught to write correct, clear and elegant English. More liberal views are presented by Raven McDavid and Susan Miller.’ But is there, except in this strange world in which rank may always be pushed but must never be pulled, really anything illiberal about Davie’s belief that students of English literature should be taught to write correct, clear and elegant English? Agreed, there are other values too, but it wouldn’t be illiberal of Davie not to stress them – added to which, he by no means limits his avowal to clarity, correctness and elegance.

What has happened is not the arrival of tolerance, objectivity and neutrality, but of different targets for vilification. Even Sir Randolph, who would not dream of stigmatising a usage in class terms as ‘intolerably vulgar’, is happy to stigmatise one as ‘intolerably pompous’. He said to Silverlight, about a ‘deprecate’/‘depreciate’ polemic: ‘Very good, very good. But if you’ll forgive my saying so, you sound a bit like an Eastbourne colonel.’ I’m sure Silverlight forgave him. But there is something eerie about the new prejudicial assurances about what constitutes fair game, and about the confidence that nothing that anybody ever said would move Sir Randolph to say: ‘But if you’ll forgive my saying so, you sound a bit like an Irish navvy.’ They used too much to say that sort of thing, but the new un-misgiving reparations can be injurious.

Some reparation may be due for my now treating the final two language-books under this aegis of the acceptability of correctness. Both of them, however, say a good deal about these wrangles. For Walter Redfern’s Puns and D.J. Enright’s collection on euphemisms, Fair of Speech, are more diverting and diverse than this notice of them can bring home. Redfern’s book teems with instances, with brilliant French/English translations, with diatribes against the pun down the ages, and with provocations and admissions. It is, as it says, ‘part anthology, part gloss, part invention, part speculation’. Much of it is special pleading, with sudden flashes of hostility as irrational and incorrigible as those of pun-scorners. But then Redfern is particularly good on the immense range of contradictory impulses alive in punning. Often frantic and sometimes tiring, he is not flippant, scheming or servile. True, he mildly mangles two Max Miller (not Max Müller) jokes, and even one (unacknowledged) of mine: but he does right by the things that matter.

As for Fair of Speech, it has pace and pith, and it instructs by delighting. ‘The Uses of Euphemism’ turn out to be legion and often valuable; sweet are the uses of euphemism, which like the toady wears yet a precious jewel. One persistent reminder or revelation (it does a lot to hold together these 16 essays) is of how many words were originally euphemisms but are not now felt to be so. Jasper Griffin, in a happily sombre account of Greek and Roman euphemisms, adduces ‘execution’, ‘vagina’ and ‘excrement’. Robert Adams gives us ‘syphilis’. Catherine Storr (uncondescendingly tender about children’s euphemisms) reminds us that the avoided words ‘lavatory’ and ‘toilet’ are themselves euphemisms. She also reports the most exquisitely self-referential of them, when there had been a misunderstanding about a visit to the lavatory and the words spoken were subsequently called a euphemism: ‘My family call the lavatory “the euph” (pronounced “yoof” to rhyme with roof).’ Patricia Beer staunchly defends euphemisms in literature, especially in the 18th and 19th-century novel; and she points out that ‘maidenhead’ was a euphemism. Diane Johnson and John Murray, on doctors and their proper self-protection, mention ‘consumption’. And John Gross, in a finely judged and moving essay on ‘Intimations of Mortality’, offers a grim humane reminder that some, still, of the uses of euphemism (pace Enright’s cry, ‘Come back, euphemism, all is forgiven!’) are unforgivable: ‘No one can read very far in the literature of concentration camps without realising how frequently euphemisms were used by the guards as a form of torment, applied with sadistic gloating to unspeakable situations. Concentration camp is itself a notorious euphemism – doubly so, in the view of some writers, since it fails to preserve the distinction between “ordinary” camps (something less than death camps, although they were murderous enough by any normal standards) and those camps whose whole purpose was extermination. But then even “death camp” seems an inadequate term for conveying all the cruelties that were inflicted in such places before death.’ The best sustained piece of thinking in the book is by Derwent May, on the media. His central insight, well followed and well worth following further, is of the collusion or complicity implied in euphemism, its willing suspension of disbelief.