16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Linguists, most of them scholars and academics, tend to accept that language is in a continuing state of evolution and change. They consider this the natural state of language, and that any attempt to stop change with a set of rigid grammatical rules and notions of standards is either counterproductive or simply wrong-headed.
Lined up against them is a more traditionalist army of grammarians, plain language enthusiasts, and keepers of "correct" usage, who feel that change is undesirable and that the laissez-faire attitude of linguists is an invitation to cultural chaos. These two groups have been at loggerheads for decades, each deeply suspicious of the other.
Along comes Deborah Cameron, a linguist at Strythclyde University (UK) who decides to take a more open-minded look at the attitudes of the traditionalists and offers her colleagues a number of insights meant to scale down the level of hostility between the two camps. Her central notion is there in the title: verbal hygiene.
She proposes that not only does language evolve; it generates its own "caregivers." These people look after its welfare, wrong-headed or not, and practice a kind of "hygiene" that counteracts the messiness of uncontrolled growth. The evolution of language, she says, is actually a dynamic between opposing forces of conservation and innovation. While there is no "right" or "wrong" way to use language, Cameron suggests that language is enlivened by the push and pull between these opposing ideas.
To challenge the idea that standard English exists apart from the people who use it, she provides an account for how it comes into being, at least as she sees it among UK writers. And she challenges the confident trust we might have in the use of dictionaries as a measure of "correctness." Reading her analysis, you realize that dictionaries are part of a circular process that both reflects and determines usage.
Cameron extends her discussion of language with insightful and entertaining analyses of "political correctness," communication between genders, and the types of politically-inspired public hysteria that spring up around the schools' perceived failure to teach correct grammar. She even takes to task our confident acceptance of George Orwell's dictums in his often cited essay, "Politics and the English Language."
This is a book for anyone fascinated by not only the language of politics but the politics of language. Its ideas are argued thoughtfully and with considerable insight. As companions to this book I'd also recommend the books of American linguist Deborah Tannen ("You Just Don't Understand") and Simon Winchester's account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, "The Professor and the Madman."