on 16 February 2011
What a marvellous book! For anyone interested in the shaping, describing and attempted policing of the English Language this is a "must buy". Hitchings writes lucidly and entertainingly without missing out anything significant.
The book gives a potted history, not so much of the language itself as writings about the language: grammars, dictionaries, style guides, usage guides, and so on. There are chapters on American English, the spread of World Englishes and punctuation mixed in. All are well worth the effort of reading and every chapter seemed to contain something new or something that I had not considered.
One word of warning: there is a chapter on taboo words, so if any potential buyers prefer bowdlerized texts this may not be for them. Less prudish readers will be aware that ignoring such terms would be ignoring significant parts of the language.
on 27 March 2011
This collection of essays on aspects of the English Language is probably the most accessible, readable and knowledgeable work currently available. Hitchings' erudition is riveting at every turn, and I found myself reading several chapters at once, diverted by observations which seemed to jump off the page.
That said, the author is fundamentally - like most linguists - a descriptivist; that is, he believes that language evolves by itself, and the prescriptivists who try to correct its course are (and he makes the analogy) like King Canute, doomed to failure. This policy proves revealing - of his grisly fascination for Americanisms and his dislike of Lynne Truss, among other things - but is constantly undermined by his (albeit grudging) accounts of the influence of Lindley Murray, Henry Fowler and their ilk. However, in the penultimate essay he appears to abandon all pretence to laissez-faire descriptivism, laying into politicians, advertisers and other manipulators of English for perverting the way we think. and all but joining the ranks of "grumblers, fault-finders, quibblers and mud-slingers" he earlier excoriated.
But that, Hitchings seems to realize, is intrinsic to the fraught nature of the subject. Everyone has some opinion about the ways our language is used, and if you want some provocative writing about those opinions, this book comes highly recommended.
on 30 October 2011
Hitchings' title "The Language Wars" aptly sums up his impressively erudite and extremely readable account of the development of our language over the centuries, and deals not only with the emergence of early English and the battles that were fought both for and against it, but also with its modern progress. His style is easy and conversational, but he does not talk down to his readers, nor does he avoid necessary technical terms - although these are always elegantly and helpfully explained or enlarged upon.
I found the whole thing enormously enlightening, and far better than several others, whose authors evidently considered their work to be thorough and painstaking. Hitchings' book is both of these, but the effect is rather like that of a good novel; one chapter leads inexorably to the next, and I found myself reading far into the night.
This, in short, is a book for the "serious amateur" who would like to know a lot more about the study of the English Language, and how it has affected - and is still affecting - the rest of the world.
on 20 June 2014
'All debts are cleared between you and I.' Not so fast, Henry! A plurality of voices is doubtless desirable - nowt wrong wi' inclusivity - but BBC English aka RP was a national treasure, and not just a national one, that was sacrificed to no end on the altar of Diversity. Just thought I'd get that out of the way
In the early part of the book HH strains rather too hard to give this worthy scissors-and-paste job an aura of quirky originality. 'To abuse language has been to risk excommunication.' The passage from Augustine in question says precisely the opposite, that those 'men of this world' who take care of their grammar frequently neglect their souls. 'The switch.. from proper to good is brisk, as though they are the same. But propriety and goodness are.. different.' Here (p21) Prince Charles is, entirely legitimately, using proper and good to mean correct (English); propriety, a term Hitchings shoehorns in, is something quite other, as well he knows (pp56 and especially 146). 'To call [the evolution of English vowel sounds] the Great Vowel Shift makes it sound like something that happened suddenly.' You think so, Henry? HH thinks that 'our unconscious or semi-conscious myths of English identity' are 'tinged with eroticism'. Maybe for an Old Etonian. After the meaningless 'Printing.. made it possible to imagine a virtual library of great English books' (for one thing, most of those great books would have been in Latin; for another, the libraries were real) I caught myself thinking 'Steven Fry lite'
HH appears to have read, or at least consulted, everything, from the sublime (Richard W Bailey's Images of English) to the ridiculous (John Simon's Paradigms Lost). The result has an upbeat but undigested feel; trailblazing it's not. Pompous yet callow, punctuated by awkward schoolmasterly stabs at levity ('flipside' for converse; Defoe as 'trailblazer' rather than pioneer (my use of trailblazING, above, is of course entirely legit); wonky; nit(! - HH perhaps intended nitwit?); tweaked), this voice seeks to ingratiate. Schoolmasterly - that's it!! Lacking both the honest graft of the true academic and the populist flair of the village explainer, what is HH but that infra dig professional, a schoolteacher manqué? Nuggets of good sense lurk here (of The Society for Pure English, 'societies 'for' anything are almost always busily defiant in the face of massive and irreversible realities') but one must dig for them. Phrases of this sort typify HH's pseudo-academic, straw man method: 'It has become orthodox to lay into..'; 'it is an oversimplification to say that..'; 'It is a mistake to say that..', all within the space of two paragraphs. Who's saying? Name names, Henry. Three pages later, 'had [Johnson] really been the hard-line prescriptivist of myth..', and a bit later, in the space of two pages, 'often wrongly identified', 'Its reputation now is undeservedly low', 'It is often suggested that..' and 'The truth is not so simple'. If our man wishes to be taken seriously, rather than simply staggering all the way to the bank, this tired tic must be resisted
Why do linguists, self-appointed or otherwise, resist so straightforward a concept as standard grammar and good style? The short answer is because controversy is their livelihood. Bless them, they have to make a meal of the simplest notions. HH ties himself in knots around the idea of correctness, accusing those who strive for good grammar of 'smugness and jingoism' (sounding in the process not a little smug himself) and snootily labelling their concern with correctitude 'pernicious'. Clearly HH was blessed in the cradle by the Language Fairy, though no doubt who you're born to helps. As Charles Moore remarked in the Telegraph, with more brio than either HH or I could muster, 'Mr Hitchings eschews the rules: he can do that only because he knows them'
As for correctness, it is no more and no less than that sanctioned by (recent) tradition, the language of our fathers (and, if we're lucky, our schoolteachers); the tradition our children inherit will be subtly changed. For all that, we need rules. Without prescriptiveness, as in the spoken language, anarchy reigns. Since the Gulf War covert is pronounced à l'americaine. (It's Scots for covered, as kempt is combed.) Feral always had a long e (think serum) since as every schoolboy once knew it comes from fera/wild beast not ferra/iron. Then there's fetid, with which as long as it continued to be spelt foetid no one had a problem. And hedonism. We don't, after all, pronounce evil to rhyme with devil. And don't talk to me about respite, which until the health service got hold of it always rhymed with cesspit. If it must rhyme with night (why?) the stress has to lie on the second syllable to make it half-way pronouncable. (In English only lisping infants at their letters lend each syllable equal stress.) Now that we increasingly pronunce Asia like azure (American influence again), azure must perforce rhyme with demure, except in poetry ('Ringed with the azure world') Còntract the noun has elbowed out contràct the verb because everyone and his dog say 'contract out' whereas only the élite** say 'contract diphtheria' - and who cares about them? Likewise sùrvey/survèy. Here poetry can help us: 'When I survey the wondrous cross'. Is he who now sùrveys henceforward to be called a sùrveyer? [And this on R4, where they've taken to employing a clownish and robotic West Indian with American vowels as continuity announcer, like an American-made speak-your-weight machine - what can it be like in the badlands?]
Only poets have a care for pronunciation, because otherwise our literary heritage tends not to scan or, sometimes, rhyme, and because, as artisans of language, they set a value on their material. Joe Linguist by comparison is a pretty dull bird, like social 'scientists' of every stripe, but HH gets Fowler (viz his enduring appeal to a nation where 'even the.. brewing of a hot drink can be a subject of passionate debate' - also, Hitchings does not add, a thoroughly class-ridden one) and his fellow style mavens absolutely right in his delightful Chapter 15 - this pithy, witty 9-page marvel could stand alone - and from this point on, around midway, when HH ditches his linguist's hat and stops being polemical, things perk up no end; I wolfed it down. Want more? Mark Abley's The Prodigal Tongue is a book on language - by a canuck yet! - that has SOMETHING TO SAY
* With word formation the problem is less acute. If (some) Americans wish to call a chaise longue a chaise lounge, who are we (or the French) to say them nay - only let them agree amongst themselves. (But they're as conservative as us. Or - as more than you'd think like to say - as we. Are they wrong? Only if they try to tell us we are
** that is, 'privileged' (bad) as opposed to merely rich (good)