As You Like It
Last issue, Kathy Miller lamented the use of ‘sloppy, trendy language’ among young people, practitioners of PR and journalism, even a cousin, who ‘peppered his conversation with words such as baseline, reference and showcase – all used as verbs’. I felt her frustration. We all have our bugbears when it comes to language, and I’m fully prepared to lay mine on the table, and say that leaving a key preposition out of a sentence (“I’m going cinema”) drives me mad. I accept it (with gritted teeth) though, because I know that language is the product, and the possession, of those who speak it – and to treat it otherwise is to do disservice to them and the language at large.
Take Ms Miller’s first example: ‘Yesterday right, I'm like, waiting to buy my ticket. And I'm, like, whoah, get me on that train, I so don't want to miss it and I'm like, hey, I'm gonna be late for my appointment-uh?” Seeing it written down, it’s almost impossible not to cringe. But remember the context: the speaker wasn’t writing, but chatting to a friend about something fairly mundane which they made more interesting by reenacting the scene and giving an as-it-happened account of their thoughts. Yes, Miller’s translation – ‘I was queuing to buy a ticket and I really didn't want to miss my train and be late for my appointment’ – looks better on paper, but it has none of the energy or expression of the previous sentence. Spoken aloud as Miller suggests ‘in an even tone indicating that this is a statement’ would sound too dull for words…
…which, of course, is my first point: a language that can’t adapt to accommodate the needs and personality of the speaker is worse than useless. 'The only languages that don’t change are dead ones” quoth David Crystal, and, as the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, he should know. This linguistic expert revels in the new use of words – even text-speak, which he defended on BBC4 in 2008 against the charge of showing the decline of English. “On the contrary,” he said, “it shows the English language is alive and well, capable of adapting to the new demands placed on it.”
Why? Research shows, for example that the best texters are the best spellers; in order to leave a letter out, because it’s quicker, you have to know it’s there in the first place. Text-speak demonstrates also how accommodating the language is. The expansion, adaptation and the personalisation of a language by new users is the best, indeed the only way to ensure its survival and outreach – and English, as the most prominent language on the internet, is perhaps the finest example of that. How else would it have maintained its status as the global lingua franca without evolving to accommodate such conventions as blogging, emailing and tweets?
Then there’s its multiculturalism. Throughout history, the language has been moulded by travel and migration from the Angles, Saxons and Normans through to Asians, Africans, and – to Kathy Miller’s chagrin – Americans. Thanks to this, though, we can count ‘bungalow’, ‘flannel’, ‘alcohol’, ‘boogie’, ‘zombie’, and many, many more among our armoury of words.
In turn, it is the assimilation of these cultures into the English language that has produced some of our greatest works of modern literature. Benjamin Zephaniah, Zadie Smith, E.A Markham, Roddy Doyle are all authors and poets whose works are written in the dialects – British-Caribbean, British-Asian, Irish – in which you would hear them speak. The writers are well-educated; their works have won serious awards. Should they be dismissed, for ignoring the so-called customs of the tongue, or celebrated, for showing its ‘infinite variety’? After all, under Ms Miller’s stringent criteria, even William Shakespeare – father of this and several thousand other phrases and words in English – would classify as a wanton abuser of words.
Consider her final complaint: “When a waiter asked me recently if I had been menued yet, I was so shocked…” Now consider the fact that one of the ways in which Shakespeare added his 1,700 new words to the language was by converting nouns. The first recorded use of dog, lace, hobnob, bedazzle and fool as verbs are all in his works, to say nothing of his creative approach to suffixes (remorseless), prefixes (impartial) and joining two wholly unrelated words (moonbeam, bloodstained, cold-blooded…).
Had the Elizabethans heard of bloodstained before he used it? Probably not, but they had no more problem understanding it than Ms Miller does must-have or makeover. It’s no coincidence that centrally regulated and restricted languages – French, Greek, Italian and so on – have not been nearly so successful as English has over the years.
Will Shakespeare invented the word ‘pedant’ for a reason, and no doubt he encountered some resistance to his words. But it is a real blessing to all of us that no one repressed his innovative contributions. Next time we’re rushing to condemn our fellow speakers we should remember his example. One generation’s language-abusing youth is a future age’s Bard…