The Great Book Reorganization continues, but it is going rather slowly. Sure, there are other things that I need to do, but it also goes slowly because I cannot seem to resist the temptation to open up the books I am trying to reorganize and browse through them. I would be much more efficient if I didn’t need to do so, but it’s nearly impossible to sit in the midst of that many books and not open even one.
When I picked up one of my dictionaries, I opened up to a random page, closed my eyes, and placed my finger on the page. Whatever word was closest to my finger would be a word that I would try to figure into speech or writing today. The word was hackles and I nearly danced at how fortuitous it was that fate picked that word for me today. (Okay, okay – so what if I actually did get up and do a jig? Lord knows I’ve busted a move for far less.)
Continued commentary on the recent scuffle over the influence of American English had once again gotten me thinking about why we are bothered by some mistakes or phrases but not by others. It’s a topic I’d circled around in the past.
In “On The Vagaries of English Pronunciation“, I wrote:
“So, why does this interest me so? Why does the pronunciation of one little word, fabulous though it may be, cause me to pore over dictionaries and Internet articles, and interrupt my colleagues for their knee-jerk native speaker intuitions about pronunciation? What really got me thinking about this word was the reaction of the original comment. I should say, rather, that it was the vehemence with which I was corrected that caught my attention. This person felt very strongly about the pronunciation of this word and was emotionally invested in its defense.
Languages change constantly. Some of the changes are subtle and often go unnoticed, for example, the pronunciation of Latin-based 50-cent words. Others, meanwhile, are like flashing neon signs saying “Pay attention to ME,” for example the leaking of texting shortcuts into mainstream writing, appropriately or not. The technology is changing at lightning speed, and so the language associated with this technology is also trying to keep up… However we feel about it, it’s out there and we’re fairly powerless to stop it.
Regardless of how loudly or quietly these changes happen, we react to them. I was trained as a good little descriptive linguist, which means I should merely observe these changes and take an academic, intellectual interest in their form and function. I could, for instance, objectively ponder the ramifications of the simplified spelling reform about which George Bernard Shaw was so passionate over a century ago without becoming emotionally involved myself. (Ah, if only he had had an iPhone and unlimited texting on his cell phone plan!) However, I am not always objective about linguistic changes that I see. Some things truly don’t bother me and other things do. What makes some changes innocuous and others so repugnant? Why does one man fight for vuh-GAIR-ee while the woman sitting next to him is perfectly content with the newer VEY-guh-ree? It seems the vagaries are less in our pronunciation and more in ourselves.”
And in “Button Pushers“, I wrote:
“Once again, this leads me to the conclusion that it is not the phrase itself that offends, but the ignorance behind it. Each phrase implies ignorance of something to each person. For me, the first two don’t offend because it seems to me that they are learned as entire chunks, a la Michael Lewis, and therefore are simply mis-assigned a meaning. The third is a perfectly valid and current generative rule of English grammar that is being ignored or improperly learned. That’s why it bothers me.
So, doesn’t this tell me as much about myself as it may about the person uttering the ungrammatical statement? Our language reveals much about us, both intentionally and unintentionally, and not just what we say, but what we hear and how we hear it.”
What raises our hackles and why? Why are we so angered by perceived threats to our language? Do we think we have to change in some fundamental way if we are forced to change the way we speak? Or perhaps we are afraid that if we don’t change with the times, we risk being less able to express ourselves because we would be using outdated forms that are diminished and little understood. We’ll lose our connection. And isn’t that what language is: the way we connect? What would we be if we could not communicate?
Hated intrusions from other dialects, unfamiliar regional expressions, language errors, new slang, my own bêtes noires…all of these are things that we feel detract from the way we can communicate with each other. We fear what we don’t understand, and in this case, the thing that confuses us is why people are ‘messing with’ our language. Our language. We speak of it as though it belongs to us, as if we are the only ones who have the right to alter the language. And we define ‘us’ as ‘those who speak like me.’
This point was made in a CBC (Radio Canada) interview with Matthew Engel and Grant Barrett. Towards the end of the interview (about 18:41), the host of the show, Jian Ghomeshi, asked, “I’m wondering what it is about the discussion of language that invokes [sic] such emotion.”
Engel answered first, explaining that he feels it’s because people care about their language and don’t want to be told or made to speak differently. Barrett’s answer was similar, but more specific: “Understanding language is directly tied to the way we culturally find out who is an insider and who is an outsider.”
He explains how language is what gives us information about who belongs or doesn’t belong to our group. The people in our families and communities are our language models, and we learn about the world through this filter. We get our information, our identities from this community, and someone who comes in speaking differently is distrusted because they are identified as an outsider. Differences make us nervous and scared, and as Garrett explains, this can lead us to frustration and anger. We feel “…the outsider language that transgressed boundaries to be so alien that it needed to be repulsed and pushed away.”
So this may explain why the British have their panties all up in a bunch over the intrusion of our strange Americanisms, but why would it make Americans get all hot under the collar? Why should we care about how they think of our phrases or pronunciation?
Once again, language and identity are inextricably linked. Imagine you just heard someone insult or belittle your favorite television show, making it seem that anyone who actually likes the show must be dim-witted. You may defend the show or you may pretend that you don’t watch it; your reaction would depend on your personality, on your relationship, or how much you care about the show. Either way, it’s not a comfortable feeling. You may feel anything from indifference to slight annoyance to embarrassment and anger.
Now imagine how much more personal it feels when the object of derision is not a television show but the way you speak. If we are to understand that some British people think hospitalize is a ‘vile word’, then how do they feel about people who use that word? Are we vile because we use a vile word? Isn’t that the implication?
We make assumptions about why a person gets basic grammatical points wrong, or can’t spell, or mispronounces words. We are bothered by what we interpret to be sloppiness or ignorance or lack of respect for the language. In other words, we don’t simply dislike the word or the mistake as much as we hate the intention behind the usage, or at least what we assume the intention to be. So if someone is complaining about our regionalisms, we think they are actually complaining about us. And then we feel offended. Hey, what’s so bad about us and our language, anyway?
And so the debate about communication continues in the absence of actual communication because one side is too busy being defensive of linguistic boundaries, and the other side is too busy being offended by perceived attacks on the national character. It’s difficult to do otherwise when involved in a mob atmosphere, but if individuals had more chance to get to know their ‘enemy’, perhaps the message wouldn’t get so mangled. We may be separated by a common language, but we still do have it in common. As English becomes an increasingly global language, more important questions may arise, and if we have any hope of answering them, I believe it behooves us to learn how to work together rather than sulk in our separate corners, licking our linguistic wounds.