Thursday, August 26, 2010

To Speak With Salutary Neglect

It's an old canard in science fiction and future forecasting that in years to come, the English language will experience drastic changes. The Euro-English joke, "ze drem vil finali kum tru," has been making the rounds for decades: I came across it in a 1950s Astounding letter column. For me, it's always been rather simple - if your idea for "improving" English makes it look like the person using it has no concept of spelling, I'll take a pass.

Nevertheless, there are always people railing against "impurities" in the English language - these people should be directed to James Nicoll, who put it in terms for the ages - and of the need to tighten up the rules of the language. With the rise to prominence of text messaging in the last decade, some of these people are becoming even more shrill: to some, it seems, the very foundations of English are being undermined.

Spelling reform, and the attendant regulation and "regularization" of the language, isn't the way to do this. Sure, English is an insane slapdash combination of French, German, Greek, and Latin with bits of almost every other major language finding their way into the mix somewhere, but that's what makes it dynamic, flexible, and integrative. It's a gift for a writer - its depth of vocabulary makes possible a panoply of words with a continuum of meanings. Also, it means I don't necessarily have to use the same word over and over and over. English doesn't have language regulators like the Académie française or the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung. It is a freewheeling anarchy of a language - and that capacity for integration is, I think, one of its great strengths.

Beyond that, I don't think that English as a language is suited to top-down regulation because of the number of "anchors" it has. It's not only the prime language of the United Kingdom but of the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Guyana, and it's got a vast presence across India and other former components of the British Empire. So the question is, if you were to regulate English - what would be the basis? If you're trying to standardize spelling, what accent would you go with? Take a word as simple as "schedule" - would the regulated spelling take after my pronunciation, "sked-joule," or my coworker's "shed-joule?"

There would never be agreement - at the absolute best, you would probably see an even more formalized split between British English and American English, though barring a precipitous breakdown in the international system, we're still far removed from a situation where the United States speaks something that would have to be described as just "American."

In my view, salutary neglect is the best way to treat English - none of this shrieking about how the language is being diluted. English has been around for a long time. It's just barely behind Spanish in terms of native speakers. It will be all right. Forcing the language into a Procrustean bed of regulation would do no favors - it would go against the freewheeling spirit that's made the language what it is today.


  1. Dude! Why privilege Guyana over Jamaica and Trinidad, both of which have far more people? That's just wrong, man, wrong I say. Post a correction or my in-laws in the Mounties will come after you.

  2. You are confusing written English with spoken English,It's Ok to have dialects,as long as it's spelt the same