Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lingo mutato

OK, kids. Let's talk about talk. Here's a random meditation on language. A brick through the stained glass windows of the Temple of Good English is included free of charge.

So what the hell am I talking about when I talk about talk? Funny you should ask.

Human language is a fascinating case of self-organizing information. It’s software. It’s code. Human beings absorb that code as infants in a heuristic process nobody really understands. But with every baby, the Tower of Babel happens in reverse. “Want dink” becomes “I want drink” becomes “I want a drink.” Baby see, baby do. Parents speak, baby imitates, baby gets better and better. That feedback loop writes and rewrites the syntactical code in the kid's brain -- the real grammar running the endless stream of chatter. Humans don’t learn this code as a formal system. The stuff we learn in grammar books -- verbs, nouns, past participles -- isn't the real code. It's descriptive, after the fact, a rough guess, and usually wrong.

Tell that to a Grammar Nazi and they'll burn you at the stake. Or stab you to death with a red pen.

Grammar Nazis assume that the rules of English grammar came down from heaven like the Ten Commandments on Moses’ tablets. Nah. The truth is the rules of English grammar were written by Grammar Nazis. I'll tell you what happened. And I'm not making this shit up.

In the 1700s, social climbing Englishmen wanted to speak and write“good” English. To meet this demand, various Grub Street scribblers cranked out how-to pamphlets as fast as they could scribble. What did they put in those pamphlets? Rules, of course. Rules for good English. Since rules for good English didn't exist yet, they made them up. This forced the scribblers to scratch their noggins and do some hard thinking. So, erm, what is good English, anyway? Gotta figure that out before you make up the rules. How? Dear Christ, in London alone, the chatter of Marylebone is unintelligible to the good people of Knight's Bridge. But hang on ...What about Latin? Why ... It's positively bursting with rules. And they're the best rules! Latin, as everybody knows, is the perfect language. QED: English grammar should be nailed to the Procrustean bed of Latin grammar. And the scribblers scribbled away.

Today, their bogus rules live on in the dead letter of grammar text books. (The ones the Grammar Nazis worship.) Verbs should agree in case and number with nouns. (Despite the fact that this would be news to Shakespeare.) Split infinitives are bad. (Despite the fact that English is a transformational language, not an inflectional language.) So,“To boldly go where no man has gone before” is bad English. “To go boldly where no man has gone before” is good English. Like bloody hell it is.

That's not to bash "good" English. The blemishes of a few spurious rules don't spoil her shining beauty. But it's the beauty of a self-consistent style, not a transcendent absolute that came down from the sky. (And let's not deny the snobbery. The best people speak good English. It was born from social climbing. Let's be nice and sparkling clear.) Hey, I can dig William F. Buckley and his verbal virtuosity. Hell, I can imitate William F. Buckley. Good stuff, fun to play around with. But "good" English isn't the only good English. I can dig Sam Elliott's Western patois, too. Or Chris Rock going to town. That's good stuff, too.

If somebody says, “He ain’t got none” or “I’m fixing to bust” that’s not bad English – it’s a different dialect of English. “Good” English is just another code. One of many. It’s nice to know the code. But, if you’re a writer, comedian, actor or creator, it’s nice to know all kinds of codes. A sneer gets in the way. You have to keep your ears open.

Because everything's changing. Language is a river. Like the man said, you can't swim in the same river twice. Good Modern English is bad Middle English. Good Middle English is lousy Old English. French, Italian and Spanish are all bad Latin. Languages mutate. That’s what languages do. The code isn’t fixed. Its rules* are written in air, not stone. English too, baby. It's changing so fast now, you can actually see it happening ...

Watch "like" dance on the grave of "as."
Witness the subjunctive tense turn to dust. “If I were King of the Forest.” Kiss it goodbye. The distinction between “such” and “like”…? Ancient history.  

Like the shop window in The Time Machine, change ripples before our eyes.

And the river flows on.
*For laughs, look up a “Correct English” guide from the early 1900s. You’d be amazed at all the rules you’re breaking.

No comments: