January 08, 2005

Deresiewicz on Crystal and MacNeil and Cran

Tomorrow's NYT has a review by William Deresiewicz of David Crystal's The Stories of English, and MacNeil and Cran's Do you Speak American?

Here's how it starts:

I came across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English.

In fact, there is no such thing as Correct English, and there never has been. That's why David Crystal, one of the language's leading scholars, titles his new history THE STORIES OF ENGLISH (Overlook, $35), plural. As Crystal shows, the notion of correctness emerged only in the late 18th century, the work of a few self-appointed authorities like the grammarian Lindley Murray and the pronunciation pundit ''Elocution Walker.'' Murray, Walker and their ilk believed the language had gotten out of control -- too many new words, too many regional accents, too many different ways of saying things -- and needed to be stabilized. Behind this linguistic anxiety lay an anxiety about status.

Strong stuff.

It seems to me that D's "young woman", with her "corseted" tone, is really worshipping the god of Fancy English, who is a different god from the god of Correct English -- and also different from the god of Simple English, to whom altars are often erected. And it's misleading to say that "the notion of correctness emerged only in the late 18th century". The notion of correct Latin and correct Greek had been at the center of European education for centuries at that point -- and for that matter, the notion of correct Sanskrit or correct Sumerian had emerged in other places much earlier.

Still, Lindley Murray and his ilk did start something, and what Deresiewicz has to say about it is worth reading.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 8, 2005 12:07 PM