Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Nothing's more democratic than English

Language is the most democratic thing we have: Each English speaker gets one vote, and the language becomes what we collectively make of it over time. 

Some people do have influence, but it is limited. (You may think a big-time former newspaper editor is influential, but you would be mistaken.) Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of English that would “fix” (in both senses, "repair" and "make permanent") the language, but on completion ruefully acknowledged that it goes its own way. 

Noah Webster’s dictionary got Americans to spell “honour” and “colour” without the “u,” but simplified spellings he promoted — “wimmen” for “women,” “soop” for “soup,” “tung” for “tongue” — went nowhere. 

Two and a half centuries of grammarians and schoolteachers have hammered away that it is incorrect to use “they” as a third-person singular pronoun, all in vain. We have been using “they” as a singular since King Alfred burned the cakes, and today even the “Associated Press Stylebook” and “Chicago Manual of Style” have grudgingly accepted it. 

(You may not be comfortable with it, but you’re already OK with using “you” as either a singular or plural, so you can get used to things.) 

The same generations have labored to maintain the “lie” and “lay” distinction, that “lay” is the past tense of “to lie,” not “laid.” But I taught editing to undergraduates for 24 years, and let me tell you, it’s not going to happen. You can try to hold on to it in formal prose, but over time even formal prose yields to the the way people actually speak. 

H.L. Mencken, with characteristic bluntness, summed it up in “The American Language”: “The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and without much insight.”

Jonathan Swift proposed establishment of an English Academy that would, like the French version, establish and legislate the correctness of the language. But we English speakers are a stubborn and unruly lot. We made a mongrel language out of a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. We take things freely from other languages and do as we please with them. (Imagine a francophone’s wince at the way we pronounce “lingerie.”) It’s our language, we do as we please with it, and we have always done so. 

In our language, we are a free and unfettered people.