Saturday, July 4, 2009

A descriptivist’s grand tour of how languages work

Linguistics today has two major opposing camps: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. One member of the prescriptivist camp who has achieved wide prominence in recent years is, of course, Lynne Truss, the British author of the bestselling book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, who goes as far as to prescribe that anyone putting an apostrophe in a possessive “its” (as in “it’s” in “the dog chewed it’s bone”) should be struck by lightning and chopped to bits—a worse-than-divine punishment than those meted by the religious Inquisition during the Middle Ages. On the ramparts of the descriptivist camp, on the other hand, stands David Crystal, a renowned British linguist with dozens of books on language to his name, who steadfastly maintains that “languages do not get better or worse when they change” and condemns those who would condemn to death—even if only figuratively—someone who as much as wrongly spells a plural word in its possessive form, as in “potato’s” for “potatoes.”

Indeed, on the basis of the many books he has written about language, David Crystal is every bit more humanist in approach than many of his prescriptivist counterparts who have written books on English usage. He would rather see English and any language for that matter develop and evolve as it will without the prescriptive interference of strict grammarians—a point of view that he passionately espouses in his 2005 book How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die.

Here’s how Crystal describes the groundwork for the book in its first chapter:

How Language Works is not about music, or cookery, or sex. But it is about how we talk about music, cookery, and sex—or, indeed, about anything at all. And it is also about how we write about these things, and send electronic messages about them, and on occasion use manual signs to communicate them. The operative word is ‘how.’ It is commonplace to see a remarkable special effect on a television screen and react by explaining ‘How did they do that?’ It is not quite so usual to exclaim when we observe someone speaking, listening, reading, writing, or signing. And yet if anything is worthy of exclamation, it is the human ability to speak, listen, read, write, and sign.”

This done, Crystal proceeds to take the reader on a grand, sometimes technical and sometimes clinical tour of how languages work. He traces their origins, describes the anatomy of both human tongue and vocal chord alike, and explains in layman’s terms how children learn to speak, how a typical conversation really works, how language marks one’s social status, and many other language phenomena. He then describes the process of how languages prosper and die and makes an impassioned appeal to save the thousands of languages all over the world that are now on the brink of extinction.

Much later in the book, however, Crystal sheds off his professional reticence and vents his spleen on the prescriptivists in general and on the likes of Lynne Truss in particular: “Believing in the inviolability of the small set of rules that they have managed themselves to acquire, they condemn others from a different dialect background, or who have not had the same educational opportunities as themselves, for not following those same rules. Enthused by the Stalinesque policing metaphor, they advocate a policy of zero tolerance, to eradicate all traces of the aberrant behaviour. This extreme attitude would be condemned by most people if it were encountered in relation to such domains as gender or race, but for some reason it is tolerated in relation to language. Welcomed, even, judging by the phenomenal sales of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”

Otherwise, Crystal keeps himself scholarly and on an even keel in How Language Works, and his lucid and highly instructive explorations of language could very well serve as a definitive guide on communication for experts and laypeople alike.

Preview David Crystal’s How Language Works in Google Books

Read “In praise of pedantry,” British novelist Ian Sansom’s review of How Language Works in The Guardian

What do you think of the opposing viewpoints of David Crystal and Lynne Truss about language? Share with me your views.

No comments:

Post a Comment