Henry Hitchings: The Language Wars: A History Of Proper English

Henry Hitchings: The Language Wars: A History Of Proper English

English, like any other language, is freeflowing and constantly changing, according to The Language Wars, while its rules are in most cases entirely arbitrary and historically accidental. A single clause can sum it up: “…in 1712 the typographer Michael Mattaire suggested, for instance, that the correct plural of species was species’s.” Throughout the book, author Henry Hitchings delights in the historian’s task of presenting accepted truths, then demonstrating that conventional wisdom may be incomplete or downright wrong. That’s easy and often necessary work in the pompous world of proper English.

Hitchings generally adopts a descriptivist viewpoint, discussing language as it is used, in contrast to the prescriptivists, who try to force language to work in the manner they prefer. He avoids outright disdain, and prefers sympathetic explanation of his subjects’ often-absurd methodologies and results. Prescriptivist John Dryden, for example, created the rule that prepositions should not be used to end sentences, because he believed that English was most proper when it could be directly translated into Latin and back. The argument isn’t unidirectional, though, as Hitchings does note that Lindley Murray, a grammarian who has become the symbol of prescriptivist excesses, was nowhere near as rigid as his critics claim.

While historical anecdotes comprise a significant portion of the book, the question of why language wars inspire so much emotion is the more important discussion. Hitchings examines this from multiple perspectives. Historically, he notes that Thomas Hobbes included the clarification of language as one of the roles of the sovereign in Leviathan, and also that many early grammarians were biblically inspired and considered it a “moral necessity” to clean up the mess left from the Tower Of Babel. From there, Hitchings notes that there’s a direct relationship between language and power. Rebellious American colonists used less formal and stylized American English to demonstrate their revolutionary superiority, and the linguistic choices of Thomas Paine ended up being hugely influential in political language across the world.

Hitchings makes his best points about the uses of prescriptive grammar regarding the Victorian 19th century. The construction of a “proper” method of speaking denoted speakers’ places in society, which also corresponded with their perceived morality, and Hitchings cleverly notes that the “…detachment of propriety from ethics was wonderfully convenient.” Hitchings makes his strongest claims about the methods by which stratified education and class systems use language as a weapon to maintain their power, saying that rabid defenders of verbal propriety “…offer an insight into their sense of entitlement and enfranchisement and into their incomplete yet urgent grasp of the precariousness of their superiority.”

Hitchings writes with wit and clarity, but The Language Wars still suffers from some structural issues. Its title and cover suggest a breezier book than it is, as its content is dense and academic throughout, albeit accessible. As an overall survey of English, it can’t help but feel overambitious, and this shows in less-involving in-depth chapters about the use of modern technology, or English’s global popularity. These caveats, combined with the necessarily narrow focus, mean that The Language Wars is unlikely to become a crossover hit. But word nerds who are immediately drawn to the title will find trivia and insight in equal measure.

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