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Topics broached in The Language Wars include: solecism; the split-infinitive debate (Jesperson pooh-poohed 'the' followed by adjective and noun as a "split article") ; the presumed genetic basis of language (post-Port-Royal Chomsky-ism); language, power, and class; diachronic versus synchronic viewpoints; descriptive, prescriptive attitudes, to which Hitchings adds the anihilating 'proscriptive'; the 'steal-from-and-trash' school for establishing a 'better' grammar; regularization of spelling; censorship, euphemism, and Bowdlerization; whether we've made taut a flexible, creative English on the Procrustean bed of tightly inflected Latin; the sixteenth-century sense of English's inferiority, and Elizabeth; Shakespeare's (41) and Nashe's (43) creative coinage; manly English versus feminine French; the relations of words to wordless things; 'shall-will' and 'bring-take' -ism; the rambling (though logical?) Ciceronian period become rococco versus Sprat's natural and naked speech mode (52)--"[Thomas] Sprat could [write] no fat and his wife . . . ?"; the related Reformation religio-linguistic struggle--Shall we call it a Max-Weber-like "Protestant ethic and the spirit of 'elegance'," surely rugged chaw for a graduate opus (52-5)?; the rise of science and empiric specificity (54) in language use (Swift's wanting a beggar to wear a badge noting specific circumstances); ending a sentence with a preposition (57-8); the porosity of grammar, or Sapir's "All grammars leak."; implicit discussion (86) of register in language use; Johnson's Dictionary; American innovations and Webster's prescriptivism; language and nationalism; Victorianism, sexual language, and political correctness; the OED (178); Fowler; strictures on Strunk (185); brain lateralization and language; proposals for a basic English; the Webster's Third controversy; battles over punctuation; effects of technology; globalization of language.
If you've gotten this far you probably can't escape the promotional encouragement I recall from inside the paperback version, in paraphrase, as "to immediately buy, or to buy immediately, this book, whichever you prefer."
For me the absolutely best part spans chapters four and five on that deliciously transitional period between, if you will, Catholic baroque and rococco stylism and Roundhead Protestant austerity. Chapter Twenty-Three piques us to look more closely at the author's pet strictures. Chapter Twenty on censorship may make you rush to the windows, screaming into the streets, "I'm mad as hell!" and "Down with all censorship and defamation laws!," as it makes me want to do. Chapter Fifteen on Fowler with its critique as well of Strunk--'unique'/unicus translates as 'not common,' admitting degree, I suggest--round out chapters that best combine historical-analytical richness and make-you-want-to-spit currency. You may find the chapters uneven, but not a technical read.
Peevishness ventilated, let me conclude with considerations in support of this near handbook about the English language. You may find effects like this for yourself as well:
--a softening of rigid prescriptiveness
--discovery of new heroes to get to know: attention to Nashe as neologist, with more attention to Shakespeare in that regard, and a look at Meredith for the "personal throb" of style (181)
--awareness of relations of language wars to other fields considered separate: politics, religion, as a Weber thesis on 'elegance'
--encouragement of the creation of a personal grammar--I once fantasized about writing a "guerrilla grammar"
--increasing inapplicability of grammar as we move from non-fiction to fiction and poetry. (Sometimes a few lumps have to be added back to an over-smooth sauce for texture.)
--realization that language competency rests on the willingness to support a position cogently. (Somewhere in the book a grammarian says that additional negatives cancel each other. Yet in Spanish they intensify the negation. Cf. French's "non, non, et NON")
Flies in the ointment that will not long detain the reader are: use of a handful of British expressions--I recall 'bearded' used oddly; quoting within single marks and double within those; comma and period outside of quote marks; use of acronyms whose original meaning you may forget; convoluted sentences at times hard to follow. Inaccuracies include: calling Foucault a sociologist (137) rather than philosopher and historian and C. K. Ogden a psychologist (229) rather than a psychological and philosophic linguist.
The post- versus pre-Hitchings reader, except for the starched prescriptivist, will certainly soften. Searching online, as I did, for alternatives to 'dyslogy' that I consider not the opposite of 'eulogy,' (324) I found much foolishness, as 'kalo-' to mean 'good' rather than 'beautiful.' My lexicon shows the adverbial form of 'kako-' as opposite to the adverb 'eu-' and the particle 'dys' more like 'un' or 'mis.' But either one would describe the quality of the speaking rather than the things said so that 'cacalogy,' speaking bad things, would have to oppose 'agathalogy,' speaking good things. I expect neither to win adoption. I believe the author also mischose his example on ending with a preposition when the Princeton freshman answers the overcorrecting senior, (57-8) "Escuse me, do you know where the freshman dorms are at, motherf--ker?" 'At,' there, cannot be a preposition unless you view the adverb 'where' as its object. (By the way, Dryden could not have believed PRE-positions "always preceded" their objects in Latin when even non-altar boys recall 'vobiscum.') Rather, say I, it seems more of an intensifying, adverbial pseudo-preposition. Finally, I state only what I would have said in these cases: 'less known,' hyphen unnecessary for a modifying adverb, rather than 'less well-known' (239)--Americans say 'more well' rather than [well] 'better' [best] known; immune 'to' rather than the current 'from' (13); 'an' before 'consonantal'/aspirated 'h' as with 'historical' unless (179) you'd been born in earshot of Bow Bells (203), and despite expert statements that it was done as well in Shakespeare's time. Well, there were ignorant people then, too! Hitchings softens his critique of 'decimate' (168), which leaves ninety percent of anything undamaged, by its clearly ordinal numerical adjective, while even a poor Latinist will recall the vast leveling of 'devastate,' lay waste. He shows more optimism regarding BBC English than I, though a minute-for-minute comparison with public radio may be embarrassing, as well, for the former. The index is simply inadequate for the the bouillabaisse of topics in the book when you forget where you saw what you are looking for. The two-dozen page bibliography will give the general reader many clues to follow up.
Perusal, that is, careful examination, of the book, will show no poetry. In the end, the purifiers, like Malherbe in France, may have us write bureaucratic army field manuals where the "M-14 fires a 7.62 millimeter . . . ." Grammatic fascism breaks on the lush shore, the tangled bank, of fiction-writing and poetry, as with MacLeish's flights of birds, Dylan's sounds, and another Dylan--Thomas--"whoever he was," who would have us cry against the dying of the light. Thus, the book begins and ends wholly inside Elegance, and everything else lies outside, in the realm of Eloquence. Yet, what do we say of the Gettysburg speech recited by black soldiers in the Lincoln movie now making the rounds in the United States? Simple words, but Oh! so powerful thoughts.
© 2013 Anthony P. Bober
A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view. His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields. Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.