Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading

By Naomi S. Baron | Go to book overview

4

Setting Standards

Some Method should be thought of for Ascertaining and Fixing our Language for ever…it is better a Language should not be perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing.

—Jonathan Swift, “Proposal For Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining The English Language” (1712) 1

Living languages, by their very nature, change. They expand to accommodate names for new items introduced from other geographic or cultural venues (to wit: pineapple and pajamas). Shifts occur in grammar (English lost most of its earlier inflections), spelling (public used to be publick), and pronunciation (today’s mouse was once mys, pronounced like the large animal with antlers, native to northern climes). Even once-moribund languages can be revitalized, as in the case of Modern Hebrew. 2

Why does language change matter for language standardization? Because if you want to establish standards (perhaps for reasons of nationalism, controlling educational policy, or maintaining social status demarcations), you need to recognize that language doesn’t stand still. Trying to standardize language once and for all is like trying to stop the tides.

You have a number of options. You might keep changing your standards (which is what happens when new editions of dictionaries come out). Another possibility is simply to accept a gap between formal standards and actual current usage. (This gap often shows up between writing and speech, since writing tends to reflect earlier norms while speech commonly

-95-

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Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Figures x
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - Robin Hood’s Retort 1
  • 2 - Legitimating Written English 26
  • 3 - Who Writes, Who Reads, and Why 48
  • 4 - Setting Standards 95
  • 5 - The Rise of English Comp 143
  • 6 - Commas and Canaries 167
  • 7 - What Remington Wrought 197
  • 8 - Language at a Distance 216
  • 9 - Why the Jury’s Still Out on Email 247
  • 10 - Epilogue: Destiny or Choice 260
  • Notes 270
  • Bibliography 285
  • Name Index 305
  • Subject Index 311
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