The English Language Ain't That Bad

By Miller, Jane | In These Times, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The English Language Ain't That Bad


Miller, Jane, In These Times


THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL I edit recently published a pair of scholarly articles on how English has changed over the centuries and how teachers might make use of these changes. My editorial for that issue of Changing English declared that "the English language has a long history" and "has thrived on change and has resisted the fixed, the conventional and the anodyne with a wonderfully sturdy capacity to renew itself"

I grew up with a father possessed of strong views about linguistic matters, which he did not keep to himself. But I've prided myself on encouraging verbal laissez-faire in die young. When I taught English years ago, I would often be asked whether it was all right to use "language," which meant "bad Ian guage.'*Go ahead," I'd say, "so long as there's some point to iL"

But, in truth, I'm squeamish when it comes to some recent novelties. Can't you see what die problem is, I want to ask, with "unacceptable" and "bottom line" and "at the end of the day"? Why has "mouthwatering" become "eye- watering"?

In England, objections to other people's language tend to start from class, educational and then regional differences, and could be said to travel in more tiian one direction. "Posh" language, "la-di-da" speech that sounds too like written language, is mocked, just as dropped aitches ("aint' is die most obvious one) and confusions about "I" and "me" may be. In her marvelous book, Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron, the Oxford linguist, writes about an upper-class woman emerging from a spell in prison to insist that the worst thing about it was other prisoners "mangling the English language." As Cameron writes: "She wanted her audience to believe that she had borne without complaint the loss of her liberty, die humiliation of being labeled a common criminal, the lack of privacy and of luxury, the separation from loved ones; but that having to hear the other women's glottal stops and split infinitives ... had driven her to distraction."

Even my father would not have gone as far as that, despite his tortured dismay at what things had come to.

I don't tiiink that my sudden explosions of linguistic disapproval are provoked by class or education. I am learning to accept that "hopefully" and "disinterested" mean sometiiing different now and that their old meanings may be beyond rescue. …

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