Fighting the many enemies

Oxford English Dictionery Additions Series Volume Three - Language is Power
September 5, 1997

Where does the English language now begin or end? Does anyone know? Is there still such a thing as "standard English"? Was there ever? If so, how do we define it? And how does it relate to "world English"? These are questions both books raise. Deliberately and polemically in one case; diffidently and obliquely in the other.

One no more expects the Oxford English Dictionary to change its ways than the leopard to change its spots. This new volume of Additions soldiers on in the same old faith that has inspired the enterprise since James Murray (later knighted for his services and equipped with a more impressive list of initials than his baptism warranted) first hoisted the patriotic flag in the reign of QueenVictoria. Theories of language may come and go, but they leave the OED untouched. There is something noble about such indifference, also something obtuse.

The news is that as of July this year no fewer than 3,000 new words and senses have been officially welcomed to the Anglo club. But when you ask why these particular candidates have been selected, it gets to be a bit like scrutinising the credentials of invitees to a grand garden party, or a lexical birthday honours list. To be sure, there will be token representatives of ethnic minorities ("garam masala"), foreign countries ("ciabatta"), far-flung parts of the empire ("kahu", a Maori word for the Pacific marsh harrier), and even the lower orders ("gay-bashing"). But the majority of new admissions turn out to have the impeccable authentication of the professional classes.

Are scientists, doctors, and lawyers, perhaps more linguistically creative than their fellow citizens? I doubt it. What gains their usage right of entry to the OED is the fact that their words appear with some frequency in print. So the question that immediately arises is who has access to the corridors of publication, and how representative of the wider linguistic community are these people?

No one should be fooled into thinking that the OED's additions are just add-ons to the OED. They are, by implication, additions to the English language, of which the OED is one self-appointed custodian. What exactly is involved in adding to a language? Who accepts or rejects potential additions? The OED keeps very mum about this, as well it might. Like all bureaucracies, it is in a business where some executive's decision rapidly gets translated into administrative fact.

The first "attestation" of a word is not, as one might innocently suppose, its first known use. What "attests" a word for the OED lexicographers is its visible form: you must be able to read it and write it. In short, we are back in a classroom ruled by the three Rs, the world of schoolmasters such as Murray. It is an educational orthodoxy that antedates the development of modern linguistics. If this volume has a new word whose lexical pedigree is not established in that way, I failed to find it.

The OED is shy about using "standard" as a metalinguistic category. What it does is flag "non-standard" in a variety of coded ways. These include marking usages as "slang", "Black English", plus using a whole list of quasi-technical designations for the jargon of specialist interests. Where this taxonomy comes from and who defines it we are never told.

That is another part of the establishment mystique the OED trades on. Let everyone be quite clear about the question at issue. I do not deny the interest of, for instance, discovering that the word "chemoprophylaxis" occurs in print for the first time in 1949 in the New Gould Medical Dictionary. (As it happens, that example illustrates the manner in which lexicographers crib from other lexicographers; a self-perpetuating form of plagiarism that has been going on since the Middle Ages, and is still rife.) But my point is that listing in medical dictionaries and citations from The Lancet are what get such a word "in", irrespective of its rarity.

Many words much more familiar in everyday English do not get in - and never will - unless and until they receive the accolade of appearance in print. The absurdity of this policy is epitomised by the entry for the expression "in your face" (slang, orig. US), where the first source quoted (1976) reads laconically: "Doobie got himself stuffed! ... In yo' face, Doobie!", which, at the very least, shows a writer struggling hard to force an inadequate alphabet and fossilised spelling conventions to cope with an essentially oral form of communication. It is the orthographical equivalent of insisting on school uniform.

When the OED gets up to antics like this, it flaunts a bogus liberalism that I imagine John Honey can hardly approve of. For he has a hierarchical view of the value of languages, oddly reminiscent of 19th-century anthropologists. At the bottom come "primitive" languages, produced by the crudest non-Aryan tribes. At the upper end come European languages that can cope with the most "advanced" forms of modern knowledge. And top of all comes "standard English" which can cope with just about everything, and on a world scale.

Whereas the OED reaction to barbarian expressions knocking at the gate of English is to open the gate and let as many knockers in as can produce their attestational papers, Honey would put grim-faced immigration officials at every lexical frontier to keep out the "non-standard" invasion.

Honey's book is actually less concerned with "the story of standard English" than with decrying its "enemies". It is usually regarded as incumbent upon reviewers to declare an interest when reviewing books concerning contentious issues in which they are personally involved. So I here declare mine. I am one of the named villains in Honey's tale: one of the "enemies" that his subtitle mentions. By the twisted logic that pervades his book, anyone who differs from Honey in his interpretation of the social history of the English language, or in his conception of how linguistic communities function, is automatically branded an "enemy of standard English".

When I look around at the other "enemies" standing in the dock alongside me to answer Honey's charges, I can hardly complain of unfair isolation. For the company includes Noam Chomsky, William Labov, Michael Halliday, John Lyons, Peter Trudgill, David Crystal and others whose publications have made a substantial contribution to the development of linguistics for a long time now. Whether I feel fortified by this company is another matter. But Honey seems to think we are all part of an intellectual conspiracy against the brave few (like himself) who champion the truth about "standard English" and its superiority. The discipline of modern linguistics taught in British and American universities is condemned en bloc as purveying "a distorted message, tainted by a particular ideology".

I would not presume to speak on behalf of my fellow conspirators, but the first thing that occurs to me is the significance of the fact that we all stand arraigned together. That suggests one possible reason why none of us has paid much attention to Honey's reiterated fulminations over the years; namely that Honey, although he claims to have been "trained in linguistics", seems quite unable to distinguish one theoretical position on language from another. He is in no doubt, however, about the motivation behind the sinister plot against "standard English". Apart from "ideological", his favourite terms of opprobrium are "Marxist" and "relativist". I am not clear whether he draws a distinction between the two.

Perhaps the most charitable reading of this book is to treat it as the author's bid for appointment as chief language adviser to a future Conservative education minister. His heroine is Margaret Thatcher, praised for her failed attempts to resuscitate the teaching of grammar in British schools. The royal patron of his programme is the Prince of Wales, whom he applauds for holding similar views. Honey deems it to be the duty of schools in Britain to inculcate the rules of "standard English" in their pupils and "break through the resistances and the forms of 'enforcement' of the local dialect". The potential benefits of this brainwashing include what he calls euphemistically a change of "class loyalties".

He advocates linguistic prescription at school as a "mechanism" of "social cohesion". For the working classes need and respect "order" in all things; just as the "factory system" needs a "disciplined and orderly workforce" (which seems to be "standard English" for "one that will not go on strike"). Forms of English that are "non-standard" must therefore be discouraged, because "non-standard" language is "disordered" language.

Like many polemicists, Honey claims to speak for the common people and the underprivileged. He wants them to have access to "their rightful place in society" and to "regain their rightful voice". His mindset makes it impossible for him to contemplate the reality that there are millions in Britain and even more around the world who do not want that voice to speak "standard English", nor their "rightful place in society" to be determined in advance by those who already speak it.

Readers of the book who would like to disentangle substantive arguments from incessant ranting will not find it easy. The author slides from talking about "standard English" to talking about just "English", sometimes equating the two and sometimes not, as it suits him. What Honey calls "standard English" - and the qualification is important, since he takes it for granted that his use of the term coincides with that of others who use it - at least those who use it "standardly" (which is the kind of self-justifying circularity that typifies his way of reasoning) is never explicitly defined. Nor does the question of what others take it to mean, either now or in the past, ever arise. This does not deter Honey, because he is one who knows what "standard English" is: it is the English he himself uses. This astonishing proposition, which seems to be the basis of all Honey's thinking on the subject, makes its first appearance in the first paragraph of chapter one. It presumably explains why Honey does not find any need to examine or compare the definitions of "standard English" that others have given, or even to point out to readers that these definitions by no means coincide (which is already a problem if we are to take the notion seriously).

More seriously still, it leads straight into self-contradiction. For example, Honey says: "The two undisputed models of standard English are British English and American English, and all varieties of English around the world derive from one of these." But anyone who knows anything about the subject knows that neither British nor American English are monolithically "standard". If the statement were true, it would be perplexing to know where "non-standard" varieties of English come from. Is Cockney (one of Honey's most oft-cited "non-standard" examples) perhaps a disguised version of "standard English" after all? And once you start multiplying "standard" versions, where do you stop? Honey fails to realise that as soon as "standard Englishes" are allowed to proliferate the concept becomes self-stultifying. There is no longer any reason for condemning dialect forms as "non-standard": if multiple standards are on offer, any dialect - any linguistic variety whatsoever - can presumably claim to have its own.

Worse still, Honey's "standard English" is one and the same language, even when its usage is manifestly diverse. Thus "Anon the damsel waxed wroth" and "In a jiffy the chick got good and sore", he tells us, are both "standard English": the disparity between them is explained by the fact that "standard English" (and this is one of its great merits) has such a "range of styles". It apparently does not occur to Honey that any users of English for whom the first of these was "standard" might find it difficult to recognise the second as being "standard" too, or even recognise it as intelligible; and vice versa. Nor does he see the problem with insisting that either sentence becomes "non-standard" if "damsel" or "chick" is replaced with some dialect word for "girl", for he equates "non-standard" with "incorrect".

Although Honey's linguistics has no semblance of theoretical coherence, it might nevertheless be the case that his practical proposals are sound. Are they?

His advocacy of teaching grammar to children ("that intensely stupid custom", as Herbert Spencer once called it) seems to be based on nostalgia for the pedagogic good old days, before the enemies of "standard English" began their dastardly work of infiltration. But even the good old days were not good enough. Honey thinks the trouble is that Britain never had an equivalent to the Academie Francaise, and therefore that the standardisation of English has never been complete. So he proposes setting up such a body. His academy would engage in spelling reform: for instance, he wants to have the University of Reading spelt "University of Redding", on the ground that this would avoid ambiguity, given that "all universities are about reading". But the most urgent task for this body, he says, would be to prevent the deplorable fall of final consonants in progress in south-east England. Most readers' reactions to such proposals will probably be that this must be Honey indulging with a wink in prescriptive self-parody. Alas, no. His brand of linguistic authoritarianism lacks any sense of humour. This is a man for whom crossing the "t" of "standard" and dotting the "i" of "English" are not laughing matters.

Roy Harris is editor, Language and Communication.

Oxford English Dictionery Additions Series Volume Three

Editor - Michael Proffitt
ISBN - 0 19 8600 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £30.00
Pages - 406

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