Do you, like, care about language?

Believe it or not, I have so far this year (well, since Christmas) read two whole books — and that in addition to keeping up with a new year's jumpstart of my Bible reading! The most recent book is John McWhorter's Doing Our Own Thing; the Degradation of Language and Music, and Why We Should, Like, Care. I was able to read the whole book on my plane trips to and from the east coast. As I mentioned tangentially in a previous blog, I heard about it from Mars Hill tape #69, so for 6 clams you can buy that tape/CD yourself and hear the interview that so fascinated me, or for only 4 clams (incl. S/H), you can buy the whole hardcover, used, from an Amazon reseller! I highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the (d)evolution of the use of language in our society, in both public and private discourse, and the ramifications that has on limitations to a well-run democratic society due to simplification of public debates and the informedness of the citizenry.

Now, that great big honking sentence just up yonder is something I could never have come up with off the cuff in verbal speech, and it is also probably way more complex than what most Americans can tolerate very much of. But it wasn't always like that. The crux of the book is to highlight how, even though there is and always has been, of necessity, a great divide between spoken (informal) and written/speechified (formal) language, the gap is narrowing, because formal language in our society has been forced to simplify itself towards the informal, or risk being ignored or taken as aggrandized and insincere.

I want to take a short walk through the Table of Contents to give you an idea of what you can expect out of the book.

The introduction and Chapters 1-2 are great reading. From just these chapters, you get a great picture of the hows and whys of informal vs. formal language and how they evolve. One highlight is a discussion of the phrase "often ahead, seldom behind" (quoted below); the etymologies of those words, and related words that have perished, or survived the inexorable forward march of the English language.

Chapter 3, about the decline of Poetry, the author seems to admit up front he is not well-qualified to address, since he is in the same boat as the rest of us. And since I am also completely in the Poetry-less boat, I could take or leave that whole chapter. Interesting plane reading, though. (But it reminded me of the ups and downs of The Forester's forced introduction to the world of poetry as a Writing Sems major)

Chapter 4 I found somewhat tiresome, and not adding much beyond the exposition of chapters 1 & 2, except in some cases at a more detailed, word-by-word analytical level. Maybe hardcore language mavens would get more out of it than I did.

Chapters 5 and 6 I did enjoy because of his scathing commentary of modern popular music (especially his singling out as an exception of They Might be Giants, one of three pop bands I care anything about (bonus points to anyone who can identify the other two!)). His analysis of the societal assumptions that allows for a song called "Play that funky music, white boy" is also fascinating. But the volume of text devoted to musical theater (undoubtedly due to the author's admitted preference and expertise) was irrelevant to me (undoubtedly due to my admitted preferences and lack of expertise).

In chapter 7, I found his conclusions somewhat unsatisfying, since he proposes no solutions. One interesting section, however, is where he addresses the meta-question that any reader will be asking throughout the book (I was): "Well, Mr. critic of the detrimental effects of informal language, what do you have to say about the informal tone of this very book you are writing, and which I am holding in my sweaty palms?"

All in all, I found the book fascinating, and as I said above, I would recommend it heartily to anyone who cares about language used well. This includes (even though the book has zero religious or Christian content or intent, aside from tangential treatment of the use of language by African American preachers and a brief mention of the oral tone of the original Hebrew scriptures) Christians who revere written language as the medium through which God gave us His word; and who appreciate the relationship between God's word, the Bible, and The Word Himself, Jesus Christ, who was the creative force behind this whole universe thing we're going through (John 1).

Buy it. Read it. You will forever be made more aware of the language you speak, and the language you write, to the betterment of both.

And for anyone who is still reading, I provide an extended excerpt, the etymological discussion mentioned above:

Take a rather formal English phrase, "often ahead, seldom behind." It is full of fossilized remnants of the nature of spoken as opposed to written language. We'll proceed backward.

Behind is one of a set of words expressing position with the prefix be- and a root word. In the case of below and beside , the roots low and side are still used. Fore — well, dictionaries have it, but outside of the expression "to the fore," most of us would be hard pressed to recall when we ever heard it used alone beyond a golf course. But where is hind? Yes, we have it in "hind leg" — but as it happens, this arose as a shortening of good old behind. The original word hind was lost to the ages before widespread literacy and comprehensive dictionaries came along to encase words like it in amber. Or between — what's tween? An old word for two, whose only remnant now twain, which like ruth is "in the dictionary" but is utterly unusable outside of a highly arch poem. Beneath's neath is also restricted to poetry, in which case we sense it less as a word of its own, but as a mannered elision of beneath-we do not say "I stuck the gum to the table's neath." And where is "betop?" Who knows? In earlier English, an oral language, some words lived, some died. Behind, between, and beneath retain echoes of words lost back when English speakers, like most people, just talked.

Seldom started out as seldan. No one knows just why it became seldom . This kind of morphing is ordinary in languages in which printing and literacy have not enshrined certain forms of words as official, lending a sense that to depart from them is to err. In our world, when George in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? pronounced bourbon as "bour-gon" as a boy, he was jeered into falling in line. But smallish transgressions like that still manage to seep into the language here and there. How many people really say "COME-fer-ta-bull" as opposed to "CUNF-ter-bull" for comfortable? A Martian who came down and composed a word list of English without access to a dictionary would certainly, upon listening to hundreds of American English speakers, record the word as something like "cunfterble"-even if all he heard were university faculty. Seldan underwent a similar process, crunched around in early medieval mouths less concerned with the printed page than we can easily imagine.

Ahead — again, pull back the camera and logic fades away. Ahead, yes, and also aside. Aback, however, is either Li'l Abner (aback of the house) or ghettoized into the one expression taken aback. Atop? Poetry only. And there is no aneath, alow, or atween. They either didn't happen or faded away-and no one cared, because the language was in the mouth, not on the page. We have above — but what are boves?

And finally often — we are familiar with the poetic oft, and in fact this is the original word. Where did the -en come from? As far as we know people started tacking it on because it seemed right since the same ending hung on the end of often's opposite — seldan! Often ahead, seldan behind — but then seldan morphed into seldom and left often with a little appendix, as meaningless as the organ that sits in us courting infection.

Just as no human community can keep track of a million words, none can police even 30,000 words for changes, nor police its grammar to keep it faultlessly logical. Oral language lives not to please language mavens or our sense of linguistic feng shui, but to communicate, to maintain social ties, to live life from mundane moment to moment.


8 Responses

  1. Apparently not.

  2. What, you, or the legions of my other fans who have not commented on this post?

    Here’s what’s cool; I reconstructed that quote in short order by crawling through the text with about a 30-word window, using Amazon’s “Search inside this book!” functionality. Now I’m wondering how hard it would be to steal softcopy text of the whole book with a perl script.

    P.S. Thanks for dropping off my 3rd book for the year.  I should have it read by Thanksgiving.

  3. Reuben, I read amazon reviews of this book, inspired by your post, that claimed this is not McWhorter’s best one by far. Have you compared it to others? My stack is so high by my chair and we are doing so much house repair/renovation that I can’t with any hope of getting to it add it to my stack/mental list. That’s why MH is so great–you get at least some of the benefits of reading without the costs….:)

  4. I have not read any other McWhorter books, but if they are even better than this one, I might start! Although it seems most of his books are more about African-American language issues (he’s in the camp that thinks Ebonics is silly, right?), which doesn’t interest me as much.

    Because of your stellar reputation as a reader of extreme volumes of high quality material, as well as your high degree of intense engagement with the English language, I hereby exempt you from my requirement to read this book.

    Everybody else is still on the hook though!

  5. I’m satisfied with your synopsis.

    My favorite author on English is William Safire. I have read six of his books on language (which are basically collections of his editorials), which I purchased at the local library for 25 cents each. If you enjoy the English language, its origins and correct usage, you will be entertained and informed. You can buy them for pennies on the dollar at Amazon.

    Here is a Publisher Weekly’s take on one of his collections:
    For over two decades, Safire’s “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine has made him probably the most widely read commentator on the English language today, and he has turned those columns into more than a dozen books (Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella, etc.). There is no one more adept at dissecting lexical linkages, spotting linguistic lapses and tracing coinages. In this outing, he brings back columns first published between 1997, and 1999, a period rife with words relating to “Clinton’s Monicagate.” For instance, the Congressional Record mistakenly recorded Monica Lewinsky’s gift to the president as a “chochki.” What Safire calls “linguistic lawyering” got the record corrected to read “tchochke.” Safire notes, “Ms. Lewinsky gave it the proper English pronunciation, and the transcriber took the spelling of the final vowel from that.” Probing puns and neologistic splinterings such as bagelwich, Safire covers computerese, examines euphemisms, considers the propriety of new compound words (“something there is that doesn’t like a hyphen”), takes issue with the vogue of “having an issue” and sallies with slanguists. We learn that the verb canoodle may be related to the German dumpling called Knoedel. Here are words from Web sites, politicians, Pentagonians and other phrasemakers. The columns are often followed by reader reactions, and these informative responses can veer into invective or erupt into hilarity. Throughout this cornucopia of columns, stimulating, scholarly and thought provoking, Safire remains a witty wordsmith, even in his closing acknowledgments: “I stand on the shoulders of giants. (Nobody stands on the shoulders of midgets; that would be cruel).”

    Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

  6. […] Now a medium coke stands somewhere between a small and a large, and a medium may be able to get us access to the spirit world (but that access is by definition not immediate). We cannot really say that we have immediate access to God (the Father), because even in the New Covenant, Christ is our mediator, but at least we have more immediate access than before, when an extra layer of priests were required (now we are that priesthood). […]

  7. […] a copy of Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (presumably because I, like, care about language). I’ve already devoured the first chapter; rather, I had to consciously slow […]

  8. […] apologies to T. David Gordon (and Nicholas Carr and John McWhorter and Neil […]

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