Speaking Daggers, Innit?

Book Review: The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings


AS everyone knows it is quite wrong to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and’. And a sentence cannot be grammatically correct without a verb. Ever.

Where do such laws of language come from? Who instituted them, and on what authority? Do these rules of grammar and usage enhance the beauty and the meaningfulness of the English language, or do they really serve the interests of the lawgivers?

These are the explosive questions that Henry Hitchings tackles in his wonderfully readable new book The Language Wars. It is a commonplace of linguistic philosophizing that the way we speak and write shapes the way we think. Hitchings’ approach inverts that proposition: here the question is how far ideology – moral, political, aesthetic – has shaped our language.

And, of course, who has done the shaping? As the author points out, there is probably not a person alive who does not have some bee in his bonnet about the way other people speak and write. Maybe it is the errant apostrophe that gets your goat (if so, you may want to join the Apostrophe Protection Society – no, really). Perhaps it is the splitting of the poor old infinitive that winds you up. Maybe it is the use of ‘like’ as a comma, maybe the exclamation mark (formerly known by a better name, the ‘shriekmark’), or perhaps you just suffer from systemic ‘punctuation rage’. Maybe you hate particular words, like ‘systemic’. Or ‘maybe’. Whatever.

Hitchings’ book is a corrective to some of these linguistic prejudices. It is bracing to learn, for example, that the prohibition on splitting the infinitive is fairly recent. Pre-Victorians did not object. Chaucer was a splitter, and even Shakespeare had a go. And why not? In context, ‘to boldly go’ has a better shape than the supposedly correct ‘to go boldly’.

Geoffrey Chaucer: A Splitter

Same story with the apostrophe. Most objections to the alleged misuse of the apostrophe relate to its indication of a possessive relation (avocado’s – who is Avocado?). But over the centuries the apostrophe has done more varied work than that, including a regular gig of forming plurals. By the eighteenth century authors were sprinkling apostrophes over everything, and while you may think the shopkeeper is ignorant and wrong to advertise ‘CD’s & Video’s’, he has history on his side.

Hitchings reviews such matters with cool erudition. He is resolutely relaxed about usage, understanding that correctitude and intelligibility are not the same.  So when a London teenager issues the conversational challenge “you chattin’ me shit?” the grammar may seem contorted and the usage may be unfamiliar, but you get the picture – immediately.

That phrase is representative of the horridly named but very vital London Multicultural English, an English form of English that is characterized by African, Caribbean and South Asian borrowings, and the relentless use of compacted interrogative endings, like “innit?”.

Linguistic hygienists have been fighting against innovations like London Multicultural since pen was first put to paper. It is not difficult to understand why. Words have always been dangerous, signifying power or a challenge to power – which is why Hamlet promises to ‘speak daggers’ to his mother Gertrude. But the record suggests that living languages are not in the end controllable. No way, no day.

First published here.