Some linguists study the histories of words and the histories of languages. Others ask how children learn first or second languages and wonder why that learning seems so different for adults. Some ponder the language capabilities of non-humans. Some study language as it relates to gestures or brain activity, while others ask where language comes from in the first place.
Lane Greene has touched on all these ideas at one time or another when writing columns about language for The Economist. In Talk on the Wild Side he invites readers to think of all the ways that language is wild, as opposed to something that can be tamed or domesticated.
He means that all those people who fear that English is degenerating or being corrupted, all those folks who want everyone to learn to talk or write correctly, are on a doomed mission. That isn’t to say that people can’t learn how to vary the way they use language according to the context. Greene’s point is that none of those variations is superior or inferior to any other. Nobody’s language is more or less expressive than anybody else’s. Everybody’s language changes all the time. Language is wild.
Greene sets up two categories for thinking about language. Formal is the polite and proper language of the workplace, the classroom, and officialdom. Normal is the language that people speak when they are not constraining themselves to speak Formal.
This book provides a jaunty ride though centuries of unsuccessful attempts to corral language and make it behave by trying to turn Normal into Formal. Grammarians have long struggled to pin language and logic to one another. The enterprise usually starts out easily enough. Then the logic becomes absurdly complex. Exceptions and oddities accumulate and tangle. If language was logical, computers would be translating them.
Some people aligned language with logic by inventing languages whose every rule is followed without exception. (Think: Esperanto.) Once unleashed upon humans, such languages either go rogue or fizzle out. Whatever we do to produce and understand language is related to our use of logic, but language itself is not grounded in logic.
Even if the attempt to marry language and logic didn’t bog down, a new generation will never speak exactly the same way as their parents do. When folks decry the way young people are “ruining” the language, they are just plain wrong. Grammar books will always become obsolete. Educated people were speaking, writing and studying English in the time of Chaucer, but the rules of English grammar that underlie the Canterbury Tales aren’t the same rules a high school student studies in preparation for the SAT today. Language is wild, says Greene. It cannot be fenced.
Greene doesn’t dismiss the importance of learning to speak and write standard English. It is well-recognized that at in the halls of power the wildness of language is neither encouraged nor appreciated. In the accumulating series of language anecdotes that comprise this book, the author explains and demonstrates why a person’s proficiency in speaking and writing Normal sheds no light on the quality of their mind.
After all, remarks Greene, you can tell people all day long that they are supposed to say, “Whom did you see?” when anyone who speaks English will know perfectly well what you mean if you ask, “Who did you see?” So much so that many people will think you are joking or acting pretentious if you use the “correct” form.