Planet Word, by JP Davidson, Michael Joseph, RRP£25, 448 pages
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, by David Bellos, Particular Books, RRP£20, 400 pages
The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal, Profile, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, by Mark Forsyth, Icon Books, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
The Banned List: A Manifesto Against Jargon and Cliché, by John Rentoul, Elliott & Thompson, RRP£8.99, 112 pages
Geoffrey Chaucer was probably the first English author to have his books printed. He did not live to see it happen, which is a pity because he had evidently tired of the mess the hand copiers had made of his work. At the end of Troilus and Criseyde he beseeches: “For there is so great diversity in English and in writing of our tongue, so pray I God that none miswrite thee.”
Printing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, William Caxton used the opportunity to try to standardise English spelling and usage. As JP Davidson recounts in Planet Word, there were at the time more than 20 different ways to spell “might”. There were also, as today, many variations of English speech and vocabulary. Caxton opted for the dialect of London and the south-east Midlands as his printing standard.
Today’s standard English sticklers are more insistent than ever, convinced there is only one correct form, the Queen’s English, which never changes. A Financial Times reader once attempted to argue a grammatical point with me by quoting Fowler’s Modern English Usage – the 1937 version. As there have been several Fowler editions and revisions since then, this seemed as useful as adjudicating a scratched wing-mirror dispute with the 1937 Highway Code, but he was not to be diverted.
Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a surprise (and deserved) hit when it was first published in 2003, reflected people’s worry about getting their English wrong (in this case, their apostrophes). The many books since then have not always followed Truss’s prescriptive line, some pointing out that English rules have changed frequently over the centuries.
Advocates of permissiveness outweigh the prescribers in this recent selection, arguing that even the Queen’s English changes. She has, over the decades, become “less posh”. Planet Word cites an Australian study that found that the Queen’s vowels had flattened. “In the 1950s, her pronunciation of the word had almost rhymed with bed, and the words pat, mat and man sounded like pet, met and men. Today her accent is more like that of a posh Radio 4 announcer.” In other words, that of the ordinary middle class.
Planet Word is the accompaniment to a BBC television series presented by the comedian Stephen Fry, who has written the introduction. There are nuggets – I didn’t know that André Tchaikowsky, the pianist, had left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to serve as Yorick’s – but, like the gravediggers in Hamlet, the reader must work to uncover them. The trot around the history of language is competent, and sometimes better than that, but it does go on, taking in not just language taboos and rhyming slang, but David Ogilvy’s advertising, Paul Simon’s lyrics and the Rev Jesse Jackson’s speeches. It is like those call centres you telephone to query a credit card payment that then keep you on the line to try to sell you insurance. The writing begins to sag (“There’s a right royal battle of words raging over the future of the book”) and when, towards the end, I saw Taoiseach wrongly translated as “Ireland’s parliament”, I reckoned I had read more of the book than its editor and possibly its author.
A more innovative look at language’s shifting nature is David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear?. Bellos is a veteran translator of French to English and the book is a practitioner’s fervent exposition of his art. It took me a while to work out where it was all leading. By the end I could see what the book was about. Its subtitle is Translation and the Meaning of Everything, which turns out to be a fair description. This, finally, marvellous work is about how language shifts and how we try, in vain, to pin it down, using the way we speak and write to define who we are and to fix our place in the world.
Translation, Bellos makes clear, is more art than science. Not only are there often no exact equivalences between languages; there is no exactness within languages. We think that there are rules for speaking and writing, but even a sentence is an arbitrary construction. People don’t really speak in sentences. Listen to your children, Bellos says – they never finish theirs. “The ‘grammar of English’ – or any other language – has not yet been completed, and it’s a fair guess that it will always remain a work in progress. Flaws of this magnitude in aerodynamics ... would not have allowed the Wright Brothers to get off the ground.”
Why do we then insist that the way we speak and write is right? Because, says Bellos, “the way any individual talks is part of his identity as a member of a specific community, defined by region, area, city, maybe even street, and certainly by clan or family”.
To challenge the language of those in charge is not just to challenge the way they speak and spell. It is to challenge the idea that they should be in charge. We see this in the panicky reaction of the French elite to their language’s diminishing reach. The English establishment is in a different position: no language has ever had such reach. You need English to reach the top of many things today: medicine, banking, consultancy, academia. Bellos recounts the joke they tell at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: God could not get promoted there because he has only one publication, and it isn’t in English.
English’s pre-eminence gives its native speakers an elevated position. They believe they speak the language better than anyone else, and those learning English often agree. “It is an axiom of language study that to be a native speaker is to have complete possession of a language ... In spite of the obvious fact that speakers of the same language use it in infinitely varied ways and have often quite different vocabularies and language habits at the levels of register, style, diction and so forth, we proceed on the assumption that only ... native speakers of English are in a position to judge whether any other speaker is using the language ‘natively’.”
But millions of others speak English now – and they often, in the view of the language’s guardians, don’t speak it correctly. They talk, for example, about “the latest informations”. Pathetic, isn’t it? Except that Chaucer talked about “wise informations”. The wonderful thing about English disputes is that you can usually show that someone authoritative used the supposedly wrong form too. Some of you may have scoffed at my start to this paragraph because you are not supposed to begin a sentence with “but” – and not with “and” either. The King James Bible had no such qualms (“And God said, Let there be Light.”) Nor did Shakespeare, Macaulay and, inevitably, Chaucer.
Where did the proscription against sentences starting with conjunctions come from? According to David Crystal, surely the world’s most prolific writer on the English language, 19th-century school teachers thought their charges were overdoing the practice, told them to do it less, and this turned into a rule. Fowler called it a “superstition”.
Crystal, or his publisher, had the clever idea of telling The Story of English in 100 Words. He moves chronologically from the first identified English word – “roe”, found carved on a 5th-century roe-deer ankle bone – to today’s “Twittersphere”. The persistent message is not only our theme that there is nothing permanent about English’s rules, but also that much of English variation has come from those allegedly mistake-making foreigners with their “informations” and all the rest.
“Potato” – believed to have a Haitian derivation before being introduced to Spain by Christopher Columbus and then into English – presented a problem. The -o ending did not feel right. What should the plural be? Potatos? Eventually people opted for “potatoes”. But, Crystal says, in the 16th century some came up with a different solution: “potato’s”. That’s right; even the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, that acme of modern-day illiteracy, has a venerable lineage.
This derivation of words is wonderful sport and Mark Forsyth, who blogs as The Inky Fool, is an extreme and hugely entertaining practitioner. Some people ask him where a word comes from; few, once they have recovered, ask him twice. His family and friends wondered what to do with him. “Having established that secure psychiatric care was beyond their means, they turned in despair to the publishing industry, which has a long history of picking up where social work leaves off.” The result was The Etymologicon. The subtitle is A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language and this time it is a misdescription. It is not a stroll; it is a plunge on a toboggan where the only way to stop is to fall off.
Where does the word “probably” come from? From the Latin probabilis, which meant “could be proved by experiment”. “But probabilis got overused,” Forsyth writes. “People are always more certain of things than they really should be, and that applied to the Romans just as much as to us. Roman lawyers would claim that their case was probabilis, when it wasn’t ... And absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth. So by the time poor probably first turned up in English in 1387 it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it and only meant likely.”
Each story rushes connectedly into the next, all showing that yesterday’s correctness is not today’s, which will not be tomorrow’s. But, as Forsyth concludes: “The greatest joy a human being can achieve in this sorrowful world is to get one up on his or her fellow man or woman by correcting their English.”
Is anyone prepared to stand up for decent linguistic standards? Step forward John Rentoul, chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday. Tee hee. He hates “step forward”. He has put it on The Banned List, his slim “manifesto against jargon and cliché”. On the list are the phrases we should stop using because they grate, because they impede communication or because they “betray an insulting lack of thought”. I have no objection; I once wrote a column calling for an end to wake-up calls, spectacular own goals, people spinning in their graves and double whammies. Rentoul has a go (shouldn’t that be on the banned list?) at rude awakenings, skillsets, step changes, wars of words and many more.
I take issue with some. I don’t see what’s wrong with “approbation”. It’s one of my favourite words. And he leaves out “grow the company”, which I loathe, although I cannot explain why. Rentoul’s list isn’t pedantry; nor is it a call for language to be frozen. It is a plea for us to think about the words we use and to aim for precision of meaning and thought.
Rentoul also tells us to pay attention to what, for the moment, is seen as grammatically correct. And do you know what? (That should definitely be on the banned list.) For everything we have said about the changeability of language, he is right. However stodgy or historically unaware they may be, the sticklers care about the language. By showing that we know the rules, ephemeral as they may be, we show that we care too. More: the sticklers are in charge. They (in perhaps decreasing numbers) mark examinations. They give people jobs. That is why those who fail to teach young people what is today regarded as grammatically right and wrong are letting them down. My family came to English only a generation or two ago and I am grateful my teachers urged me to be a stickler too. With what success, I leave you to judge. I am sure you will.
Michael Skapinker is an FT assistant editor