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The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, by Henry Hitchings, John Murray, RRP£17.99, 408 pages

The word “proper” comes from Norman-French and thence from classical Latin proprius, defined in the online Oxford English Dictionary as “one’s own, personal, private, peculiar, special, particular, suitable, appropriate, expressed in appropriate terms”.

Paradoxical though it might seem for a dictionary, while the colloquial “talk proper” is included, the phrase “proper English” does not appear. Perhaps the lexicographers have shied from defining so contentious a linguistic diktat?

In The Language Wars, Henry Hitchings, who has already written to great effect on Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (2006) and, with their etymology in mind, on The Secret Life of Words (2008), does not shy. In just over 400 densely researched pages he has faced off with nearly a millennium’s discussions as to what constitutes this apparently elusive phenomenon. In so doing he gives us a potted history of the language, with an emphasis on those grammarians – Richard Rowlands Verstegan, John Wallis, Bishop Lowth, Lindley Murray – who sought to impose their beliefs on the way the English spoke or wrote. They fought hard and wrote often, but grammar is not a sexy topic and their names are long forgotten. Writer-pundits such as John Dryden, or Jonathan Swift who sought to establish, as already existed in France, an English Academy, are better remembered. And Hitchings has used what he suggests have been the prescient utterances of HG Wells.

In addition to giving us a view of linguistic theory, from John Locke to Noam Chomsky, he offers opinions on the great dictionaries and takes a tour through such language-related themes as slang, the “rough magic” of spelling, censorship and political correctness, the problematic hyphen and other aspects of punctuation, gender and sexism, dialects and diacritics. He discusses, as one must, the internet. All of which, he suggests, play cameo roles in the melodrama of linguistic dispute.

The thread that dominates the book, which provides language with its “wars”, is the struggle between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Those who wish to lay down linguistic law, and those who wish simply to explain, on the basis of what is said and written, what they understand. Hitchings is clear: “The history of prescriptions about English – of grammar texts, manuals of style and ‘O tempora o mores’-type laments – is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance.” But as an unimpeachable descriptivist himself, he allows the lawgivers their “fierce certainty”, justifying their self-contradictory attempts as the very human need to set what appears a chaotic world in order. How better than by straitjacketing one’s language?

Whether these posturings and denunciations quite qualify as “wars” may be debated. But they obviously enthused their many participants. And still do. There are, after all, careers to be made. The longevity of the tussles can only testify to their importance. Looking on as a lexicographer, the descriptivist trade par excellence, and as one in particular of slang, it is hard not to sense a certain jostling of angels on their linguistic pinhead. But Hitchings’ exemplary researches and disinterested, perceptive and often witty explications, make it clear that one cannot glibly dismiss these struggles over what makes English “proper”.

The comedian Lenny Bruce once suggested that although everyone “wants what should be, there is no what should be: there is only what is”. In pursuing his catalogue of the variations on “what should be” and laying out his clear analysis of what “is” and indeed “was”, Hitchings has created a fascinating, wholly readable and gratifyingly informative book.

Jonathon Green is author of ‘Green’s Dictionary of Slang’ (Collins)

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