Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sez who? Take 2

Excuse my recent silence. What with the Crystal talk, -EE- words that make the /i:/ sound*, and furniture removals, it's been a busy week. It started out to be a report of the Monday talk, but ended up being a bit of a rant about intellectual bullying - which had the same theme as the Crystal talk (language and culture).

Last Monday, David Crystal delivered the 'inaugural English Language/Council lecture' (or so it was described by the first speaker) on the subject of The future of English: coping with culture. It was, as he said at the outset, 'little more than a string of stories', but for all that it was an enjoyable and enlightening string of stories. I wonder if he chose his first anecdote - about a break-down in communication over eggs in a diner in the US - with a private hat-tip to William Caxton's similar anecdote reported by many other commentators (including Crystal himself, in The Stories of English). The word 'similar' may need some justification; it was similar in that it involved eggs (in Caxton's case the rival words egges [Northern] and eyren [Southern]) , a culture-clash in a public eating place, and a traveller who was perhaps not as naïve as the reporter made him out to be: my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea to Zealand, and for lack of wind they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them.  And one of them named Sheffield, a mercer, came into a house and asked for meat, and especially he asked after eggs; and the good wife answered that she could speak no French, and the merchant was angry, for he could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not.  And then at last another said, that he would have "eyren"; then the goodwife said that she understood him well.  Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren? 
from a (slightly modernised) extract from Caxton's prrologue to his edition (1490) of Virgil's Eneydos
Of this oft-quoted story Crystal says:
More likely [than a reading of the story at face value] the story arose from a piece of banter, much as one might find today in a London pub when someone with, say, an American accent orders some drinks, the barman fails to catch what was said, and another customer intervenes with a comment about the Americans 'not speaking English'.
 The Stories of English p. 208. The imagined pub conversation is not, incidentally, the same as Crystal's own story, which is at 13'55-15'05 here.
By chance I had mentioned the importance of cultural understanding earlier this year in this blog. And by another chance I had just bookmarked with the tag toblog (clearing the decks for my trip to London) a piece with the intriguing title Why Only Some Grammar Rules Are Breakable. And - coincidence upon coincidence (like London buses, three coming at once [and there's a cultural referewnce that I bet doesn't travel well]) - it was written in response to an article that I had previously written about here.

My response to the Breakable piece may seem rather ad-Hebraist (that's not a rather arbitrary bit of anti-semitism - its author's doctorate was in Hebrew grammar); but that is rather my point (and Crystal's): speaking another person's language is only the first step on the journey to mutual comprehension.

Hoffman (its author) begins by making the traditional tripartite division, so beloved of a  certain kind of writer: 'There are three distinct ways to look at grammar' or, as Caesar might have said 'Grammatica est omnis divisa in partes tres';  Caesar, though had the advantage that very few of his contemporary readers might ever find themselves in a position to ask 'Sez who?'

Hoffman's first way to look at grammar (which it isn't - a 'way to look' that is) is 'prescriptive grammar'. For reasons best  known to Hoffmann he gives this the rather clunky soubriquet of 'the "Who Died and Made You King?" school' (a well-chosen word, 'school' - though not his - as the challenge to authority is redolent of the US schoolyard‡). After an unsurprising overview of this sort of grammar, his final 'Ms. O'Conner and Mr. Kellerman [authors of the article I discussed here] are simply wrong [my emphasis] when they say that "to" isn't part of the infinitive in English' comes somewhat out of left field. Previously he has said '...that's the way it goes. The kings told us so. And the same is true of properly positioning [my emphasis again] prepositions and not inserting items into infinitives.'  So his position on split infinitives is clear - not to say clearly outdated. He could look to any one of dozens -  probably hundreds - of authorities. OUP put its blessing on the split infinitive last century. I use that rather arcane dating system because I remember a colleague gleefully citing the preface to a '90s edtion of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary [that may not be the precise edition] and she was made redundant before the turn of the century.

But Hoffmann's 'simply wrong' reminded me of another culture-clash in my first CELTA lesson (training to be an EFL/ESOL teacher) nearly seven years ago. I've been studying foreign languages, off and on, for about 50 years. In French, Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian (that's the approximate order of the onset of study) the infinitive was one word; and to translate manger we learnt that we had to use two words - even to the extent of having a teacher correcting us: 'No, it's not just "eat", it's "to eat"!' That was the culture I had known as a student of foreign languages.

In my CELTA class, though, my trainer used 'infinitive' differently. The infinitive (the form of the verb with no tense marking - whence the name, incidentally†) took two forms: the 'to-infinitive' and the 'bare infinitive', and the default sort of infinitive tout sec was the bare infinitive. So as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language one learns to say things like 'To form the -ing- form of "eat" you add "-ing" to the infinitive'. 'Simply wrong'? What is simple is that the view is born of a culture clash - the culture of people who study languages and the culture of people learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language. In the words of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme 'Nous avons changé tout ça!'

Let's return to Hoffmann's ways to look at grammar: 'The second way to look at grammar is both more interesting and less appreciated...[:] descriptive linguistics'. Quite so. It's a shame he didn't just say that rather than dress it up in another bit of 'man o' t'people' slang (which, in any case, is misleading): But Everyone's Doing It! The example he gives is this.
For example, in English, "I am" and "I'm" mean the same thing: "I am going to the movies" is the same as "I'm going to the movies." But even so, an English speaker might say, "he's taller than I am," but never "he's taller than I'm." Hundreds of millions of Americans, Brits, and more all agree on this basic fact, in spite of mostly never having thought about it before....
True. Unarguable. Language is what  everyone's doing, linguistically, and behind it lurk rules like this. But the schoolyard self-jusification 'But Everyone's Doing It!' is used to justify a mistake or an infraction of a cultural norm, rather than an unremarked truth. And is this, in the words of the title, an unbreakable rule? Probably - though Hoffmann doesn't say as much, saving the words for a catchy headline. People don't say  "he's taller than I'm" for the same reason that a footballer - the culture-clash here is intentional; 'he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases'; I mean Association Football - doesn't pick up the ball. If they do, it becomes a different game. That's the way the language is. This sort of rule is unbreakable simply because if you break it you're not playing the game; it's not the sort of rule that allows cognoscenti to ask 'Shall I break it?' I wonder if that makes it unbreakable?

Finally, the third way: 'the third is art: what's the best way to put words together to achieve a certain goal?' Hoffmann cites various great writers, writing ungrammatically for art's sake. Fine. But it's not a way of looking at grammar. The suspension of grammaticality is not the breaking of a rule. I don't have very much to say about this 'way' because it's vacuous [see Update].

So what have we got? A tripartite division that doesn't work; an overview of prescriptive grammar with an implied blessing of some prescriptive rules on entirely arbitrary grounds; an overview of descriptive grammar that misses the point; and a third bit left over that says 'All bets are off if you're a great writer.' There are no three divisions; there are two - let's call a spade a spade: prescriptive and descriptive. And the bailiwick of art doesn't extend beyond prescriptive rules (unless you're James Joyce!) This doesn't remotely justify the title of Hoffmann's post.

But. generally, culture underlies all this. Hoffmann belongs to the same genus as Dave Barry's 'Mrs Thistlebottom' in his Mister Language Person columns . The world of language is full of arbitrary prescriptive rules, and he will pick and choose which ones will prescribe for him things like 'properly positioning prepositions'. All well and good; dinosaurs dominated the Earth for millions of years, and some of them were pretty scary; but they didn't survive the rise of the mammals. And this mammal resents being told how to write and speak by someone who brandishes his academic prowess but who doesn't understand my culture.

* This category represents a large majority (nearly 90% of all words that include the vowel-pair -EE-), and I shall have added it to the work-in-progress version of V2 of When Vowels Get Together Real Soon Now.
‡I don't know whether Hoffmann's high-school education was indeed in the USA, though he has taught in enough US high-schools, to judge from his CV.
† The infinitive is non-finite. In Portuguese it is even called o infinito.

Update, 2013.02.19:11.35 I should make it clear that when I referred to Hoffmann's discussion of 'the third way to look at grammar', using the word 'vacuous', I didn't mean 'vacant'. There are several interesting observations, which you can see in the article itself. But they are observations that are clearly examples typical of descriptive linguistics.

Update: 2013.10.02.15:55
HeadFooter updated
Update: 2014.01.05.12:35
And again:

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?)

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this.

Freebies (Teaching resources:  nearly 36,000 views  and  5,000 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with 1806 views/840 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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