You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity | by Robert Lane Greene | Random House | 336 pages, $25.00
There’s a certain outspoken portion of the English-speaking population that’s really, really into grammar. Much like those who are sticklers for, say, etiquette or Robert’s Rules of Order, grammar people think of themselves as principled people of substance, convinced that declines in grammar standards indicate corresponding declines in morality. Grammar and punctuation just aren’t taught in schools anymore. This is why people can’t write. This is why the world is going to hell.
Then again, some would say the world is going to hell because of the language sticklers. In his new book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, Robert Lane Greene, a correspondent for The Economist, writes that proclaiming the superiority of one way of writing and speaking over another isn’t just an annoying habit—it’s a serious political matter. Language is a tool used to foster identity and nationalism. Insisting on one “correct” way of using a particular language is often rather like insisting on the superiority of one’s own culture. Furthermore, argues Greene, “errors” are only the evolution of language, anyway. As people speak, they develop new rules and new standards. No rules are fixed, and attempts to resist linguistic evolution are not only wrong, they’re ineffective.
As he writes:
The long arm of the modern government has been tempted to fiddle with the language rule book itself: governments have banned words and phrases, coined new ones from thin air, fiddled with the writing system, and otherwise used the power of the state to influence the natural growth of languages. The rougher governments of the world threaten harsh penalties when their linguistic laws are not observed: using banned “impure” words or a writing system that has fallen out of favor, for example. This kind of linguistic activism by politicians has rarely been successful. Yet still they try.
Language evolves, Greene explains, and his discussion of that evolution is probably the strongest part of the book. The language we speak today is radically different from that spoken by our linguistic ancestors, who enjoyed no widely accepted standards for language usage. This is why Beowulf is unreadable to modern English-speakers and Shakespeare is only barely decipherable.
The truth is that industrialization led to language standardization. The West created public schools, standardized textbooks, and commonly understood language rules at more or less the same time the first factories opened. If everyone needed to learn how to perform the same interchangeable tasks, then everyone needed to speak and understand the same interchangeable language.
After characterizing language standardization as a tool of capitalistic crowd control, Greene argues that today’s sticklers who stand athwart the vernacular yelling “Stop!” aren’t just pedantic—they’re anti-democratic. Greene denounces those grammar gurus who preach cultish reverence to things like capitalization and the serial comma, reserving a special abhorrence for Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book with, he explains, “nary a sentence failing to scream bloody murder or whip of a linguistic lynch mob.” He also has problems with William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style, finding their arbitrary, unexplained rules (possessive apostrophes after s-words, etc.) confusing and their lofty commands (“Use the active voice”) oppressive.
Or maybe he just finds the people who are really into Strunk and White troublesome. Greene’s general rule seems to be that there are a lot of people who get really wound up about correct English usage, and that these people are pathetic, controlling jerks. He’s probably right, but do these people really pose much of a threat to democracy? Even the sort of people we think of as sticklers—say, your ninth-grade English teacher—probably didn’t think the English language was ordained by God with perfect rules for all time. No, Mrs. Stevens just wanted you to learn how to clearly communicate your ideas so that people could understand what you were saying.