Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side: Why Lan­guage Can’t Be Tamed came across, in its ini­tial read­ing, as a scat­ter­shot col­lec­tion of top­ics relat­ing vague­ly to the way the pro­nun­ci­a­tions, words, and gram­mars of lan­guages will change with time so long as those lan­guages con­tin­ue to live and have peo­ple speak them. What makes the book real­ly spe­cial, though, is the deep­er theme: despite some peo­ple’s best efforts to pre­tend oth­er­wise, decen­tral­ized changes are not just accept­able but inher­ent to language.

A South­ern-born Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist now liv­ing in Lon­don, the poly­glot­tic Greene like­wise moves through his top­ics with a com­fort­able, intel­li­gi­ble style, con­nect­ing oth­er­wise dis­parate ele­ments with threads that fol­low eas­i­ly and ulti­mate­ly tie togeth­er in a way that is tru­ly some­thing special.

What I’m not ful­ly con­vinced of is whether this was inten­tion­al or some­thing emer­gent from the sub­ject itself.

Now, this is an excel­lent book. It delight­ed me more con­sis­tent­ly and sur­pris­ing­ly in 215 pages than any I can remem­ber recent­ly. The mate­r­i­al is def­i­nite­ly in my sweet spot of inter­est while com­ing from a place of elite knowl­edge deep enough that it has no place for elitism.

Greene first looks at his­tor­i­cal con­struct­ed lan­guages, start­ing with John Wilkins’ failed attempt at a “Philo­soph­i­cal Lan­guage” in the late 17th Cen­tu­ry before con­tin­u­ing to the more pop­u­lar attempts still with us like the reg­u­lar­ized pan-Euro­pean Esperan­to and utter­ly unam­bigu­ous Lojban.

But pri­or attempts to treat lan­guage as some­thing log­i­cal are not evi­dence-based or relat­ed to the actu­al his­to­ry and expe­ri­ence of lan­guage. Nor are such attempts reg­u­lar­iz­ing exist­ing lan­guages, in them­selves, logical.

Pre­scrip­tivists ulti­mate­ly priv­i­lege one group’s style of lan­guage as legit­i­mate over all oth­ers. We’ll come back around to this group as they are more cen­tral to this than even, I think, the book makes them out to be. But Greene also goes through some of our efforts to cre­ate com­put­er pro­grams capa­ble of repro­duc­ing human lan­guage and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, of course using noth­ing but pre­scribed rules.

These arti­fi­cial trans­la­tors and chat­ting bots tend to fall short large­ly because of the amount of con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion peo­ple are expect­ed to know in order to dis­en­tan­gle ambi­gu­i­ties as we com­mu­ni­cate in depth. That can be the entire point of talk­ing to each oth­er, such as flirt­ing or puns.

Greene devotes the next sec­tion to the evo­lu­tion of words and sounds, and that is, for my mon­ey, the sec­ond best thing he accom­plish­es in the whole book. In the Bur­rough­sian word virus sense, it’s fun to see how ideas evolve even if a word stays the same, spelling and all. For this, he pri­mar­i­ly uses “bux­om” and its shift in mean­ing from obe­di­ent to wan­ton, now to just bosomy, all from a dis­tant past of, basi­cal­ly, bendy.

New­er for me was the expla­na­tion for why vow­el shifts hap­pen, com­plete with a 3D rep­re­sen­ta­tion of where the human mouth can make such sounds, con­nect­ed with the Great Vow­el Shift in Mid­dle Eng­lish his­to­ry and to the North­ern Cities Shift of more con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can history.

With­out any cen­tral­ized direc­tion, human lan­guage finds equi­lib­ri­um so that the sounds our throats, tongues, and lips make remain mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble. Over decades and cen­turies, we either merge vow­els com­plete­ly or re-space them to stay dis­tinct. As with sound, so with sense. Greene shows how lan­guage has nev­er fall­en apart just because peo­ple did nov­el things with it or uncon­scious­ly adapt­ed to oth­er peo­ple’s unin­ten­tion­al innovations.

Greene writes: “The essence of a descrip­tive gram­mar, which is what experts do, is not to throw out rules. It is to find out what the rules are by con­sult­ing native speak­ers of the language.”

So the best thing Greene accom­plish­es is real­ly delv­ing into pre­scrip­tivism and one pre­scrip­tivist in particular.

I’d nev­er before heard of Nevile Mar­tin Gwynne, a British ama­teur gram­mar­i­an now in his 70s whose claim to fame seems to con­sist of pub­lish­ing some books on Eng­lish gram­mar unsup­port­ed by actu­al use or any his­to­ry. Despite—or more like­ly because of—that, his views are high­ly attrac­tive to con­ser­v­a­tives who also want to con­nect a pecu­liar clas­sist gram­mar with moral­i­ty. “Prop­er speech is prop­er morals is a prop­er soci­ety.” You don’t have to deny the Holo­caust, helio­cen­tric solar sys­tem, or atoms in order to push ahis­tor­i­cal revan­chism in uni­ver­sal lan­guage use, but it sure­ly does­n’t hurt.

Gwynne, as pre­sent­ed, makes for an espe­cial­ly easy punch­ing bag. He has no com­pelling rea­son to be so famous or be invit­ed onto the BBC as if he were an author­i­ty. For exam­ple, Gwynne embraces patri­ar­chal lan­guage like “he/his” as a solu­tion to the sin­gu­lar, gen­der-neu­tral pro­noun despite the sin­gu­lar they going back at least to 1375 (“þei” in Mid­dle Eng­lish). But for a pre­scrip­tivist, the lan­guage of actu­al peo­ple and their his­to­ry and is entire­ly sep­a­rate from the way things ought to be.

This is not incidental.

Instruc­tors, gram­mar­i­ans, and oth­er pedants have liveli­hoods whose out­look depends on them not under­stand­ing non-dom­i­nant forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion or respect­ing those forms as valid—even necessary—in suit­able con­texts, regard­less of how com­mon those forms are.

Who decides the right way to pro­nounce a word or what it means or where it can go in a sen­tence? The answer is: no one in par­tic­u­lar does, not actu­al­ly. No snowflake ever blamed itself for the avalanche. But all lan­guage users are, in prac­tice, con­tribut­ing by exist­ing, by communicating.

To dis­re­gard some cul­tures or iden­ti­ties as valid is the very heart of impe­ri­al­ism abroad and impe­ri­al­ism come home to roost in the form of fascism.

It’s notice­able that nev­er is it Scots Eng­lish or Mid­lands Eng­lish or South­ern Amer­i­can or AAVE that is tak­en up as the true, nor­mal lan­guage every­one ought to bend to for for­mal­i­ty sake. It’s only those already with pow­er who receive this def­er­ence, invok­ing Lati­nate myths of gram­mar in order to rec­og­nize one anoth­er and, more impor­tant­ly, rec­og­nize who is not part of this myth.

The impor­tant thing about shib­bo­leths is that the ori­gin is the most dis­tilled and use­ful under­stand­ing of them.

In the bib­li­cal book of Judges, one tribe of Israel has gone to war against anoth­er in an utter­ly for­get­table dis­pute, and when the vic­to­ri­ous fac­tion holds the fords, it’s able to cap­ture the then-ene­my tribe and inter­ro­gate them. The vic­tors use the word for “flood” to deter­mine who’s say­ing it right and who wrong. Those who use the region­al pro­nun­ci­a­tion sib­bo­leth are thus known to be of the “ene­my” and fit for execution.

The deep­er moral of the sto­ry is that who’s hold­ing the sword gets to decide who’s mis­pro­nounc­ing the word.

Greene also talks of Don’t Think of An Ele­phant, an NPI favorite in how lan­guage is polit­i­cal and fram­ing mat­ter. That’s clear­ly true, that actu­al­ly ask­ing peo­ple what they think of the estate tax in spe­cif­ic wealth brack­ets tends to dif­fer wild­ly from their opin­ions on the “death tax”. No dis­agree­ment there.

But what I see from Greene’s book, in its crit­i­cism of quar­ter-edu­cat­ed pedants and their wide appeal to the right, is a reflec­tion of how those fun­da­men­tal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive peo­ple val­ue hier­ar­chies and deter­mine who should con­tribute to what valid com­mu­ni­ca­tion is.

If you’re will­ing to argue that some mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate right and oth­ers don’t, there’s a lot of things you’ll be will­ing to do, eventually.

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