NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Book Review: “Talk on the Wild Side” by Lane Greene shows how language is power

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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