English

2005-06-19

Thanks to a recommendation from Claire Wolfe, I've just read a delightful and insightful history of the English language: Our Marvelous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne. I found several aspects of Claiborne's treatment especially interesting. First, he is not shy about celebrating the English language as the greatest vehicle for communication in the history of humankind. That's not jingoism: Claiborne points out that English has three times as many words as its nearest "competitor" (French) and continues to borrow and create words at a faster pace than other tongues, thus making possible a range and subtlety of expression that no other language can match. Second, he connects the incredible flexibility of English with the flexibility of Anglospheric customs and institutions: for Claiborne, language and liberty go hand-in-hand. More than any other major culture, the Anglosphere has been open to emergent orders rather than imposed orders; not for the British or Americans the centralized linguistic planning of the Académie Française. No, folks in the Anglosphere are pretty darn libertarian about language, which is not unconnected with the fact that they tend to be more libertarian about society as well. Not surprisingly, Claiborne comes down closer to the linguistic descriptivists than he does to the linguistic prescriptivists. After all, our language has always been changing -- from Indo-European to proto-Germanic to the Old English of the Angles and Jutes and Saxons to the Middle English of Chaucer to the Modern English we know today. Common sense, good taste, and clear expression are always in style, but prescriptivism is mere muddleheadedness. An English settled and prescribed for all time would not be our free, living, ever-changing English.

A free folk need a living language. May we English-speakers always have our language and our liberty.


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