I’ve been fascinated for years with language but specifically the constant struggle between language as its spoken, and language as it should be spoken. If you have an opinion on this, and even if you don’t, an interesting experiment is to consider the word “literally”. If people who use “literally” as an intensifier (a la Jamie Redknapp in that article “That pass to Rooney was literally on a plate”) make your blood boil, you’re probably in the prescriptivist camp. If you’re a bit more laissez faire – mainly because what Jamie’s saying makes sense to most people who’ll hear it – you’re probably more a language descriptivist.
I’m more in the descriptivist camp – prescriptivists with whom I’ve talked have argued that the main reason for their stance on “proper” usage is primarily due to intelligibility. We can and need to better understand each other – if we’re all singing off the same hymn-sheet, they argue, there’s less chance of confusion and thus less chance of misunderstanding. Holding language this way, there’s a respect created in the combustibility of language – the very nature of its ability to change someone’s mood for the worse, or to start an all out war – means that the rules must be taken seriously if we’re to reduce that chance. In short: language is important, so don’t be flippant with it.
I can see where this idea has its merits: in communicating vital or factual information, for example, intelligibility is paramount. But what I find most difficult about this view, is the fact that in any linguistic communication there are always two parties. I feel in the majority of cases – when people are communicating opinions, thoughts or especially emotion, the writer or speaker must to some extent respect the intelligence of the reader/listener. In these cases, it’s the writer’s prerogative and perhaps even the writer’s duty to press the bounds of intelligibility in order to fully express what he’s trying to say – “life’s potential for adjustability and transformation; with a reality of shifting proportions, surprising angles and creative awrynesses. (writers) show us that if the world is a mirror of thoughts, no straightforwardly literal statement will ever be enough to help us see it more clearly”. But again, let’s not read this as permission to be flippant with language – as the article above points out, Rushdie & Joyce were very selective in their misuses of English.
But the most pressing evidence for the descriptivist case is the fact that “literally” is in very good company – very and really evolved in the same way – ““very” itself evolved from “true, real, genuine” via “actual, sheer” to its current role as intensifier.” – “Language, in all its glory, is the most complete, the most complex, and perhaps the most beautiful of all humanity’s creations. It is irrational, illogical, arbitrary, clever, dumb, rich, poor, deluded and enlightened. In that respect, it is a perfect match for mankind’s view of the world, which is irrational, illogical, arbitrary, clever, dumb, rich, poor, deluded and enlightened in equal measure. To refuse to see this cornucopia as anything but a nice plate with one kind of food arranged in one kind of pattern, is the highest sin a professed lover of language can commit.”
I don’t think either position is “right” per se, but it’s here I find again the delicious face of paradox staring back at me once again. The poet, the words-craftsman and artist, carefully selects each word, phrase and syllable to fit a very particular package of communication, a very particular message within a poem. And yet within that delicate, highly intricate craft there are vast mountains of interpretability – metaphors mostly, but also familiar images and signs – some even subconscious – that are only opened and fully realized when the reader approaches the page and finally puts his experience to the poet’s words. The poem is a relic without the reader.
And this is where the prescriptivist stance toward language falls down. When you discount the input of the listener by insisting that language is prepared and presented in a certain way, you can eliminate certain misunderstandings. But you’re also ignoring what a glorious mess language – and life – really is. Language breathes, and it’s cycled through people and filtered back out again into something new. And that is the essence of creativity – language is irrational, gloriously so.