Thursday, April 07, 2022


 Grammar is really just an agreement between all of the people who use that language. Lauren Gawne, Australian linguist, on the podcast "Lingthusiam" with Gretchen McCulloh, Canadian lingusit and author of Because Internet: Understanding How Language is Changing. (Which looks like great fun and I have put it on inter-library loan request.)

We think of grammar as something a bit holier than that if we were raised in previous generations, but that has always been the truth. Grammar rules got put in place by oh, just anyone who felt like it and some of them caught on, in parallel to the middle class arising in England.  The elites wanted to maintain their superiority by speaking properly, but as with any regulation, one can game the system immediately and the rising classes bought books to learn how to imitate them.

But do not despair. If something is an agreement between us all you can go as slowly as you like adopting the new ways. I do recommend you understand the nuances of changes as they happen, but you don't have to use them yourself.

John McWhorter recommended the podcast in connection with his interview of McCulloch and I have listened to an episode and put the whole series on my list.  I learned that aliens apparently speak in Object-Subject-Verb order, as this is both Yoda-speak and Klingon. It is the least usual order among Earthlings, who usually speak languages with Subject-Object-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object. Gretchen speaks too quickly (like I should talk), but I adjusted to that and recommend it.


Grim said...

I always feel like there’s a moral duty to hold the line as long as possible. It’s not like this is a trivial matter. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to understand each other. It’s what Protagoras called the gift of Zeus: it was the greatest gift the pagan world could imagine.

Language changes like the world does, inexorably. All the same it is our duty to hold the line, in the face of certain defeat, like Odin facing the ice giants. It doesn’t matter if we say “he” or “he or she” or “they.” Yet holding the line so that we keep more people in the realm of mutual understanding may be the most important thing in the world.

Christopher B said...

You might already know this but McWhorter has revived his SubStack (It Bears Mentioning) as an access point to the Lexicon Valley podcasts. Not being familiar with them I couldn't quite follow the timeline but it has something to do with Slate renaming feature after he left, and possibly making them harder to find/link. He stopped writing at SubStack when he started doing columns for the NYT, which I gathered was a personal decision rather than a mandate.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I seldom read him unless I am looking for a specific reference in the archives. His podcast on Slate was called Lexicon Valley and he has moved that name with him. When he left, Slate changed the name to Spectacular Vernacular. Yet under that name you can go back through the archives of 250 shows and find the 150 that were his. They run from 2016-2021, off the top of my head. He has commented on Loury's show that he shares that his plate is full, as he has the Times column, and still a full complement of courses taught at Columbia. He has just finished the promotion of his last book and is starting research on other topics, which may become a book or may become academic papers.