Who Speaks for the Words?

Brought up in the Episcopal Church, I found religion only when we got to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Plenty of theologians have parsed that sentence, but to me at 13 it meant simply that language came first, that we made the world with our words. Now there, I thought, was a faith I could avow.

Now, along with my fellow Lingua Francaphiles, I blog weekly about the nuts, bolts, and idiosyncrasies of language. We’ve been up and running for almost five months, and our readers are starting to take stock. Some of you love what we write; some of you hate some of it; some express sorrow or confusion. You can’t please all the people all the time, but I wonder if what we have here is not just the old argument between prescriptivists and descriptivists, but a deeper unease as to who ought to discuss the language we all, in one way or another, use.

Comments that got me thinking this way include the following, in no particular order:

• I know you are writing to impress the 19 other people in your subspecialty, but as a mere mortal I would love to be able to understand what the hell you are trying to say.

• [Lingua Franca] has indeed largely turned into a pet peevery with a lot of the commentors [sic] and even occasionally a few of the original posters asserting very strong opinions about things they don’t know much, if anything, about, who seem not to understand the notion of empirical evidence as applied to the study of how a language works.

• Nobody who studies language would deny that “ain’t” is a word.

• Language changes. Deal with it.

• I’m appalled that a blogger on a language blog would disdainfully reject what is known about language, in favor of just inventing stuff.

• Do we need to so archly be cute about whether anybody knows what “phenomenology” is?

• Should the sloppy, the thoughtless, the inattentive, the careless, the incorrigible, and/or the manipulative have as much influence on what we judge “correct” as the careful, thoughtful, and respectful?

• Rules aid the ignorant, like the lines on the pavement driving—you can cross them, to your peril.

• The things you identify as “problems” don’t seem so to most of us.

• I use words for a living; they are my tools. I also use grammar for a living; it is my technique. I choose to take care of my tools and to refine my technique.

• A number of people who comment on posts on this blog and even a couple who write originals don’t understand much about language.

• I enjoyed the piece and do not have the least desire to pretend to be smarter than the person who composed it.

• I hope that you spend an additional 100 years in purgatory for your cowardly substitution of he/she instead of the long accepted he.

• Most of us are generalists in grammar usage thus our adherence to Strunk & White.

• This is not so much a gaffe but an example of how our language is not as pure as some editors would like it to be.

• I see your objection, but raise you some fundamental understanding of what language is and how it works in all its metaphorical and literal complexity.

• I fear The Chronicle of Higher Education is, perhaps unwittingly, fertilizing the soil for a resurgence of grammatical mavenry.

I highlight these comments here not because I agree or disagree with any of them, but because they illustrate a range of understandings about what Lingua Franca is or should be. Some readers seem to think that the authority to discuss language lies with professional linguists, particularly self-described “descriptivists.” Others seem more concerned with the degradation of language, particularly among the young people whom most of us teach. Others seem to take offense at claims to expertise among us bloggers or among responders using terms of art. Still others regard language and grammar as virtually synonymous. Finally, there are those who profess boredom at all this discussion even as they participate in it.

We LF bloggers come from several—not all!—spheres: editing, imaginative writing, journalism, dialect study, linguistics. What strikes me as marvelous about the dialogue thus far in this series is how, both in its complaint and in its enthusiasm, it calls attention to this thing the Greeks called logos. Let us not narrow the discussion! If one thing distinguishes us as both writers and responders, it is that we stop for a moment, in the chaos of our days, to consider the word itself, the thing that makes us, if not divine, certainly human.

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