So which is better for a language — purity or diversity?
You could make a good argument for either. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if a language could be captured at the peak of its perfection (achieved by its greatest authors), then polished to remove all blemishes?
Then great minds wouldn’t have to waste their time, for example, endlessly arguing, as Geoff Pullum noted this week, whether sentence-final prepositions should be allowed in English — or whether “Me and” is a good way to start a sentence, as Ben Yagoda discussed recently.
The answer would be a simple Yes or No, and just forget all the learned arguments invoking Latin or logic or Old English.
The task of editors would become that much easier, and perhaps the prohibited alternatives would so wither away that someday, nobody would even think to make the mistake of using them.
Currently such squabbles over quibbles (or quibbles over squabbles?) occupy much time and space right here in Lingua Franca. Just recently our indefatigable linguist Geoffrey Pullum had to devote a full column to untangling the assertions of the BuzzFeed stylebook. How much better if Pullum were simply appointed dictator for life, having the final word on every possible variant, and then allowing him to pontificate about it to the rest of us.
And yet, on the other hand, the essence of any living language is not perfection but variation. Each of us humans is born not with a particular language, or a particular dialect of a language, ready made in our brains, but rather simply with a predisposition to language, such that we pick up whatever language we happen to hear.
And we pick up not only the words and sounds and grammatical patterns, but also the meanings of the words, not by reading a dictionary but by figuring out the connections between the words we hear and the activities that seem to go with them.
Inevitably there is slippage, as each person reconstructs a language ab ovo.
So we have different pronunciations, and different words, from person to person and place to place. For the United States, for example, the Dictionary of American Regional English gathers some 60,000 words unique to different corners of the country.
We can also be inspired by the history of English. In the year 1066, an army of speakers of French conquered England and ruled it for the next couple of centuries, long enough to make English vocabulary half French, as it is today. Ours is a diverse language, with words acquired from well over 100 other languages, too.
The French, on the other hand, are inclined to aim for perfection in their own language, having relatively few words imported from other languages. Germany and Spain likewise have official boards concerned with regulating their language and keeping aliens out. English speakers, however, couldn’t keep strangers out even if we wanted to. The strangers are us.
We added diversity to our language a thousand years before it became a 21st-century desirable. Might as well make the most of it.