Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed came across, in its initial reading, as a scattershot collection of topics relating vaguely to the way the pronunciations, words, and grammars of languages will change with time so long as those languages continue to live and have people speak them. What makes the book really special, though, is the deeper theme: despite some people’s best efforts to pretend otherwise, decentralized changes are not just acceptable but inherent to language.
A Southern-born American journalist now living in London, the polyglottic Greene likewise moves through his topics with a comfortable, intelligible style, connecting otherwise disparate elements with threads that follow easily and ultimately tie together in a way that is truly something special.
What I’m not fully convinced of is whether this was intentional or something emergent from the subject itself.
Now, this is an excellent book. It delighted me more consistently and surprisingly in 215 pages than any I can remember recently. The material is definitely in my sweet spot of interest while coming from a place of elite knowledge deep enough that it has no place for elitism.
Greene first looks at historical constructed languages, starting with John Wilkins’ failed attempt at a “Philosophical Language” in the late 17th Century before continuing to the more popular attempts still with us like the regularized pan-European Esperanto and utterly unambiguous Lojban.
But prior attempts to treat language as something logical are not evidence-based or related to the actual history and experience of language. Nor are such attempts regularizing existing languages, in themselves, logical.
Prescriptivists ultimately privilege one group’s style of language as legitimate over all others. We’ll come back around to this group as they are more central to this than even, I think, the book makes them out to be. But Greene also goes through some of our efforts to create computer programs capable of reproducing human language and communication, of course using nothing but prescribed rules.
These artificial translators and chatting bots tend to fall short largely because of the amount of contextual information people are expected to know in order to disentangle ambiguities as we communicate in depth. That can be the entire point of talking to each other, such as flirting or puns.
Greene devotes the next section to the evolution of words and sounds, and that is, for my money, the second best thing he accomplishes in the whole book. In the Burroughsian word virus sense, it’s fun to see how ideas evolve even if a word stays the same, spelling and all. For this, he primarily uses “buxom” and its shift in meaning from obedient to wanton, now to just bosomy, all from a distant past of, basically, bendy.
Newer for me was the explanation for why vowel shifts happen, complete with a 3D representation of where the human mouth can make such sounds, connected with the Great Vowel Shift in Middle English history and to the Northern Cities Shift of more contemporary American history.
Without any centralized direction, human language finds equilibrium so that the sounds our throats, tongues, and lips make remain mutually intelligible. Over decades and centuries, we either merge vowels completely or re-space them to stay distinct. As with sound, so with sense. Greene shows how language has never fallen apart just because people did novel things with it or unconsciously adapted to other people’s unintentional innovations.
Greene writes: “The essence of a descriptive grammar, which is what experts do, is not to throw out rules. It is to find out what the rules are by consulting native speakers of the language.”
So the best thing Greene accomplishes is really delving into prescriptivism and one prescriptivist in particular.
I’d never before heard of Nevile Martin Gwynne, a British amateur grammarian now in his 70s whose claim to fame seems to consist of publishing some books on English grammar unsupported by actual use or any history. Despite—or more likely because of—that, his views are highly attractive to conservatives who also want to connect a peculiar classist grammar with morality. “Proper speech is proper morals is a proper society.” You don’t have to deny the Holocaust, heliocentric solar system, or atoms in order to push ahistorical revanchism in universal language use, but it surely doesn’t hurt.
Gwynne, as presented, makes for an especially easy punching bag. He has no compelling reason to be so famous or be invited onto the BBC as if he were an authority. For example, Gwynne embraces patriarchal language like “he/his” as a solution to the singular, gender-neutral pronoun despite the singular they going back at least to 1375 (“þei” in Middle English). But for a prescriptivist, the language of actual people and their history and is entirely separate from the way things ought to be.
This is not incidental.
Instructors, grammarians, and other pedants have livelihoods whose outlook depends on them not understanding non-dominant forms of communication or respecting those forms as valid—even necessary—in suitable contexts, regardless of how common those forms are.
Who decides the right way to pronounce a word or what it means or where it can go in a sentence? The answer is: no one in particular does, not actually. No snowflake ever blamed itself for the avalanche. But all language users are, in practice, contributing by existing, by communicating.
To disregard some cultures or identities as valid is the very heart of imperialism abroad and imperialism come home to roost in the form of fascism.
It’s noticeable that never is it Scots English or Midlands English or Southern American or AAVE that is taken up as the true, normal language everyone ought to bend to for formality sake. It’s only those already with power who receive this deference, invoking Latinate myths of grammar in order to recognize one another and, more importantly, recognize who is not part of this myth.
The important thing about shibboleths is that the origin is the most distilled and useful understanding of them.
In the biblical book of Judges, one tribe of Israel has gone to war against another in an utterly forgettable dispute, and when the victorious faction holds the fords, it’s able to capture the then-enemy tribe and interrogate them. The victors use the word for “flood” to determine who’s saying it right and who wrong. Those who use the regional pronunciation sibboleth are thus known to be of the “enemy” and fit for execution.
The deeper moral of the story is that who’s holding the sword gets to decide who’s mispronouncing the word.
Greene also talks of Don’t Think of An Elephant, an NPI favorite in how language is political and framing matter. That’s clearly true, that actually asking people what they think of the estate tax in specific wealth brackets tends to differ wildly from their opinions on the “death tax”. No disagreement there.
But what I see from Greene’s book, in its criticism of quarter-educated pedants and their wide appeal to the right, is a reflection of how those fundamentally conservative people value hierarchies and determine who should contribute to what valid communication is.
If you’re willing to argue that some mutually intelligible people communicate right and others don’t, there’s a lot of things you’ll be willing to do, eventually.