Anyone heard of linguistics? Anyone?

Last week, a few of us Writer types past and present sashayed along to a debate at the British Library called The Language Wars. It featured some duffer from the Queen’s English Society claiming English was going to hell in a handcart because people say ‘disinterested’ when they used to say ‘uninterested’ (I’m paraphrasing). And a man who’s written a book rightly saying ‘people have been saying English has been going to hell in a handcart for centuries. Well, it ain’t. Things change. Get over it.’ Or words to that effect.

Which is fine, if you just want a bit of knockabout. But it’s frustrating that it was riddled with subjective, unsubstantiated assertions, from the panel, the audience, and even the usually magnificent Libby Purves as chair. People talked about various aspects of language as ‘ugly’, ‘incorrect’, ‘graceless’, ‘American’. In most other disciplines, you wouldn’t get away with stuff like that without backing it up. There are thousands of academics around the world collecting data on how language actually works. They’ll investigate, for example, if a particular word or phrase really is American (so, do Americans use it more than Brits, say? Does it vary in different contexts? Did it really start in America?). But proper research-based linguistics rarely gets a look-in, so most public discussion of language is spectacularly ill-informed.

It felt slightly like going to an eighteenth century debate on medicine, with people arguing about exactly which imbalance of humours they felt were responsible for making women hysterical.

And it’s a shame, because there are great places to look if you want to know more about language without having to suffer some amateur’s wildly partial ramblings. Try books by the late, great Larry Trask. My hero April McMahon. David Crystal. Or the brilliant Language Log. All written by academics whose writing is entertaining and rigorous.

The good news for us at The Writer (and we have a few linguistics students in our gang) is that even a lightweight debate like that shows how much people care about language. How our words are so wrapped up with our identity that we are determined to vehemently defend our own tastes and castigate other people’s. It’s why language is an extraordinarily powerful tool, which businesses still undervalue and ignore at their peril.

(And by the way, thank heavens for rapper Dizraeli. He was the star of the panel, and was brilliantly eloquent, in sometimes satisfyingly non-standard English. He shut up many of the sticklers by asking how on earth they had time to get het up about supposedly ‘incorrect’ words that were perfectly clear in context. Pragmatics, that’s called in linguistics.)

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