Sunday, October 5, 2008

who decides?

Steven Pinker begins the preface to The Language Instinct with the sentence: "I have never met a person who is not interested in language."

I agree, and have for a while now. Yet I never really appreciated the full extent of that interest until writing a book about the English spelling system. And let me tell you: People care. At a party last night, a woman was dying to know whether, as part of my "research," I went to--or maybe it was went after--the people at Toys 'R Us, because of their role in further vandalizing the language with that scandalous backwards r. I told her I had not. Other party-goers were all too eager to don their language police uniforms and go after anyone who messed up an apostrophe, dangled a modifier or spelled through, thru. Then there was Palin's down-home turns of phrase. No one was short on words when it came to that topic.

And a few days ago, a radio interviewer in Missouri was telling me about her Catholic school teachers, and how strict they were about language rules that often didn't make sense. As we discussed the torturous experience of trying to learn grammar, speech and spelling, she raised what is really one of the quintessential questions of Righting the Mother Tongue: Who decides what is right or wrong? I hope my book does a decent job answering, or at least exploring, that question. It's out this coming Tuesday. From language mavens to anything-goes descriptivists--I want to hear from you. Who do you think should decide?

2 comments:

L.R. Strand said...

Am reading your book. In a reversal to spoken language affecting spelling, I have a comment about something I read on p. 51, where you cite clean and cleanly as having different pronunciations of the "ea". In my mind, I pronounce them the same, with a long "e", but pronounce "cleanse" and "cleanliness" with a short "e".

David Wolman said...

Thanks for the note. We may need a PhD in linguistics to chime in on this one as to the deeper issues at hand, but to my ear they sound quite different.

Alas, variable pronunciation: one of many Achilles heels of the simplified spelling movement! Best -- DW