Apocalypse Not

A new book tackles the history of language anxiety 

HUMANITIES, January/February 2010, Volume 31, Number 1

In few fields is the gap separating educated opinion from specialist opinion so wide as in linguistics. Ask many a word-loving reader or writer what they think of language change, and they will admit to regarding it with suspicion. Change is not for the good, and likely to be driven by such factors as declining standards in the schools and the rage among kids today for slang of their own making.

Linguists, however, think of language change as inevitable, a force of nature, and thus fit for scientific investigation. From the Great Vowel Shift beginning in the fifteenth century to spelling reforms from the sixteenth century on, change has been structural, syntactical, and lexical. It has consisted of great new stretches of sound borne aloft on a historical tide of modification and tidy little corrections by the hands of reformers, grammarians, and lexicographers. Large and small, bidden and unbidden, changes come, though for what reason it is hard to know. A child may be cajoled into favoring some expression less annoying than “whatever,” but holding the language in place is no more possible than slowing the process of continental drift.

Professor Tim Machan of Marquette University takes up the matter in the NEH-supported volume Language Anxiety: Conflict and Change in the History of English (Oxford University Press, 2009). His angle is that our exasperation over change is an expression of non-linguistic anxiety about social change in general: “education, immigration, morality, and so forth.” Moreover, says Machen, such anxiety is not merely a modern phenomenon. It is already “present in the earliest Western account of language change, . . . the Tower of Babel, in which change and variation are figured as the divine punishment visited by God on humans for their arrogance and presumption. It is likewise already present in England in Alfred the Great’s preface to his ninth-century translation of St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care, in which he cites the decline of Latin and English literacy as both sign and result of the general moral failure into which the Viking raids had plunged England.”

To this we can imagine many a reader saying that just because change is inevitable does not mean it should be welcomed. Which seems to us fine, so long as they don’t say, “Whatever.”