A Figurative Battleground

'The Language Wars: A History of Proper English'

by James Williams

6 February 2013

Language is battlefield and, like it or not, we're all soldiers.
cover art

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

Henry Hitchings

US: Oct 2012

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”


“To who?”

“Actually, it’s ‘To whom’.”

So goes a little dialogue that uses the well-worn question and answer format of the knock-knock joke to parody the carping pedantry of grammar snobs. Of course, to be in on the parody, one must be a bit of a grammar snob, enough so at least to recognize that “whom”—as the object of the preposition “to”—is the appropriate form of the interrogative pronoun “who”. It’s really quite simple, actually, if one remembers that… ahem. Perhaps it’s best to stop there.

In any case, for many, perhaps most, speakers and readers of English the technical distinction between “who” and “whom” is likely to be grandly inconsequential. In the rare circumstance that they concern themselves with the matter at all, they probably view “whom” as a classier or more polite or more formal version of “who”. The same is true, certainly, when someone uses the nominative form “you and I” instead of the object form “you and me” when the latter is the grammatically sound choice or when someone uses “shall” as equivalent to “will” when, according to people who scruple over these things, the two words indicate very different conditions of intentionality and the individual’s relationship to the future.

Fine distinctions such as these may seem the very definition of trivia but in The Language Wars: A History of Proper English Henry Hitchings examines them, along with a host of other subjects, in the context of approximately 400 years of social, political, and historical change in the English-speaking world. Britain and the United States take the lion’s share of interest for obvious reasons but, as Hitchings notes, nearly the entire world, to at least some degree, communicates via some form of English at least sometimes. (Indeed, Hitchings points out that people who speak English as a second language outnumber those for whom it is their first language, a state of affairs that is likely to radically affect what English becomes in the future.)
Hitchings two-part thesis is simple: English, like virtually all languages, has developed in organic fashion. It had its source in other languages, has grown, mutated, absorbed and discarded countless words, migrated across small and large geographic spaces and vast expanses of time. Against the inherent instability of the language, as well its tendency toward transformation and the proliferation of dialects and idiomatic expressions, there stands a sturdy phalanx of ‘prescriptivists’. Its soldiers are the scholars, grammarians, educators, teachers, lexicographers, and others who have sought to impose order and rules on the unruly mass of English, to make it conform to protocols of (according to them at least) aesthetic beauty or mathematical rationality or refined sentiment. What are the reasons for this endeavor? And, just as importantly, what are the consequences? These are the questions that Hitchings seeks to answer over the course of 300 and more pages.

After a brief but informative account of the origins of English, Hitchings examines important changes in the English language that occurred in the late 16th century, including significant expansion of its vocabulary via the importation of foreign words and the neologistic creativity of Shakespeare and many other writers working in the early modern period. Not coincidentally, the era also witnessed an early instance of the controversy about what English should be, particularly in the contentious debates over whether words of Saxon origin or words of other provenance are to be preferred. Here, too, begins the bizarre but vigorous and surprisingly persistent attempt to make English grammar conform to the “gold standard” of Latin expression, one of the more notorious results of which is the denunciation of split infinitives such as “to boldly go” (the infinitive form in Latin is a single word so cannot be split—what is a reality for Latin had, for these early modern prescriptivists and their successors, to be made into a maxim for English).

Despite the sometimes dense, sometimes obscure, sometimes complex subject matter, The Language Wars is sprightly in the early going and throughout. Hitchings sometimes traverses several centuries worth of material in each relatively brief chapter, linking together anecdotes and episodes according to thematic congruence rather than historical proximity. At times, the volume doubles back to further explore ground already covered (at least cursorily) but the overall arc traces the evolution of English from the native tongue of a provincial backwater to global lingua franca. Attendant upon that evolution are vexed antagonisms about who should have the final say over what English is, and what values should inform the determination.

Language, in short, is often a figurative battleground, the site of conflicts about inclusivity and exclusivity, who belongs to a society and what their place in it should be. Participants in some of the battles include British versus American citizens, native speakers versus immigrants (in both the United States and Britain), upper versus working and lower class citizens, men versus women, and white versus black and other minority citizens. In short, how we speak and write both reflects and determines whom we consider our own kind—and who we consider ourselves to be.

The range of materials on which Hitchings draws is wide, including literature, philosophical treatises, political manifestos—pretty much anything that appears in print or oral form, which is to say pretty much everything. Dictionaries and their makers, however, claim pride of place since indexes of the language are treasure-troves of information about the time and place in which they were produced. This could make for tedious reading but, fortunately, Hitchings is adept at discovering and describing the wellsprings of controversy that bubble under the surface of the dusty pages of a given dictionary.

Fortunately, as well, Hitchings offers deftly-sketched portraits of important figures in the history of the language as well as the sometimes eccentric fixations and resentments that motivated their efforts. He wryly observes of one outré prescriptivist, the musician and dilettante linguist Percy Grainger, and his call for a return to earthy, concrete and (putatively) Anglo-Saxon terms, “Grainger hardly helped his cause by being an enthusiastic advocate of flagellation, racial separatism and incest.” Moreover, Hitchings can turn a phrase; he cites, at one point, “...the myth of Englishness—that compendium of invented traditions and pruned historical verdure used by the English to present themselves to the rest of the world.” It’s one instance of an unobtrusive eloquence that pervades The Language Wars.

If there’s a fault here, it’s the tendency toward dilation but, for this reviewer, that tendency could just as easily be deemed one of the chief charms of the book. With a bibliography comprised of nearly 700 entries, the scholarly labor that has gone into The Language Wars is impressive and it would be a shame to waste erudition if it can be displayed to good effect, as it so often is here. The Language Wars is hardly light (or should that be “lite”?) reading, so it’s probably best not to attempt to speed through the volume. Rather, readers are better served to digest some of it a time, luxuriating in the rich, artfully presented content.

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English