June 7, 2012

The Language War: a report from the trenches


There has been an almighty dust-up following the publication of Joan Acocella’s article in the New Yorker about Henry Hitchings’s book The Language Wars: A History of Proper English and glancingly about the new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. The central criticism has been that, as Steven Pinker puts it, in a response on Slate, “if you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’ theories of language.” In other words, the divide is an invented one and the narrative that Acocella constructs, with Fowler, White, Pinker himself, and others lined up across from each other like two sets of tin soldiers, misrepresents the ideas about language that these individuals actually held and hold.

The battle has gone high and low. Here are some of the more stinging volleys:

“Not since Saturday Night Live‘s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings.” —Steven Pinker, Slate

“Either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.” ––Mark Liberman, Language Log

“Yes, it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis; I would have expected the New Yorker to grasp that fact, but apparently I would have been wrong.” —Jan Freeman, Throw Grammar from the Train

“If Ms. Acocella were to write under the assumption that anthropologists must necessarily adopt the practices they describe, she would be laughed at. But since she is writing about language and usage, any ignorant expression goes straight to print.” —John McIntyre, “You Don’t Say,” The Baltimore Sun

“Joan Acocella is the longtime dance critic of the New Yorker. I imagine she’s a fine dance critic… However, when it comes to the study of language, she is an utter ignoramus, which makes it surprising that the New Yorker allowed her to run on for pages blathering about it in the latest issue.” —Stephen Dodson, Language Hat

“[M]y main complaint is that the whole subject is boring.” —Ben Yagoda, The Chronicle of Higher Education


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.