The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park Review

The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park
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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park ReviewOne might expect the first adjective, but certainly not the other two when describing a book on the subjects of linguistics and lexicography. However, I believe that this book will not only appeal to those familiar with these subjects, but also to those taking their first foray into the territory. This isn't some fusty old textbook, laying out the history of the English language, invasion to invasion, scribe to Gutenberg. Instead, it's a jolly romp through the trials and travails of those intimately involved with the attempt to categorize, curtail, and clean up our messy, confusing English language; from the curmudgeonly to confused, from shy to boastful, from historically famous to those left behind as mere footnotes. The biggest selling point is the fact that modern contributors to English aren't ignored, glossed over, or treated as a pox upon our "noble" language. Many familiar names are referenced alongside (or, more accurately, right after) the more sedate, historical personages such as Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster: George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Quentin Tarantino--those who, in their own colorful, creative, and ofttimes controversial way, continue to shape what we know as "good" English and "bad" English. And, yes, that includes South Park. The phenomenon brought about by the Internet Age--blogging, texting, Tweeting--all those activities supported by a vast multitude of unnamed persons who support these endeavors with their own shorthand versions of English, also earns a place in the lineage of our language.
Upon reading this book, I realized something very important: Nothing is new. From the dawn of language itself, people have been bemoaning its demise. Every generation worries that the one coming up behind them is going to hell in a handbasket--and taking the English language with it. I admit, I'm a language prude. I wince at text-speak, I rave madly when someone uses a word or phrase incorrectly, at least, incorrectly to my thinking; I try not to leave participles dangling or split my infinitives. The lesson of this book, however, is that English is a mutable language. It can be used, or abused, in the most extreme fashion, yet it will always bounce back and remain steady, if not always comprehensible to the elder generation. So, the lesson I've learned is that I, and all others who bemoan the imminent demise of English, should just chillax (a slang word I would have never deemed worth using before this point). I can't say I'll ever go out of my way to use split infinitives, dangling participles, or double (or triple or even quadruple) negatives. However, knowing that all of these grammatical "errors" have pedigreed pasts, going back to Shakespeare and Chaucer (who appears to be a master of the quadruple negative), I won't feel as though I'm committing a capital offense if one happens to slip into my writing or conversation. Even the dreaded ain't has a place in this world. English has the near-miraculous ability to be combined in almost infinite ways to create new words. Those words may only be one-offs, created as literary puns or linguistic exercises; they may end up as dictionary staples. The point is, English is flexible and fun. We can rail against its quirks, its bizarre spellings which don't match pronunciations, or, conversely, too many spellings which match a single pronunciation, but without its inherent freedom of expression, we would be lost without it.The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park OverviewFor language buffs and lexicographers, copy editors and proofreaders, and anyone who appreciates the connection between language and culture—the illuminating story of "proper English." In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate, or otherwise organize, the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors, showing clearly that what we now regard as the only "correct" way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries. As literary historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history, and the characters peopling his narrative are as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition. The struggle between prescriptivists, who prescribe a correct approach, and descriptivists, who analyze how language works, is at the heart of Lynch's story. From the sharp-tongued satirist Jonathan Swift, who called for a governmentsponsored academy to issue rulings on the language, and the polymath Samuel Johnson, who put dictionaries on a new footing, to John Horne Tooke, the crackpot linguist whose bizarre theories continue to baffle scholars; Joseph Priestley, whose political radicalism prompted riots; and the ever-crotchety Noah Webster, whose goal was to Americanize the English language—Lynch brings to life a varied cast as illuminating as it is entertaining. Grammatical "rules" or "laws" are not like the law of gravity, or laws against theft or murder—they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Charting the evolution of English, Jack Lynch puts today's debates—whether about Ebonics in the schools or split infinitives in the New York Times—in a rich historical context, and makes us appreciate anew the hard-won standards we now enjoy.

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