Trust a Director of Freshman Rhetoric to say that 'the study of language is inherently interesting.' He would, wouldn't he? He trusts so. This big batch of language-books brings out that the most interesting argument going is, yes, the feud between conservatives and radicals about correctness and usage. The only snag is that this is also the most boring argument going, since it is not going anywhere. Like all feuds, it is, in being addictive, both interesting and boring. Partly this is because the enlistments are so briskly predictable: literature people are Úlitists or meritocrats more or less, and linguistics people are egalitarian or more. But mostly the argument is so grippingly tedious, a vice, because the terms of the antithesis - descriptive v. prescriptive - are metallically insensitive. As with the analogous grind of nature and nurture, the genuine interest of it all is never going to be released until someone comes along who is both knowledgeable and imaginative, not only about the inadequacy of the antithesis itself, but about some better way of speaking which would offer an advance. There is no sign that this is likely to happen. True, Sir Peter Medawar effected a brief release when challenging his field's version of the nature-nurture antithesis with the instance of innate potentialities never to be actualised unless the environment were right. But feud is collusive, and the parties usually round on anyone who threatens their grim fun. Linguistic conservatives and radicals have no intention of stopping lobbing grenades at each other. Meanwhile there is increasing evidence, necessarily scattered evidence, of combatants on both sides who have lobbed the pin and kept the grenade securely in the mouth.
LRB 6 June 1985 | PDF Download