There’s Glory For You!

One of the things I most enjoyed about last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge was the opportunity to choose minors and majors. This year’s reduction in the numbers required gives those of us who are grizzled veterans of last year’s campaign the opportunity to reminisce about how much tougher we had it back in the good old days, when a major was a real major of ten, and a minor was a meaningful five, not an namby-pamby three. Clearly fiftyfiftyme, like the English language, is changing for the worse, dumbing down and catering to the lazy, unwashed masses.
That last sentence was total baloney, of course. Fiftyfiftyme is as fun and challenging as ever, and English has not changed for the worse. Languages are not devolving from a Golden Age of eloquence into a Neanderthal series of grunting text messages and inane tweets. Sadly, many people think otherwise, which is why I decided to write about my
books minor for last year’s challenge, in which I elected to read five books
about linguistics.

 

I love languages and linguistics, and have done ever since reading Lord of the Rings for the first time as an impressionable seven-year old. Then, and each of the 18-20 or so other times I read that book, I spent more time devouring the linguistic appendixes than reading the story. Tolkien’s epic gave me the languages bug, and I’ve loved learning about them ever since. Last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge provided the perfect motivation to indulge my passion by reading more widely on my favourite subject. I hope to read several more this year, enough to count as another minor, I think.

 

Books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style perpetuate the myth that fabricated personal peeves are in fact ineradicable elements of English grammar. From rants against split infinitives to attempts to impose the rules of mathematics on language by insisting that “a double negative equals a positive”; from assertions that non-standard spelling is “a grammatical error” to the promotion of the etymological fallacy by denying the simple reality of polysemy, English has plenty of peeves and peevers. It seems that some people will readily say that everything in the Universe  evolves, but cannot accept that language does too.

 

Happily there are many excellent works written by real linguists for the general public. These books try to address that attitude and to show that as with everything, the only constant in language is change. No language is without rules, but those rules are not arbitrarily imposed by some peevish academic (or Académie) obsessed with imposing artificial order on the organic chaos of language. The beautiful reality is that language is the ultimate democracy – words mean what the majority of their users decide they mean, and every language user gets to be part of the never-ending process of making up the rules as we go along. The mathematician Dodgson was actually being peevish when he put the words of this post’s title into Humpty-Dumpty’s mouth, but he was not far from being right all the same.

 

The endless fluidity and change in language should be celebrated, not mourned or railed against. The history of language is the history of civilisation, and the stories of language are as endlessly fascinating as its creators and shapers.That’s why I urge anyone looking for a non-fiction minor (or major) for this year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge to consider linguistics as a candidate. Here are five of my favourites:

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