May 10, 2012

English wars

From the article "English Wars" by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker:
. .  . John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford . . . tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it  . . . the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker . . . tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is. And he attaches clear political meaning to this situation. People who insist on following supposed rules are effectively “derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.” So prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters . . .
Fowler: clarity and unpretentiousness should govern all use of language . . .
White: ". . . excellence in writing depends less on following rules than on “ear,” the sense of what sounds right." 
[These "wars" are happening in other languages as well. 

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