Monday, February 06, 2017

Caring About Language

I'm reluctant to admit that I'm a pedant. I'm all in favour of colourful additions to the English language. I'm quite relaxed about casual speech, with a particular fondness for American slang. 'Badmouth' for instance: it's neat, it's economical, it fills a gap.

Perhaps I should put my hand up to having a bit of a thing about the correct use of 'I' and 'me'. And I get irritated by the misuse of 'may' and 'might' - favourite example: 'The Queen may have married several times before she wed Prince Philip' You're suggesting that it's possible that she did and we just didn't notice? If in doubt, might is always right.

But when it comes to losing a useful word because people don't make the effort to learn the proper meaning, my inner pedant comes roaring into battle. At the moment, my particular fury is directed at the popular attack on the splendid word 'disinterested.' There is a perfectly good word, 'uninterested', to describe lack of interest, but increasingly 'disinterested' is used with that meaning. So what can I use when I want to say that someone is not influenced by consideration of personal advantage?

And then there's 'begs the question'. It's on every interviewer's lips when grilling some unfortunate politician, meaning that this is a question that is begging for an answer. But it doesn't mean that. It means to carry on a false argument that ducks away from answering, but that usage is long dead now.

Perhaps it's because English has such an enormous vocabulary that we're so careless about it. There are around 200,000 words in common use; French, for instance, uses only about half that number and they actually have a body devoted to guarding the purity of the language, the Academie Francaise. They have a thankless task as the French themselves seize on 'le weekend', 'le parking', 'le best-seller' with great enthusiasm, but there is still great pride in the integrity of the language.

Recently, the shocking suggestion was made that the circumflex had no place in modern French. Accents are a nuisance when it comes to typing on a computer and this one has no effect on pronunciation. But the French, as has been their habit since the French revolution, went to the (literary) barricades. The cry went up, 'Je suis circonflexe!' and the idea was dropped, at least for the moment.

What impresses me is that they cared. I admire that. And perhaps pedantry is just caring about the uses of language, and if it is I'll admit to being one after all.

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