A linguist celebrates the adaptability and richness of language.
Economist language columnist Greene (You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, 2011) sees language as “ambiguous, changing, incomplete, redundant and illogical” as well as “robust, organic, and evolving.” Language, he writes admiringly, “is a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and its needs.” Erudite and ebullient, he disparages prescriptive pundits and purists who bemoan the decline of correct word choice and resist change. Spoken language is continually in flux, and even written English, while abiding by grammatical conventions, “is a mixed language that provides a reader not with a rigid logical code, but a menu of options for getting ideas effectively into the reader’s mind.” Greene profiles a few notorious sticklers, such as the British writer Nevile Martin Gwynne, a self-appointed “grammar crank” with “a nostalgia and reverence for Latin.” Greene points out, however, that Latin and Greek can lead to a flawed analysis of English, which is a Germanic language. Some who argue that thought depends on grammar have tried to invent logical languages—Lojban and Esperanto, for example—but have attracted few followers. Although some language purists believe in the explicit teaching of rules, Greene argues that exposing students to “a blizzard of grammatical terminology” does not make better writers. Children “need to read, read and read some more, starting as early as possible,” so they gain “an implicit knowledge of the rules of good writing.” Language learning leads the author to consider efforts to program computers to understand and generate conversation and to design machine translation, which requires powerful machines with access to a huge database. Google Translate, using a statistical approach to translating texts from one language to another, has proven more accurate than earlier programs, although the results, Greene acknowledges, are not flawless. Language is inextricably connected to power, the author asserts, noting that majority-language nationalism may lead to political upheaval.
A brisk, informative look at the complexities of human communication.