Friday, July 17, 2009

A controversial dictionary

Webster's Third Unabridged was not unchallenged on its publication in 1961. As a matter of fact, it was fairly universally reviled. This article in Humanities (via ArtsJournal, is absolutely fascinating. Maybe a little arcane, but the sometimes the business of words is, just, strange.

Humanities: The major point of [editor] Gove’s article was to note that many precepts of linguistics, some of which had long been commonplace in lexicography, increasingly underlay the teaching of grammar. The National Council of Teachers of English had even endorsed five of them, and Gove quoted the list, which originally came from the 1952 volume English Language Arts:
1—Language changes constantly.
2—Change is normal.
3—Spoken language is the language.
4—Correctness rests upon usage.
5—All usage is relative.
These precepts were not new, he added, “but they still come up against the attitude of several generations of American educators who have labored devotedly to teach that there is only one standard which is correct.”

While these precepts may seem quite radical, they are in reality a defense of convention. All usage is relative (5), Gove made plain elsewhere, but only to the standards of a relevant linguistic community. Formal platform speech with precise use of who and whom will not get you far in prison; prison slang meanwhile will not get you far up the corporate ladder. That change is constant and normal (1 and 2) is not to say that at any moment night can mean day and day can mean chocolate, but that, among other phenomena, some words fade from usage while others accrete new meanings. Even the head-scratching idea that “spoken language is the language” is an oblique way of saying speech is the primary form of language, writing (historically, developmentally, and quantitatively), secondary. More...

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