Apr 16, 2014

The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings

We've all been there: caught up in a conversation, you accidentally trip up on your own tongue and use the wrong word, or conjugate the verb incorrectly. The point you're trying to make is all but forgotten as your conversational partner gets hung up on your silly mistake, and you can practically feel the judgment radiating from them. Hitchings' book is about the history of just that situation, how people obsessed with proper language are not a new phenomenon. But language, Hitchings points out, is hardly static. It is in flux constantly, as evidenced by the words we now have in our dictionaries that did not exist two hundred years ago, or words that existed as recently as fifty years ago that have now fallen out of normal usage and will probably leave the English language soon. Grammatical rules have changed greatly, as well, though some have hung on tenaciously, like the dreaded double negative. Hitchings explores the way language theory has developed, arguing that those who make any comment about usage are often buying into a particular notion of socio-economic class. Derision over language is used to mock those in the upper echelons as well as the lower classes, with no attention paid to the fact that language is as changeable as the people who use it. It's a very interesting book, quite funny at times and illuminating something we use everyday but think about very little. I even learned a few new words, myself!

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