Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma:
The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Jack Lynch

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Lexicographer's Dilemma. I received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers. There's so much competition for books that I tend to request any- and everything that I think looks interesting because there's such a slim chance that I'll actually get any individual book.

Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism, that is the lexicographer's dilemma described in the book. Should the dictionary writer describe language as it is actually being used or should (s)he write only of "proper" or "correct" usage?

The Lexicographer's Dilemma is not a quick read, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. Rutgers English professor (and Samuel Johnson scholar) Jack Lynch charts the history of the English language in a surprisingly accessible way.

Lynch describes how the English language has developed and changed over time, focusing specifically on the genesis of our grammatical rules. Lynch also takes a bit of a biographical approach to language, spending numerous chapters on famous lexicographers like James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary and Noah Webster.

The stories of some of our words, however, are the most interesting bits. Here's an example:
The English had long been using the words swin or swyn (first written down around 725), cu (before 800), and scep (around 825) to refer to common barnyard animals. The newly arrived French speakers, though, used their own terms: around the year 1300, they began referring to the same animals as porc, boef, and motoun. All six of these words, as it happens, have survived into modern English, but now they have different meanings: swine, cow, and sheep refer to the living animals--which would have been the English-speaking peasants' experience of them--and pork, beef, and mutton to the meat that they provide, the only way the French-speaking aristocrats would have dealt with them. (141)
While Lynch does spend quite a bit of time on grammatical problems like the split infinitive, the serial comma, and the inability to distinguish between who and whom,* The Lexicographer's Dilemma is an empowering book. Rather than making readers bemoan their writing skills, the book encourages them to engage with their language. Lynch ends The Lexicographer's Dilemma with this thought:
Speaking and writing shouldn't be a chore; we should resist all attempts to make us feel ashamed of speaking the way that rest of the world speaks. Using the language should be an opportunity for inventiveness, even playfulness. It's the only way to retain our sanity as we grapple with this big, messy, arbitrary, illogical, inconsistent, often infuriating but always fascinating language of ours. (276)

* Lynch has good news for many of us here. He predicts that whom will not last out the 21st century.

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