Our attitudes toward language determine where language goes.
My attitude toward the English language hasn’t really changed all that much over the past number of years. I see it as something weird and flexible and interesting, something to play with. A good sentence can be like a mathematical problem. I know that languages change as time goes on, and I love that. I love being able to study Old English as if it’s an entirely different language. I love that the language has changed a lot even in the last century. Where would the fun be if things stayed the same?
The prescriptive approach, on the other hand, is based on notions of “correctness” in language. It decides what people should say, and distinguishes “good” language from “bad” language. This is where you’ll find your common-or-garden Grammar Nazis.
That’s why I despair when people feel the need to correct each other’s grammar. It’s rude, it’s unnecessary, and it steps in the way of the natural development of a language.
I wish I could say I’ve always held this standpoint. Unfortunately, I was a precocious git as a child and adolescent, and chose to express this by showing everyone how much smarter I was than them. (In my defence, my bookishness was all I really brought to the table at that stage and it was just exciting to be noteworthy in some way or other). I felt the need to correct everyone‘s spelling, grammar and general vocabulary, and looked down on those who didn’t hold these things to the same importance that I did.
It isn’t for me to say what the “right” way of looking at a language is. I know that there are two approaches, prescriptive and descriptive. I know that as far as my opinion goes, the descriptive approach is the only way to live. I also know that there loads of people who would disagree, many of whom are far more intelligent, educated and experienced than I am.
I think that what I like about the descriptive approach is that it’s realistic. Value is placed on what people say in real life, rather than what the rulebook says they should be saying. The ways in which people use language every day is magical. It’s constantly flowing and changing, incorporates puns and references and tradition. It’s a massive elastic mess and I adore it, that’s why I study it.
And prescriptivism has its own merits too, of course. It gives us rules and structures, helps us know how to use different types of language in different circumstances, makes it easier for people to learn foreign languages. But it also makes it easier for people to judge each other, as I did when I was younger, and to tell each other what they should be doing.
I also worry that those who hold “proper” English in too high esteem run the risk of falling into the trap of classism. After all, what’s the easiest way to mock people in classes below you? Do you mock them for their lower wages, their reduced access to healthcare and more limited opportunities, all of which are controlled by the greed of those in the higher classes? Or do you mock them for their grammar and general use of language, how it makes them sound stupid and lazy (after all, who in their right mind chooses to be poor)?
The thing is, there are some fairly common ways of phrasing a sentence that are ungrammatical but essential.
There are a lot of sentences out there that aren’t technically correct, but which couldn’t be phrased correctly without adding a string of unnecessary words. If I were to walk into your house right now and ask if your Aunt Susan was in, you could easily reply with the incorrect sentence “Suzie doesn’t be here” and I would understand what you were trying to communicate.
You could say “Suzie isn’t here“, but that doesn’t mean the same thing. “Suzie isn’t here just means that right now, Suzie isn’t in the same room as us. “Suzie doesn’t be here” has a more complex meaning than that.
“Suzie doesn’t be here” could more accurately be explained as: “My Aunt Susan may well have been here in the past, but she hasn’t been here recently. She does not spend time here right now.” Or you could say, “Suzie isn’t generally here” or “Suzie doesn’t tend to be here.” And all of those things would be correct, but they’re longer and a bit too formal for everyday usage. It’d be as easy to just suck it up and accept “Suzie doesn’t be here” as your final answer.
“Youse” is a word which I never really encountered until I moved to Northern Ireland, but it is one of which I have grown quite fond.
“Youse” is also another example of a term that isn’t there in “proper” English, but I wish it was. I wish our language had something like the French equivalent, vous. A word used to refer to you plural would be incredibly handy. As would a word for you that implies a certain amount of respect. I guess making these two words into one as the French have would be only economical – we only have so many letters.
I think that it is important for us to see little bits of language like this not as disgusting abominations, but as interesting and rather useful ways of playing with the language.
My only fear here is that my attraction to these little colloquialisms can never be objective. I grew up spending more time reading than talking to actual human beings, and as a result I talk like a book. I don’t really have any little words and phrases that aren’t used in standard English, and if I do I’ve only picked them up recently.
Maybe I only like things like youse and craic because they seem strange and exotic to me. And if this is the case, is my admiration of the words really any better than snobbish dismissal?
I guess this is something I need to think about a little more.