Recovering the lost English language:

In my last post, I quickly pooh-poohed the idea that, when someone talks about "correct" English, they mean inherently right (as opposed to good for a particular goal):

Because when different people are speaking mutually incomprehensibly, this is as if one were speaking German and the other were speaking Spanish. Nothing inherently wrong with that. If these different people are speaking differently than each other but they can still understand each other, it's like a German speaker and a Spanish speaker who each understand both German and Spanish — like when my father talks to me in Russian and I answer back in English. Nothing inherently wrong with that either. So the only way I can understand "right," in matters of language, is in the functional sense — "proper to achieve a particular goal."

Commenter Obelisk18 suggests that I dismiss the "inherently right" possibility too easily. An excerpt from him (slightly altered):

For instance, it’s plausible that one of two dialects, both of which are posing as "English", ought to be preferred (or thought "inherently good"), because it’s closer, in various ways, to what was originally meant by the word "English". Assuming of course that we can date the word "english", in relation to language, historically, and assuming that there was a general agreement on it’s meaning (i.e, a common usage). These are by no means easy assumptions, and based on what I know of history, the latter at least seems especially bold. But, I don’t think either is, on it’s face, unreasonable. After all, the word "English" did come into usage at some point, and the person, or persons, who first employed it, meant something by it. I’d [contend] that this is a plausible way of defining "inherently good".

Excellent, this has always been a long-term goal of mine. Because, you see, as I remarked once before on this blog, I actually know some English as it was originally meant. Let's all recite together:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon,
hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scéfing sceaþena þréatum
monegum maégþum meodosetla oftéah,
egsode Eorle syððan aérest wearð
féasceaft funden hé þæs frófre gebád,
wéox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þáh
oð þæt him aéghwylc þára ymbsittendra
ofer hronráde hýran scolde,
gomban gyldan, þæt wæs gód cyning.

O.K., I hear you cry, not that far back. Sure, the word "English," in one spelling or another, was used way back around 880, Alfred and Guthrum's Treaty referred to the English and the Danes ("Engliscne & Deniscne"), and around 1000, Ethelred's laws talked about what would happen "gif Ænglisc man Deniscne ofslea" (if an English man slays a Dane). And the word was also used to refer to the language (c. 1000, "Ðu bæde me for oft Engliscra ȝewrita."). Nonetheless, we are, after all, Normans.

O.K., so let's all recite together (Chaucer is soooo 1387!):

Perle, pleasaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydeȝ were,
Quere-so-euer I jugged gemmeȝ gaye,
I sette hyr sengeley in synglere.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle wythouten spot.

Start talking like that, and:

  1. you'll be welcome at my medieval reading group (Fridays in my office at noon), and

  2. I'll take you seriously when you say it's inherently better to use English to exclude new forms because the word "English" ought to refer to what it referred to originally. I'll laugh at you, but I'll take that particular argument seriously.

I'll still say:

  1. What if "English," at first, only referred to "the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be among all the different dialects spoken by Anglo-Saxons in Britain"? I will bet good money that the first people who talked about the English language were not grammar purists. (Perhaps, however, they complained about how far Saxon had diverged from the original Saxon they spoke back in Saxony!)

  2. What if "English," as it's always been used, has always been a dynamic term, meaning the sloppy shorthand for whatever commonalities there happen to be, at whatever time is relevant from context, among some of the different dialects spoken in Britain? (Only some — mind the Celts!) (Obviously now we would include places outside of Britain where people speak in ways that are comprehensible to people in Britain who speak English under this definition.)

  3. And, most importantly, I'll say: O.K., suppose I buy the idea that "correct English" should mean "English as she used to be spoke." That's fine, I don't insist on labels. But if we define correct English that way, then I deny that there's anything necessarily good about speaking correct English. The point in my post below is: Always speak whatever it takes to best accomplish your goals, regardless whether it follows anybody's stated rule. There are rules of good and bad speaking — there are objectively better and worse ways of pursuing particular goals — but you can't figure out what they are until you figure out what you're trying to do, and in particular who you're trying to speak to.