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The Power of Babel - Reading Response 1

I'm now through the first three chapters of this fantastic book, and thought I would go ahead and share parts of my recent discussion post from the related class I'm taking (The Life and Death of Languages):

I grew up in Southern California – the home of the no-accent accent. My maternal grandmother, who did most of my childcare, had a Massachusetts accent. I remember being sent for speech analysis in school one day, and while I was let loose once they determined I had simply picked up my grandma’s accent, it made me highly self-conscious of the way I spoke. I went on a mission afterward, to try to speak 'perfectly.' The focus, initially, was on the accent, but eventually my quest encompassed all aspects of grammar and vocabulary. I didn’t want anyone to ever again think there might be something 'wrong' with me for the way I spoke.

Somewhere along the line, that desire to master all the 'rules' turned me into something of a grammar cop. I think I felt that if I could learn this stuff, anyone else could too (so long as English isn’t someone’s secondary language – that’s an automatic free pass). I would never say anything to anyone about it, but I do have to own the fact I have silently judged people. And I have definitely shouted back at the TV to correct someone’s grammar.

But I have definitely been altered by reading this book! I mean I knew a little about the basic history of English, but I don’t think I ever really appreciated how arbitrary our modern, seemingly sacrosanct, 'rules' really are. That it’s all just something made-up, mutated by time, invasion, and distance, and only recently (in the grand scheme of things) codified into something concrete. Nor did I ever stop and think that all of our current languages will probably be unintelligible in 500 or a thousand years. That language itself is just some sort of very slow but constantly moving river we’re allowed to ride upon, for a while. But that there is no possibility of ever damming it up and making a lake out of it.

I have now come to have the opinion that there is no such thing as decay or degradation in language - that there is only steady constant change. And that all change is inherently valid. And so, the next time I feel upset about anyone’s usage, grammar, etc., I’m going to remind myself that, as McWhorter explained, “no less than ninety-nine percent” of words in the Oxford English Dictionary “were taken from other languages.” Therefore, English is just a Frankenstein's monster of a language anyway. How can there ever be a 'right' or a 'wrong' in a constantly changing conglomeration of previously disparate parts?


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