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How we speak signals education. But it is not the same thing as education: Robert Lane Greene

Language and the stories we tell about its origins are highly political. To understand one, you need to be mindful of the other.

That’s the main thesis of the 2011 book You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene, who also writes a twice-monthly column on language in The Economist that I adore as a subscriber. I finished the book earlier this year as part of my continued assault on better understanding language’s history — read other reading notes of mine on language here.

This book helped cement my understanding that my favorite part of linguistics is philology, or the historical and comparative elements that seem quite cultural.

Below I share pieces of the book that stood out to me. But as always I encourage you to buy your own copy and read it; I only write nerdy posts like this when a book has really added to my worldview. So I strongly recommend it.

This book is among the strongest takes on the idea that grammatical sneering is often just classism. As Lane writes in his preface, language and it’s use “signal education and learning but they are not the same as education and learning.” You rightly should have a more formal tone for job interviews and conference lectures, but command over language at the bar or playground is no less important. They’re simply different forms, and in many cases are truly different dialects.

Misunderstanding this is one reason why linguists expect that half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will go extinct by 2050.

I came to this specific book because it featured a direct criticism of the 2006 bestselling Eat Shoots and Leaves (which I have notes on). In the linguistics parlance, that book by Lynne Truss is a modern ‘prescriptivist’ take, while Greene is, if forgiving, a ‘descriptivist,’ like all linguists, who aim to describe, not prescribe, how language changes. When his book out, Greene did several interviews about the arbitrary nature of grammarians, sticklers and pedants.

A critical distinction that linguists make that others miss: language is maybe 150,000 years old and writing is, at most, just 6,000. The natural conservative pace of writing is a technological advance, whereas spoken word has influenced evolution and biochemistry. As Lane writes (79): “Even in the literate world, the average person is a fluent speaker and a fairly clumsy writer.”

The only important rule for language is that most native speakers can communicate with each other. Never in known history has a language broken down to make communication difficult.

Here are some book notes that might inspire you to read the whole thing:

  • Grammar rules have arbitrary origins. England’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden didn’t like preposition ending sentences, or other preposition stranding, in 1620 because he translated from Latin, a language that didn’t have the ability to do so (p. 24) Now for almost 400 years we follow that somewhat meaningless rule, though these sorts of rules do force a careful reread of a sentence that might have other benefits.
  • Legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson is highly regarded by linguists as healthily starting a tradition of dictionaries capturing a moment of time in a language, rather than intending to freeze that language. (Note that author Greene’s column in the Economist is named after him)
  • Robert Lowth (1710-1787) might be the first bestselling grammarian. A true ‘prescriptivist,’ he found fault with Shakespeare and the King James Bible translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Rather than understanding language had changed through hundreds of years, Lowth challenged both for their ending a sentence with a preposition and using double negatives. This continued the legacy of these rules and so influenced the likes of Lindley Murray, an American Quaker who further cemented these rules.
  • Consider another rule: one must not split an infinitive. (For example, say “I want to be careful always” rather than “I want to always be careful.”) This rule likely also comes from learned writers translating English from Latin and Greek, languages that have one-word infinitive that can’t be split. (p. 33)
  • In 1786 William Jones put forward the more complete case for a relationship between many European and Indian languages, which became the Indo-European language and launched modern linguistics and the understanding linguistic evolution. (34) That led to ideas like Grimm’s Law.
  • Though some, like Henry Fowler’s King’s English did seem to understand natural language change, the centuries of examples of English grammar books tend to succeed because they give order and rules to something inherent in flux. E.B. White lent his name to the enormously successful Elements of Style (expanded in 1959) which gave command and certainty to a very uncertain and stressful world of wring and language usage. So many idiosyncratic personal preferences are foisted on others. White wanted hopefully to only mean “with hope,” but that’s long been changing. (39)
  • Much of English language rules came from these pedants. English has no Académie française but we do have enormously popular little books.
  • My peeves are law, yours are unhealthy obsessions (42) This made me think for my own work in journalism: What is our idiosyncratic house style and what are norms we should hold?
  • “There is really only one way to learn good writing: through good reading and extensive writing and revising.” (43) Writing is an artistic skill not a mechanic layering of rules.
  • Lynne Truss sold on “declinism” but there simply is not a golden era of grammar and writing and usage. “I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking” Roman orator Cicero said of Latin forming into what became French and Italian and Spanish, Portuguese. Cicero was making the same complaint people do today. (48)
  • Linguists like Greene say celebrated American writer David Foster Wallace‘s lengthy review of an Oxford University Press dictionary in 2001 on American usage exhibits the worst of descriptivism by conjoining linguistics and general progressive education trends disbanding standards and rules (62)
  • DFW said descriptivist linguistics is as if an ethics textbook approached only how people behave rather than how they should. Rather than ethics, linguists seem themselves like economics, with a spectrum between the applied (quants using real life data) and the theoretical to describe systems. Noam Chomsky forms the bedrock of the latter (complicated syntax structural stuff less tied to real world). His famously liberal politics do not appear in his true linguistics works, which addresses grammars with structural analysis
  • Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) helped establish the foundation of modern linguistics, including Chomsky, with his ‘langue and parole,’ the first widespread systematic approach to understanding structured grammars and individual uses of it  (71)
  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” is an iconic example from Chomsky, set forward in a 1957 book as an example of how grammatical and sensible are two related but different concepts. Grammar is all the rules that can make grammatical sentences. Grammar isn’t rhetoric, logic, mechanics or style. That sentence is grammatically correct but it is without meaning.
  • If great writers break a commonly-held “rule” and most native speakers understand the message anyway, then it is a worthless rule, Lane argues. Prescriptivism without recourse of a broken rule is universalizing personal taste.
  • “It is ‘I’ or it is ‘me’?” for descriptivists, this is a question of formality not one being wrong or right because native speakers would understand either way.
  • Today’s linguists test comprehension with things like eye scanners on people when they read passages to see when people slow down reading things like a sex indefinite article (they). They do research to focus on comprehension with data (84)
  • Accommodation (speaking softer or faster to match your speaking partner) or intentional distancing are acts of language socialization (89), themselves examples of diglossia. These are examples of high/low language pairs (standard and regional Arabic; whether Black English or standard American English) and they all have grammars (sets of rules to create sentences).
  • Arabic is a warning sign for sticklers: grammarians held fast to the grammar of the standard written form but spoken versions developed so much that linguists classify it as several different languages with many more dialects within them (93)
  • Isiah Carey went viral when a bug flew in his mouth and he switched between formal and informal usages. It’s funny because it was so jarring. This shows him as “bidialectal” not “ghetto” as many commenters use. Instead he’s using AAVE (100) No Sicilian American would say her grandmother spoke “ghetto Italian,” they just see it as a low dialect of a standard language; Yiddish isn’t “ghetto German”
  • Though the 1996 rollout by the Oakland School Board of Ebonics was clumsy, it did have origins in linguistics. The artificial word didn’t help and likely shouldn’t have called a language but rather a dialect (103)
  • All improvised pidgins become standardized Creole and grow into languages.
  • Linguists believe all languages have equal structure to say any sophisticated thought, after specialized vocab is introduced
  • Descripitivist sticklers focus mostly on writing and rules and think people are idiots. Linguists are blown away by the miracle of so many people learning language and sharing complex thoughts from our brains.
  • Nicaraguan sign language is an example of why Noam Chomsky believes in a “universal grammar.”
  • English has become an analytic rather than synthetic language, meaning word order (like Chinese and most creoles) matters more than suffixes or auxiliary words like prepositions (114) Synthetic cares more about things like accusative and nominative case (English has been dropping case endings for centuries. For example, “they” as nominative and “them” as accusative (direct object, action happening to them) is a rare example in English.
  • Linguists tend to look down on the Sapir Whorf Theory (113) because it became so overblown. There is no limiting of ideas but yes in a more minor way, the language we speak can likely limit HOW we describe ideas, not whether we can. For instance cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky did show Mandarin speakers visualize time as a vertical line (they say the equivalent “down month” not “last month,” and English view horizontal) but really who cares other than novelty
  • George Orwell in 1946 wrote of English decline. Like Jonathan Swift did in 1712, and the Fowler brothers in King’s English in 1906 and again in 1926. Lynne Truss kept it alive in 2006.
  • Modern usages of shibboleth, from the Hebrew bible, is a word or concept that serves as a sign of in-group. (Like, in Philadelphia: can you spell Schuylkill)
  • Prestige languages are self-fulfilling. When a language becomes standard (ie ile de France dialect as standard French), education and dictionaries and mass media and culture strengthen and then make it stronger still. Then sciences follow and other highly technical words so that we must rely on them. (126)
  • Languages aren’t grown at first because they are easy but rather they become easy because second language learners make them easier (and then network effects) (130) Languages get simpler as they succeed (notes on this here)
  • In 1200AD you’d find the “romance continuum” in Europe, all languages bleeding into each other. Only later with the nation state and public education did we develop more crisp borders (132). Spain, England and France in particular developed a first among equals dialect in their capital and developed nation states with centralized power. (France and then Spain developed language custodians; English was supported informally by lexicographers like Johnson and Lowth)
  • The story of Hebrew is a testament to language and nationalism; push to revive it as language even though some saw it only as a holy complement to the common German dialect of Yiddish for haggling and gossiping. Zionism continued and then “Hitler killed most of the worlds Yiddish speakers” (148)
  • Even though both English and Afrikaans were languages of white oppressors in South Africa, Black Africans saw English as lingua franca across their 10 African languages and a chance at the wider world; when Afrikaans was pushed on them it was just about “speaking to the white boss.” The language is a bad symbol (163)
  • Linguists consider Hindu-Urdu one language descended from Hindustani but India and Pakistan squabble divide it; because high level vocab and script writing differ
  • Ataturk legislated the end of using Arabic script for Turkish in 1929 transferring to the Latin for perceived modernity (183)
  • The 40-person, now-aging Académie Française is the global standard for language societies. Founded in 1635 and revived by Napoleon after the Revolution, it has more prestige even than the older Italian version. Academies of Spain, Indonesian and Swedish are all similar; the Brazilian version even has 40 immortals, like France. (190)
  • These academies tend to control and maintain a conservative written version that is taught overseas to those learning a second language, but it does not keep normal the spoken language. That continues to evolve with things like, in French, the drop of a double negative sentence construction (“Je ne sais pas” vs. “Je sais pas”). French tries to legislate change; the U.K. and U.S. don’t and accept a “flawed but thriving product” (200)
  • Japanese has sounds that are easier to create with Roman alphabet but the tones of Chinese are harder. The 1950s Pinyin system changed Mao Tse Tung to Mao Zedong (210)
  • Linguists tend to see writing as an artificial layer on top of spoken language which is the natural use
  • “Saying that Mandarin and Hakka are dialects of Chinese is like saying that French and Italian are dialects of Latin.” Chinese leaders are incentivized to keep written characters rather than the Roman alphabet or risk exposing that (125)
  • “A language is a dialect with an army and the Navy:” Max Weinreich (dialect and language lines are a continuum). “Speakers of Danish can understand Swedish, and Swedes can understand somewhat Danish” but we don’t call them dialects of Scandinavian.
  • Noah Webster (1758-1843) led spelling reforms from “colour” to “color” to distance American English spelling from powerful England (229)
  • Four percent of American students were taught at least partially in German but by 1930 following the First World War there were a series of anti-German language policies in many states and local jurisdictions including making teaching foreign languages illegal in the state of Nebraska in 1919 (230)

  • In 1790 in France, only three million spoke French fluently; three million as second language; 25 million spoke other first languages: French became a deliberate effort. The story of Breton in Brittany is emblematic: the language was purged following the Revolution (243)
  • Linguist Guy Deutcscher describes language as a “reef of dead metaphor” since so much of language is from metaphor (“independent” comes from a physical “pendant”; “behind”, from “hind quarters”) (260)
  • No country without a dominant primary language is wealthy: shared language creates efficiency. (I wonder if we counted Chinese as separate languages if middle-income China would change that.) We don’t really know why because the causation is muddled but perhaps a central government tends to promote one language over time at the expense of others (France once, China increasingly pushing Mandarin and business ties establishing a lingua franca, like English through immigrant waves of United States ) Whatever the case, linguists can be criticized for encouraging native smaller languages because it can keep people from being involved in broader economies (271)
  • So the answer is multilingualism of people and accepting we might lose half of 6,000 languages by 2050
  • Prescriptivists: you can freeze writing but never speech (Arabic)
  • Switzerland has local /regional dialect of German and standard high German for academia or parliament; why not same for “Black English” dialect and standard English for job interview? This is diglossia, a known linguistic standard

(Photo of kid shouting into mic via Unsplash by Jason Rosewell)