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Have the Rules of English Changed? Well, What Do You Mean by 'Rules'?

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: Our guest is English professor Jack Lynch, author of the new book "The Lexicographer's Dilemma."

RS: "Why did you write this book?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, because I have a number of guides to grammar and style and things like that on the World Wide Web, I get messages from strangers all the time, asking me various grammatical and stylistic questions. But one came up in many variations many times, and it always took the form 'When I was in school, I was taught such-and-such and now I hear so-and-so. Have the rules changed?'

"And I realized I don't even know how to begin answering that, because the rules of the language aren't some official set of guidelines that are voted on by a committee or something like that. It's more an organic set of habits and superstitions and prejudices that all come together into the collective practices of the group."

RS: "The subtitle of your book is 'The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to "South Park."' And proper is in quotes."


RS: "Why did you put that in quotes?"

JACK LYNCH: "In fact, I wrestled with my editors a little bit because I had many more quotations around proper and correct throughout the book, and they said 'Can we do it in just a few strategic places and remove the rest?'"

AA: "You're trying to be sarcastic, obviously."

JACK LYNCH: "Well, not necessarily sarcastic. But I want people to understand that when we talk about 'proper' English, we're really talking about one variety of English. It's a very important variety of English. It's the one that gives you access to the corridors of power, and it's the way you make money and so on.

"You have to learn a variety of English. But the mistake is assuming that that is the only correct English and any departure from it is wrong. And I wanted people to understand there are many Englishes, and the rules that we use to distinguish among the different kinds of English aren't like rules of gravity or even laws against murder or something like this. They're more like table manners or fashion. They are just sets of conventions that are shared by a group of people."

AA: "And widely criticized, right, in all three cases? Manners and fashion."

JACK LYNCH: "Well, criticized, but also argued over. At least with manners and so on, table manners and so on, we recognize that what we're doing is a social convention and we all agree to behave this way."

RS: "Where did that start?"

JACK LYNCH: "People have been speaking something we can call English for about fifteen hundred years. Now, fifteen hundred years ago it sounded nothing like modern English. It would sound a lot more like German to a modern speaker. For the first thousand years, the first maybe twelve hundred years of the language's history, no one was particularly upset about how the majority of people spoke.

"Now, everyone's recognized some people speak better than others, just as some people dress better than others and dance and sing better than others. But there was no sense that most people don't know their own language. It was only around the year seventeen hundred that people began getting concerned about that and began instituting rules for the way everyone must speak. And that's the story I try to tell, from about seventeen hundred to the present."

AA: "Now before we get that, I'm curious, I mean how does this compare to other languages out there?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, some languages have never been bothered with this sort of thing at all. They don't have any systematic sense of what's official. But many of the major European languages have gone much further than English in that there are official, government-sponsored academies that determine what the proper form of the language is. There's nothing like that in any English-speaking country."

RS: "Well, how do you account for, then, the changes in culture and language that come into a language, no matter what language it is?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, every language changes all the time. That's simply a fact of life and you can like that or you can be upset about it, but you have to accept it. Language always changes. Every language has always changed. When scholars in the seventeenth century started looking back at Latin and Greek, they thought 'Ah, these are the perfect, unchanging languages, and our modern barbarous English must be degenerate because it's changing all the time.'

"Well, the only reason Latin and Greek seemed to be constant is because moderns just didn't have enough information about it. We now know Latin and Greek changed just as much as every language. They always change and trying to figure out the reasons is close to impossible. When you ask about any particular example, linguists will often say 'historical reasons,' which is just an elaborate way of saying 'It just is, that's all.'"

AA: Jack Lynch is an English professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Next week he explains just what he means by the title of his latest book, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma."

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.