Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review: "The Lexicographer's Dilemma"

As I was reading Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park (Walker & Company, 2009) I couldn't help but think of how much it reminded me of James Shapiro's Contested Will. An eminent scholar in the field, taking as his subject a controversy that manages to get lots of people all riled up, offering a series of vignettes centered around the topic that focus on interesting characters, &c. &c., you get the idea.

Instead of Delia Bacon and Sigmund Freud duking it out over who was (or wasn't) Shakespeare, here we have Joseph Priestley, Noah Webster, Strunk & White, George Carlin and others going to the lists in the battle over "good English." Lynch offers here a brief history of prescriptivism in English, in the process managing to bust some myths about when and why it started. By examining a series of battles in this linguistic cold war (the kerfuffle over Webster's Third, for example, and the strangely cyclical series of grammatical fatwas against the split infinitive), Lynch captures the flavor of the debate very well, and his notes provide much further reading for anyone interested in dipping down further.

Lynch's point is that these battles over "proper" English have been going on for centuries, and thought they are certainly heating up again in the electronic age as new abbreviations (see "cu l8r") and new forms of writing and speaking continue to come into play, Lynch maintains that this is nothing new (and if you've ever tried to read early manuscripts you'll certainly agree). People have always used the language the way it suits them, and chances are they probably always will.

No comments: