What’s in a word? Popular ideas of language

Vivian Cook

Whenever I have been interviewed on the radio about English words and spellings, it has been obvious that the interviewer and myself have very different starting points. Interviewers start with questions like ‘Do you think the English language is getting worse?’, 'What's your favourite word?' and ‘What’s the mistake that you hate most?’ They expect me to explode with rage about how everything is going to pot and to say rude things about people who use ‘disinterested’ when they mean ‘uninterested’.

As an individual, I may well have opinions about such things – misuse of 'disinterested' is indeed very irritating. But these questions are almost totally irrelevant to me professionally, the only reason why I would be interviewed. The English language is what it is, neither worse nor better in any measurable sense than it ever was; it has changed over the centuries and will change in the future. Many see its pinnacle in the Shakespearean period yet, even then, people looked back to a Golden Age when it had reached its ideal form. And doubtless the Anglo-Saxons thought their language had been much better before the Vikings started invading (and gave us such words as ‘skirt’, ‘smile’ and even ‘she’).

An astronomer would be flummoxed by the question ‘Do you think the universe is getting worse?’ A physicist would be daunted to be asked ‘Which is your favourite particle?’ As individuals they too doubtless have opinions about this but they’re not part of their professional agenda. Their interest in their subject does not arise from applying ideas of ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘like’ and ‘dislike’.

The people who study language professionally – ‘linguists’ in one sense of the word – are trained to think of themselves as scientists. For them to cope with the interviewers’ questions is very hard. An honest answer would be ‘What a daft question! You might as well have invited any random passer-by as me’. Usually of course the poor linguist wriggles and tries to change the question to something they can answer with reasonable honesty.

Of course this does not mean the study of people’s beliefs and attitudes towards language is not part of what linguists study. Unlike galaxies and electrons, human beings have beliefs and ideas about everything. Their beliefs that e-mail is destroying spelling or that ‘disinterested’ should not mean ‘uninterested’ are part of their lives. But, for the linguist, people’s beliefs about words take a back seat to how the words are actually used, just as a physicist rarely gets an insight into the universe from folk beliefs.

The other problem for the linguist in an interview is that the study of language is highly technical, as complicated as physics in its own way. The study of speech sounds needs precise ways of describing how sounds are produced and theories of how they are put together. The study of grammar needs rigorous up-to-date ways of looking at how sentences, phrases and words are constructed (not eighteenth century ideas based on Latin). The study of vocabulary needs computer techniques for analysing large bodies of data, such as the British National Corpus, and ways of pinning down what words mean. To cap it all, thanks to Chomsky’s first revolution in the 1950s, much of linguistics uses abstract symbolic expressions allied to maths, to take a recent example PH = [
a [H β]].

Though linguistics has a long history, the first grammar being in Sanskrit in the 5th century BC, its common concepts have not become a familiar part of everyday discourse, unlike terms from many other disciplines. We all have some idea what an ‘electron’ is, a word first recorded in 1891, but how about a 'phoneme' first recorded in 1894 – the minimal sound unit that distinguishes ‘sin’ from ‘sun’? Or a ‘morpheme’ (1896) – the smallest unit of meaning, whether consisting of words like 'love' or inflections like ‘-ed’ in ‘played’? Or indeed ‘linguist’, first used for ‘student of language’ in 1641? All of these are everyday terms for linguists, hardly even technical as most of them would use more precise terms within the theories they prefer. Yet the interviewer would shudder at all of them as being impossibly technical.

So linguists cannot count on anybody else knowing what they mean. A linguist speaking in public always has to start explaining from scratch rather than building on people's prior knowledge. An interview becomes very boring if every question is answered with ‘It depends what you mean by word/noun/rule/grammar/language …’, however true this may be.

It’s even worse when the linguists’ technical term happens to overlap with a word that is in everyday use. I had an entertaining exchange with one interviewer about ‘grammar which I used in my usual sense of ‘what a person unconsciously knows about language’ while the interviewer clearly meant ‘rules about splitting infinitives taught in school’, quite different perspectives. A newspaper commentator was surprised that starlings had mastered grammar while primary children hadn’t – true only if you use 'grammar' in two totally different senses. Babies show they know the type of grammar that starlings recognise by at least three months of age.

In addition everybody thinks they are an expert on language. Every TV and radio presenter writes books on English, from John Humphries to Melvyn Bragg to Jeremy Paxman. These are interesting accounts of the beliefs and opinions of an articulate educated minority, informed partly by their contacts with linguists, partly by their contacts with language in the study of literature, mostly by the traditional grammar they were taught at school.

This is not to say that you need a doctorate in linguistics to talk about language, though it does help to have at least the equivalent of linguistics GCSE in covering the basic concepts, just we think we are familiar with the basic concepts of arithmetic or physics. Imagine that every time a mathematician talked, they had to start by explaining addition means ‘2 plus 2=4’. Well phonemes and morphemes are as elementary to linguistics. Take the political football of systematic phonics in reading, which relies on the ideas of the phoneme and of the representation of phonemes as letters. Yet virtually no-one dared to use the word ‘phoneme’ in the discussion.

So there is a gulf between the non-specialist and specialist perspectives. In one, language is laid down by fiat, to be admired and to be patriotically applauded. In the other, it’s a neutral object of scientific study about which we still know frighteningly little. The former perspective is probably held by the majority of educated people – amateurs in the sense of non-professional enthusiasts; the latter by the group of those trained in linguistics, the specialists. The great shame is that the interesting things about language so seldom get said in public outside academic circles. Only the books by Steven Pinker and David Crystal manage to successfully convey some of the excitement and interest of studying language for itself.

Conceptions of language
Words index Vivian Cook