Griffiths / When words are comprised of concern

“Embrace the chaos, ride the lightning and enjoy being a native speaker to a language the whole world wants to come to grips with,” urges Lowbrow columnist JOHN GRIFFITHS

ARE you a prescriptivist or a descriptivist?

It’s getting to be an increasingly important issue in online discourse.

John Griffiths.

John Griffiths.

What the hell am I talking about?

Linguistic prescription is the prescribing of rules for language and linguistic description is working objectively, analysing and describing how language is actually spoken.

In recent times 51-year-old Bryan Henderson has made headlines for his heroically misguided 47,000 edits to Wikipedia to cleanse the world of the phrase “comprised of”.

Bryan prefers “composed of”, or “consisting of”.

Bryan is an idiot who has wasted his life.

There are three mighty pillars of the English language as we know it.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

These three texts were carried to the corners of the world in the great blossoming of the British Empire and underpin, to this day, what those far-flung conquerors consider to be “English”.

There are two points to consider with the big three.

The first is that for at least the last 200 years their usage has been considered archaic.

The second is that their authors gave not one hot damn for the “rules” of the language when they wrote them out.

English is a proudly living, globe-spanning language.

When the authors of the above texts got out their quill pens they were concerned, far more than with any “rules” of grammar, with poetry.

Meter, rhyme, pace, connotation, denotation, these are things to worry about when writing in any language.

To use the above example; comprised, composed, and consists are very different words. Composed suggest calmness, consists has an inertness, while comprised hints at an active gathering together.

To use another example, Shakespeare cut whole words out of new cloth so it’s hard to imagine him butchering a line to care about the correct use of “less” or “fewer”.

To the prescriptivists “fewer” is for things you can count, and “less” is for things you can’t count.

There’s no poet who ever breathed that would let that distinction get in the way of their rhyme scheme.

Usage drives language. One would be unlikely to use ROFLMAO (Rolling on the floor laughing my arse off) in a job application, but throwing in some “thees” and “thous” is a quick route to the recycling bin, too.

We (mostly) can’t read Beowulf in the original Old English any more. But we can read Chaucer from 300 years later. Just think of the torment of the prescriptivists in that period as French words flooded in with the Normans.

A miracle of the enduring nature of the part of our language that we like and choose to keep is that so many days of the week are still homages to norse gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Odin), Thursday (Thor) and Friday (Frigg).

Somehow these pagan names for four days of the week survived the medieval Catholic church.

At the end of the day, prescriptivists are sad people trying to hew meaning for their inadequate lives out of the codification of common usage in the hope they can find “rules” to anchor the howling terror of this world.

They’ll never win.

Embrace the chaos, ride the lightning and enjoy being a native speaker to a language the whole world wants to come to grips with.

It’s not going to stay the same long.
John Griffiths is the online editor of citynews.com.au

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