Last month’s essay on the urge towards simplification in politics and language generated a spate of angry e-mails. It seems I hit a sore spot in the psyche of certain poets. But rather than deal with the Orwellian implications for politics in my argument, these poets were fixated on the lesser question of linguistic simplification, and why, in their impassioned view, it is desirable and even imperative.
One sender wrote “Simplification of our language is appropriate and necessary! Why hinder the education of children with pointless irregularities?” Well, I never knew that the purpose of linguistic paradigms was to make things easier for your little rug-rats.
Another irate person wrote “This war-torn world is crying out for quicker and easier communication, and English is our de facto universal language. It needs to be streamlined and modernized.” Oh really? Do you actually think wars occur just because different nations have to speak through interpreters?
A third correspondent wrote “It’s silly to try and preserve elements of a language if they are on the way out! We don’t wear armor anymore—why should we hamstring our human interaction by using obsolescent forms?” Hey—maybe those linguistic elements wouldn’t be on the way out if you were more careful in your usage habits.
Notice that these objections are rooted in the assumption that language is always about communication, like a street sign or a lavatory door. This is more than a faulty assumption; it is embarrassingly passé. I didn’t think I would have to remind people in 2016 about Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 insight that the medium is the message, and that the how of communication is a crucial factor in human discourse. And in poetry, the medium and the message are absolutely inextricable. But I suppose these people who wrote me e-mails are the same ones who prate fatuously that poetry is “the expression of one’s noblest thoughts and feelings.”
Anyway, in the light of these angry responses I thought that this month I’d descant upon the way in which the so-called “simplification” of our language has in fact impoverished it, and how this process, if unchecked, will eventually degrade English to the level of some street patois. There is of course a long tradition, going back to the Appendix Probi, of curmudgeonly grammarians bewailing the corruption of proper usage. You can dismiss me as one of them if you like. But there’s more to such complaints than simple rigidity and resistance to change. They also evince a concern for precision and nuance, for clarity of definition, and for the sheer grace of well-deployed idiom. In an old and established language with a wealth of literary texts, inherited usage and grammatical paradigms are precious achievements, not mere historical accidents that can be arbitrarily altered or discarded. They need to be preserved, even if only by crotchety stylists.
Let’s start with the subjunctive mood (the subject of impatient dismissal in quite a few of the e-mails I received). In all languages derived from Proto-Indo-European, subjunctive tenses are irrealist—that is, they are employed when referring to situations that are hypothetical or contrary to fact. They express possibility or uncertainty, hope or fear, unfulfilled intentions or futurity, and sometimes an implied command or desire. You use the subjunctive when you want to talk not about something that is or was, but about something that might, could, or ought to be, or which is syntactically subordinated to an indicative-tense verb. The subjunctive is not so much a tense as an aspect—it’s a way of commenting on reality with an attitude of noncommittal uncertainty. Consider the following examples:
- They insisted that he go to his wife. The verb go is subjunctive, subordinated to the main verb of the sentence but also expressive of an unrealized act. In the narrative context of this utterance, the man in question hasn’t actually gone to his wife yet.
- If I were king, I would issue a command. The verb were is subjunctive because it is in an irrealist if-clause (the speaker is not the king, but talks hypothetically and contrafactually); and the compound would issue has subjunctive force for the same reason.
- May he live happily. The compound verb May … live is subjunctive in force because it expresses a wish and a hope, not a real situation.
- I shall refuse him, though he beg forever. The verb beg is subjunctive because whether the man in question will beg is unclear and undetermined.
- I kept the lights off, lest he think I were at home. The word lest is the only remaining term in English that absolutely requires the subjunctive. It means “in order that not,” or “for fear that,” and because of the widespread ignorance of subjunctive forms it is hardly ever used today. In this sentence lest he think means “in order that he shouldn’t think” or “so that he wouldn’t think.” The verb were is also subjunctive, since it is subordinated to think and refers to a hypothetical situation.
A great many subjunctive functions in English are now put together with the auxiliary modal verb forms should, would, could, and might (sometimes called “conditionals”). These are actually forms of shall, will, can, and may, which in themselves contain the irrealist aspects of futurity, uncertainty, or desire. In the case of can and may, could and might are simply their preterite forms, as illustrated in these two parallel sentences:
- They are afraid he may kill himself. (Present subjunctivity)
- They were afraid he might kill himself. (Preterite subjunctivity).
Most college undergraduates today have no real grasp of these possibilities of the subjunctive, and cannot compose sentences of this type at all. When they read them in a text, they are baffled by the construction. As a result, an entire range of verbal nuance is unavailable to them as writers. Do they care? Hardly. Their stupid instructors in the English departments tell them that “it isn’t important.”
To what other depths has simplification sunk us? Well, we used to have a full paradigm of directional adverbs in English that gave precise information as to movement and location. They were here, hither, hence; and there, thither, thence; and where, whither, whence. They were fully operational in Shakespeare’s day, and still used and understood right into the twentieth century. As late as the 1920s the scholar and critic Ludwig Lewisohn could write “elsewhither” and nobody was troubled by it. Now the paradigm has collapsed, having been reduced to here, there, and where, with a consequent loss of precision. (Hence survives as a fossilized form meaning “therefore” or “as a result,” while hither survives only in the half-hackneyed, half-comic phrase “Come hither”).
The disappearance of thee and thou and their related possessives means that in modern English we can’t be familiar with anyone, and must use a generalized polite you with the entire world. The loss of ye is really crippling, since it deprives us of a necessary second-person plural pronoun—a gap that the uneducated must fill with youse or you-all.
The near complete collapse of the distinctions between that and which, and who and whom, is particularly upsetting. The telescoping of the pack of them into an all-purpose that obliterates not only the relatively minor matter of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, but also the much more important division between human beings and things, and whether a human being is to be taken as a subject or an object of action. How many times have you heard an announcer say “I’d like now to present to you a man that…”? One of my idiot colleagues said to me when I brought this up: “Shakespeare used that construction, and it also appears in the original King James Bible!” To which I replied “Big deal. They could make dumb errors in 1611 just as easily as they do today.” Besides, Elizabethan-Jacobean English was in great flux, so we have to cut some slack to Shakespeare and the King James translators.
Consider the numerical adverbs once, twice, and thrice. All are irregular, since English normally forms the adverbial phrase by saying four times, five times, and six times. Already the process of analogy has consigned thrice to obsolescent status, with most speakers now saying three times instead. Unless we are vigilant, twice will disappear as well, and in fact I have heard some benighted persons say “It happened two times.”
Analogy, as the above example shows, is the process by which untutored speakers will simplify and regularize some part of their language by making it fit a recalled pattern. Thus, uneducated speakers of English who know that the principal parts of the verbs to sing and to ring are sing, sang, sung and ring, rang rung, will assume that the verb to bring has the principal parts bring, brang, brung. A young child who has learned that the standard plural in English is created by the addition of -s or –es will say mouses instead of mice. This process of analogy, if not corrected, will tend to simplify any irregular elements in a language that do not conform to a dominant pattern.
What prevents analogy from running rampant? The combined authority and societal example of teachers, grammarians, parents, public speech, and the sheer weight of an inherited literary tradition. The stigmatization and ridicule of solecisms and errors are also effective deterrents. But unfortunately, we live now in a reflexively anti-authoritarian milieu that essentially paralyzes these normal prophylactic functions. And when most schools are reduced to a babysitting and socialization service, you can hardly expect any help from that quarter.
Why do we need irregular forms? scream the simplifiers. Why can’t English be as regular and rational and predictable as Esperanto?
The answer is easy, though one sighs in despair that one must repeat it over and over. We don’t need irregular forms, but we have them. They are an irreducible given, like one’s eye color or skull shape. Desiring to change them to conform to an abstract pattern is a sign of deep ideological fanaticism. What we really don’t need are goddamned fanatics tinkering and fiddling and meddling with our mother tongue! English is not Esperanto. It wasn’t created by some nineteenth-century dreamer. That’s the answer.
But this answer is not likely to satisfy the simplifiers, who are on a mission. The really dangerous types, in my opinion, are the self-styled “spelling reformers.” These run the gamut from idealistic utopians like George Bernard Shaw to vicious Department of Education bureaucrats who are itching to rewrite English in a simplified form. Luckily for us, all they have managed to achieve so far is the use of thru for through in traffic signs, and the cutesy-poo use of tonite in lowbrow advertising. But don’t kid yourself—these creeps are fixated on turning English orthography into an ugly sprawl of pseudo-phonetic gibberish, completely destroying all evidence of the etymological roots, history, and particularist character of our language.
Friends always laugh and tell me that I make too much of marginal types such as spelling reformers, as I have also done (they allege) in my warnings about vegans and deep ecologists. But I see no reason to laugh. The fanaticism of deep ecologists is already having a negative impact on the world’s economy. Vegans—like spelling reformers—are fanatical believers, and if they begin to gain political power they will certainly attempt to write laws restricting what we can consume. Prohibitionists and the WCTU were once just a pack of Bible-thumping Evangelical crackpots, and yet they managed to amend the Constitution. Fanatics of that sort are natural activists, proselytizers, and enthusiasts. Do you think it will be any different with spelling reformers? Just imagine some gimlet-eyed bitch from an ivy-league Linguistics department as the Secretary of Education, and her maiden speech about “the need to diversify the tools of literacy.”
On the other hand, don’t imagine at all. Just correct several sets of freshman essays every semester, as I do. Or listen to the bastardized forms of English being spoken in the New York subways. Or cringe when a member of your own university’s faculty consistently says He don’t care, and when another one in his prose regularly confuses whose with who’s.
I rest my case.