Henry Hitchings on proper English
John Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it. But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is.
This unfavorable review of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars: A History of Proper English turns on an inexplicable (purposeful?—but how could it be?) misunderstanding of what a rule in linguistics is. Acocella insists that if rules exist, they must be guides for how something should be said or written. The idea that a rule might be something else—an explanation for how language is, for example—escapes her.
Note: Here’s Steven Pinker’s response.
“Henry Hitchings on proper English” by Joan Acocella for The New Yorker