What is bad language?

There is good language and there is bad language; language used well and language used badly and incorrectly. There are rules, and there are violations of those rules. Obedience and transgressions. Says who?

Defining good language and policing it is a recent development in the history of human language. While it made no sense to set up standards and rules in an oral society, language became an object of regulation with the advent of chirography –  a fancy word for writing (actually handwriting, to distinguish it from the later development of print/electronic/digital).

Written language is more easily regulated than spoken language. Non-spoken language is more easily regulated than language which is both spoken and written.

Modern European languages grew out of dead languages – not that a language is ever dead (shock!), but that it ceases to be spoken in the same way that it continues to be written. That’s when it becomes ‘classical’: Ancient Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavonic, classical Arabic, classical Hebrew are like that.

Classical languages are the perfect candidates for regulation. They are static, venerable, benchmark-like. Spoken languages are aural-oral constructs, vernacular – literally the language spoken by a vernus or verna, Roman slaves born in the household rather than acquired. The language learned at home, not from books.

The Greeks gave us the first regulatory compliance framework. Acyrologia describes an incorrect use of words. A barbarismus is the use of nonstandard or foreign speech, acemphaton that of foul expressions, while acyron designates the use of a word repugnant or contrary to what is meant. A constellation of other terms draw lines between good and bad language.

The birth of modern European languages in the Middle Ages created a climate of language regulation. Modern languages developed out of highly-controlled written languages in nascent national milieux. In the West, modern languages aspired to the same level of control as, say, Greek or Latin, while language-focused institutions like national academies made it their duty to ensure that good language usage is maintained.

Paradoxically, the ideal of the European modern language was for it to become a classical language. It meant putting a brake on natural growth, creating distinctions, categories, subgroups: terms such as dialects, slang, jargon, argotic, nonstandard were born. Popular usage must be assessed against standards and regulations before it can authorised and normalised as ‘good language’.

Bad language may be bad (says who, again?), but it’s part of natural language – a human project so beautiful and so diverse no regulation will ever be able to stifle its kaleidoscopic germination.

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