Grammarginal

I’ve always found it fascinating that the intricate points of grammar that not even native speakers can fully master actually developed without any language control or specialist supervision.

Take English. Unlike most Indo-European languages, modern English became wildly simpler as it evolved. If English native speakers today find it hard to learn a modern European language, that is partly because Old English is dead. I mean, seriously, how many languages can boast three roots for the verb ‘to be’, bēon, wesan and weorðan, each with its own paradigm? Full inflection? Check. Gender system? Check. All gone now.

And yet, many complicated rules remain. Subjunctives, sequence, preposition use, contractions, to name a few. And they cause real distress to users, native or not.

It seems to me that language is one of the best expressions of human cruelty. How would you explain rules otherwise? Before the advent of academies, linguistics and other human-made attempts to regulate language, most languages were self regulated, swimming freely in the great ocean of use. In Western Europe, the evolution of vernaculars occurred against the backdrop of Latin, the great artificial language of the medieval period. And while the rules of Latin had been laid down by the ancients, the grammatical rules of Europe’s native languages, Germanic, Romance or Celtic, developed without much supervision. In the age of Beowulf, nobody really legislated about verb endings. In the 12th century, that great century of Old French literature, nobody would go to their neighbour and say, hey, you should say whom, not who. That would come later. Which brings me to my initial point. If humans unwittingly entangle themselves in grammatical rules, it must mean that cruelty is baked into our language-generating self. I would understand if scholars had a thing or two to say about correct language use, it’s their job after all. But for speakers to help language get to a point that fewer and fewer people can keep abreast of correct – whatever that means – use, that I find absolutely barbarous. Or perhaps barbarous is not quite the right word there.

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