English is unruly and alive

your say October 07, 2015 01:00

Re: "Think before speaking", "Past tense, future imperfect" and "Making a point on language", Letters, October 2 and 4.



The apostrophe is heard rarely, if at all, in spoken English. Commonplace words such as “Bill’s” or “it’s” sound exactly the same with or without the apostrophe. The argument that the spelling in the spoken word is its pronunciation ignores the frequent disconnect between the two and fails to account for “know” and “no” being pronounced identically, or “right”, “write” and “rite”, or “fare” and “fair”. Different spellings can have the same pronunciation. Equally, the same spelling can have different pronunciations.
Since the spoken language evolved first, spelling ought to follow pronunciation, but far too frequently it doesn’t, disproving the notion that the rulebook for English provides for “absolute precision”.
The major idea I’d like to contest is that language is based on immutable principles. No living language was created brick by brick on a firm foundation of principles, but has evolved pretty randomly. Rather than principles there is only a motley collection of loose, ever-changing and non-binding conventions.
The belief that “the principles of clear English do not change” is unfounded.
The pedant would still seek order behind such a complex organism as the English language – and keep denying his failure to find any. As just one illustration, the principle of forming the past tense with the suffix “-ed” fails for a large number of verbs. That gives way to a second principle that categorises verbs as either strong or weak, but this clearly is not a principle, because no amount of theory can identify a strong verb (only a complete enumeration can do so), and strong verbs themselves have diverse and non-principled ways of forming the past tense.
A mathematician might posit an elegant equation to describe a river’s course, but he hasn’t laid bare the secret of some immutable principle. The equation follows the river, the river never the equation.
The thought that a language flowing “downwards” somehow degrades it is elitist, denying the role of the common man in its evolution. A language that tries to serve the elite alone dies, as the once-great Sanskrit language did. 
I share Rochelle Powtong’s fear of a river overflowing its banks, but nature doesn’t give a hoot (thank you, Barry Kenyon, for this apt expression) and rivers in spate routinely overflow their banks. It might cause distress, but flooding leaves the soil fertile.
Utpalendu Gupta