Just like everyone else, I studied English grammar and usage in school. I was taught that using the word ain’t would brand me as a hillbilly (not such an awful thing, after all) and when to use who and whom. I’m sure it gave me great delight to correct other students who were using lay and lie incorrectly. I still take pains to make sure I use the words right, although not quite as religiously as in the past.
You see, I also studied English literature, starting with Beowulf and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, moving along past the works of Shakespeare and Donne, Dryden and Swift. Only snippets of each, mind you, but the message was clear. “Ek gret effect men write in place lite; Th’ entente is al, and nat the lettres space” was perfectly good English in 1400 AD, while “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man” was well said in 1614.
And I studied Latin for at least a year in high school, which is so long ago now that I don’t remember exactly if it was for one year or two, but I do remember that the energetic vice-principal, Mr. Todd, taught the class and that he was a very entertaining speaker. I learned, of course, that Latin is a dead language. It is no longer living, because it is not being used outside of academia and the church. Because it’s no longer living, it doesn’t change, or perhaps the other way around.
Then in university, I studied several other languages: French, Russian, German and Serbo-Croatian. I also took what was called Slavonic Studies as part of the Russian major program. One of the courses was in linguistics, and that was very enlightening indeed. The course traced some of the European languages back to their roots, and illustrated the connections between them depending on who conquered whom (ha!) or which peoples migrated where. Germanic, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French, Greek, Scandanavian, Turkish, Hungarian – a whole smorgasbord of languages and dialects in close proximity, sharing words and expressions and sentence construction over centuries.
Studying linguistics in general made me want to explore the evolution of English spelling and grammar. It made me wonder if English could possibly have stopped changing when they published my high school English textbook in the 1960’s, or if it stopped changing when I graduated from university in the 1970’s, or if it stopped changing in 1984, or perhaps at the end of the millenium. The only conclusion that I can come to is that it hasn’t stopped changing at all. It’s still a living language. English isn’t dead!
So what does that mean? Obviously common usage has dictated the rules of grammar, and not the other way around. Words – their spelling and their use – and grammar, the way sentences are constructed, changed over the centuries as they began being used differently. Ergo, common usage trumps a rule. As a writer, and a speaker, and an ordinary everday English speaking person, I feel tremendously empowered by that thought. Here we are, on Facebook and Twitter and in ebooks and blogs, shaping the English language of the future by the way we use it today.
I know, I know. That’s no excuse to get sloppy with my spelling and grammar. As Hemingway once lamented, “all our words from loose using have lost their edge”. So I’ll do my best not to annoy the academics by murdering the English language in my writings and speech, whilst bearing in mind that changes in usage are the very thing that’s keeping it alive.
(Did I say that correctly?)