It’s one of life’s little mysteries that Ollie Kamm has got to be regarded as an authority on the English language. That he regards himself as such is no mystery at all: ignorant effrontery is almost an ironclad job requirement for today’s hacks.
Ollie’s usual output preaches a relativistic vox populi approach to language: if people say it, it must be right. Today’s offering has some of that: “he don’t know nothing is ungrammatical in standard English, but grammatical in some other dialects”.
What he means is that this ungrammatical solecism is used in some other dialects, or rather in the most widespread one: illiterate English. That doesn’t make it grammatical, which concept presupposes adherence to a certain universal standard. But then our language guru is deaf to such subtleties.
The main thrust of his piece today is a vituperative attack on Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “a political commentator with absolutely no qualifications in language”.
It’s true that Mr Wheatcroft read history rather than English at Oxford. However, one could argue that an author of countless articles and half a dozen books written over the better part of 40 years has at least some qualifications. Then again, when Ollie gets on his high horse, there’s no dismounting him.
What made Ollie saddle his trusted steed this time is Mr Wheatcroft’s innocent remark that English is “ideally suited to be the global lingua franca” partly because of its “rudimentary grammar”.
When Ollie’s in the saddle, no remark is innocent. If English grammar were rudimentary, Ollie shrieks, “the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” wouldn’t comprise “1,800 closely typed pages”.
Actually, the definite article before Cambridge Grammar should be capitalised, but let’s not be too harsh on our self-styled pedant. What’s amusing here is that his argument is a non sequitur, reminding one of a Chekhov character arguing that, “if Pushkin hadn’t been a great psychologist, he wouldn’t have merited a statue in Moscow.”
English grammar is nuanced and subtle, sufficiently so to justify writing many more than 1,800 pages of an academic study. However, it’s indeed rudimentary and relatively easy to learn for everyday use, which is one of the reasons English is “ideally suited to be the global lingua franca”.
Ollie is ignorant in such matters, but he suspects his readers are even more ignorant than he is. That explains his next argument: “A clause like Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an idiot demonstrates the importance of fixed word order in English.”
First, the cited group of words isn’t a clause but a stand-alone sentence. Second, because it’s a citation, however hypothetical, it should be in quotation marks. And third, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw the word ‘idiot’ about so gratuitously.
Words have specific meanings, Ollie, if you’ll forgive a truism. Hence rudimentary grammar means just that – it doesn’t mean no grammar at all. English does have some rules, of which a fixed word order is one. Sometimes it’s ignored for stylistic purposes, which is called inversion.
By way of illustrating this stylistic device, it’s used in the clause of the sentence “Ignorant though Ollie is, he pontificates on the fine points of English with an air of ill-deserved authority”.
That Ollie is neither excessively bright nor averse to truisms follows from his next statement: “It’s absurd to say that English has less grammar than an inflected language like Latin. Rather, different languages make similar grammatical distinctions using different sorts of grammatical devices.”
By contrast to synthetic languages like Latin, Russian, Hungarian and so forth, English is analytic, meaning it largely conveys grammatical relationships not morphologically but lexically and stylistically.
Rather than inflecting words with morphemes, English achieves the same purpose by using lexical units, such as prepositions, particles, modifiers, possessives etc. It also heavily relies on stylistic devices, such as word order, context and idioms.
The example Ollie proffers with the smugness of someone who has just blazed a new trail illustrates just that: “attributive adjectives of size precede those of colour. In English… the girl has long blond hair, not blond long hair…”
Well done, Ollie, even though in the country where English originated a girl’s hair tends to be blonde, not blond. But in either case this is an example of achieving a grammatical objective by stylistic means.
English eschews whole grammatical categories that make synthetic languages so difficult to learn, such as gender, conjugation and case. I don’t know how many foreign languages Ollie knows (not many, would be my guess). But my wife, who’s fluent in two Romance languages and competent in two more has trouble with Russian because learning its grammar requires more time than she’s willing to spend.
Russian has six cases, and words in a sentence must agree not only in case, but also in gender and number, which indeed makes learning Russian grammar a time-consuming proposition. But that’s nothing compared to synthetic Finno-Ugric languages, such as Hungarian that boasts 18 cases.
The upshot of it is that Mr Wheatcroft is right, and Ollie is wrong, yet again. English grammar is indeed rudimentary, making it easy for a foreigner to learn well enough to communicate basic thoughts even if he gets something wrong.
By contrast, synthetic languages, such as Russian or Hungarian, are devilishly hard to learn because, until a learner comes to grips with the interrelationships among all those cases, genders and numbers, he won’t be able to communicate at all, understandably at any rate.
However, once he has mastered the grammar rules, he’ll be able to speak the synthetic language reasonably well. Not so with English: learning the grammar rules is but a start.
Because English grammar relies so heavily on stylistic and idiomatic nuances, it may be easy to learn adequately but extremely hard to learn really well. That’s why even university-educated Englishmen (to say nothing of Americans) routinely utter ungrammatical sentences, which is extremely rare for a similarly educated Russian.
Ollie concludes with a sentence impossible to take issue with: “In grammar… it seems that unqualified commentators can always get away with assertions that haven’t been checked and make no sense.” Quite. He’s one such unqualified commentator.