Before running out onto the track, an athlete always stretches and warms up. Before going to his cello in the morning, Pablo Casals always played two preludes and fugues from Bach’s 48.
Devoid of either athletic or musical talent, I warm up for my daily exertions at the computer by playing a few mindless mind games. Polygons, codewords, crosswords, that sort of thing. This seldom shifts my mind into sixth gear, but at least it gets it out of first.
One clue in today’s crossword features the words in the title. Once I got all the letters in, there was only one possible answer: enormity. So I scribbled it in, but not before uttering a word that still only ever appears in unabridged dictionaries.
‘Enormity’ doesn’t mean that. It means ‘ghastliness’. True, the same root also does service in ‘enormous’, but travelling from the adjective to the noun it changed its meaning. This semantic shift is recognised by any prescriptive, as distinct from descriptive, dictionary, as it was by all educated speakers of English not so long ago.
These days, however, we’re supposed to despise any cultural prescription, to say nothing of proscription. Whoever tries to insist on proper usage is routinely accused of poncy pedantry (pedants, as I hope you realise, can only be poncy – rugged masculinity is reserved for chaps with learning difficulties).
‘Language changes,’ declare our indignant lexical levellers. ‘It’s just a means of communication,’ add others. The first claim is unassailable: language does change, as any reader of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales or even Macbeth will doubtless confirm. But both the direction of the change and sometimes its final destination depend on the influences affecting it.
When English developed along the pathway signposted by Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Macbeth, it became the richest language in Europe. When Latin developed under the influence of illiterate Levantine and Venetian traders, it became an antiquated curiosity.
(The break-up of the Western Roman Empire admittedly had something to do with that as well, but an empire’s language can outlive the empire. Witness the fact that Australians and Americans still speak a reasonable approximation of English.)
While refraining from macabre predictions, one still ought to mention that English is currently being shaped mostly by people compared to whom those Levantine and Venetian traders were giants of refinement. It’s a truism that any language either develops or dies. However, it’s worth remembering that it can sometimes also develop and die.
The second claim, that language is just a means of communication, is almost correct – and it would be absolutely correct if we interpreted communication in the broadest possible sense. That, however, isn’t how our lexical levellers use the word. What they mean by communication is whatever is needed for negotiating the quotidian demands of practical life.
If that were the sole purpose of language, we would have had neither Beowulf nor The Canterbury Tales nor Macbeth. Yet even accepting the demotic arguments, one could still insist that the general spread of comprehensively educated illiteracy often defeats even such elementary communication.
For example, when a BBC commentator says that ‘David Cameron is aware of the enormity of the task he faces in getting the gay-marriage bill through the Lords’, does he mean that the task is huge or ghastly? Either meaning makes sense, especially the second, but one would like to be certain.
When Imogen Cooper delivers a performance described by the reviewer as ‘masterful’, is the reader supposed to guess whether he really means ‘masterly’? There exists a potential for confusion since a musical performance can be both or either or, in Imogen Cooper’s case, neither.
Words have a set meaning precisely for the purpose of enabling communication. Punctuation, including the now discarded hyphen, has exactly the same purpose. When I read about a ‘first class performance’, is the performance first-class, delivered by the first class or the first one delivered by this class?
Aristotle once remarked that in a democracy people will sooner or later assume that, because they’re equal in one respect, they’re equal in all respects. This gruesome outcome is not only upon us, but it is these days enforced institutionally – and increasingly often legally.
Even when it stays in the political domain, democracy produces the kind of ‘leaders’ who a century ago wouldn’t have been deemed qualified to run a furniture warehouse. When democracy strikes out into cultural areas, it wreaks havoc by making everyone equally educated, which is to say equally ignorant.
It has always been taken for granted that not all speakers of English speak it the same way. English could be grammatical or ungrammatical, cultured or uncultured, correct or incorrect. As long as people knew the difference, no one got unduly excited about that – all part of the rich panoply of life, if you’ll pardon a cliché.
Moreover, people understood that if they all sounded like one another’s clones, life would be dull. Conversely, phonetic, grammatical and lexical divergences could be used for comic effect. Messrs Pickwick, Weller and Jingle all spoke differently, but Dickens’s readers all laughed the same way. Yet anyone suggesting at the time that Pickwick’s and Weller’s ways of speaking were equally correct would have been laughed out of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.
Democracy wages war against discrimination not only among races, which is commendable, but also among tastes and cultures, which is destructive. This encourages a downward, gravity-assisted slide of avalanche proprtions. Moving in the opposite direction is always harder and the universal, politicised presumption of equality may well make it impossible.
Nowadays isolated intrepid individuals doing battle to preserve what’s left of our culture are widely despised and generally marginalised. They are defeated by the sheer enormity of the task.