Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

Letters from C.B. McCully and others THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Sir: C.H.Sisson's Editorial (PNR 45) seems to be a frank advocacy of linguistic chauvinism; it is also, as far as I can make it out, curiously circular, and this makes its arguments finally meaningless.

In the first place, Sisson writes that Burchfield 'is to be treated with respect if also, perhaps, with a little of the suspicion which properly attaches to bureaucrats and particularly, perhaps, to the bureaucrats of culture'. Overlooking the disingenuousness of those two 'perhaps'-es, on what grounds is Burchfield dubbed a 'bureaucrat of culture'? Certainly Sisson gives us no grounds on which to base such an observation; later in his Editorial, for example, he snipes at those descriptivists who 'quickly identify new linguistic habits and record them in dictionaries', that us, those who 'record whatever rubbish is printed' (Sisson's italics). If Burchfield is-as he evidently claims-a descriptivist, if he records 'whatever rubbish is printed', where is the bureaucracy and where the culture? One cannot effectively arbitrate language if one is 'a mere collector of words'.

Secondly, Sisson misrepresents the linguistic enterprise that has resulted from the so-called 'Chomskyan revolution'. What has characterised recent developments in language study is precisely their lack of 'prejudice'; this 'air of freedom'-whether closely related to the 'political cant of the 1960s' or not-has enabled us to know rather more than we suspected about the formal properties of language (particularly, about the creative aspects of language). It would not, therefore, be too much to suggest that if the 'language' recorded in the OED and Supplement bears 'the same relation to human speech as a vast furniture warehouse might do to a furnished and inhabited room', then linguistics (now 'post-Chomskyan') at least gives us some insights into how we are able to move about without bumping into the armchairs.

Thirdly, Sisson inveighs against 'the morbid diffusion of printed matter' and 'the present debauched and dispersed state of the English language'. These are really two separate issues, of course, but the impulse behind those colourful adjectives is unitary, almost Swiftian.

Language does change. Yet it is not up to us, who perhaps cannot rightly judge our present, to judge our language past or language future in terms of taxonomies whose motivation is mere preference. In this context, the pertinent question is how Sisson would decide which words, in what order, are 'pure'. It is not sufficient to put out the disclaimer that this process of 'purification' is 'inventive, rather than ... prescriptive': decisions of this kind about language, especially 'pure language', inescapably involve some form of classification, and one cannot classify and invent at the same time, if we give these terms their due weight. (Yes, classification can be 'inventive', but that kind of invention still presupposes a more or less arbitrary procedure of selection.)

To return to 'purity': are Shakespeare's neologisms, or Joyce's, 'pure'? All of them? Or just some of them? Why are those that pass the Pure-Test purer than, for example, the vocabulary of modern technology? And on what basis does a writer intuit-or decide-which 'words in the best order' purify language rather than debase it? Is that decision idiosyncratic, or is it externally-motivated by some more general phonological or semantic features of the language? And so on.

These questions are of a type: they are liberal and liberalising because they encourage us to think of the relentless fecundity of English in terms of a linguistic democracy. Because this is not a misrepresentation, we cannot ignore the type by running to the editorial bunker and holding forth ('reflecting somewhat at large') about the English language with both ears stopped. For someone who professes care for written English, Sisson's opinions are both undistinguished and badly expressed; and in view of the predictable if spectacular failure of the Académie Française to halt the French language in its tracks, his suggestion as to a 'final solution' is absurd.
Withington, Manchester 20

C.H.Sisson writes: I don't think I need comment except to say that I was far from suggesting a 'final solution' to anything. And perhaps I should add that I do not deny the existence of words not in Johnson's dictionary.

The General Editor writes: C.H.Sisson's Editorial was originally commissioned as a review of the Burchfield book. Because I associated myself with the reflections in it, I asked the author's permission to give it Editorial prominence. The points at issue, which were discussed exhaustively, democratically and inconclusively even in the popular press in the United States two decades or more ago with the publication of a 'descriptive' Websters, remain important, though lexicography is now a well-defended speciality of experts and linguists. The common reader, the common writer, who turns to a dictionary for definitions, is perhaps not best served by the descriptive approach. He may be intimidated, however, by the somewhat undemocratic aspect of those who assert with the authority of their disciplines, that dictionaries are 'about' language and its formal properties. The subject is fascinating in itself, but not always to the point. I also dislike the word 'mere' in 'mere preference'. Those 'preferences' which emerge from long and intimate contact of a writer or reader with his language have more authority than the recording of ephemeral usage, and might be thought to be of more interest to the linguist and lexicographer, though not to the sociologist.


Sir: Is the Jean-Francois Lyotard listed in your bibliography (PNR 48) the same Jean-François Lyotard who is the close textile analyst? You know, the one who deconstructs telephone directories with his bare hands.
Whitstable, Kent

Correspondence relating to the critical issue, PNR 48, will be published in PNR 50.

This item is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image