Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue - Lynne Murphy

Book cover.Who "owns" the English language? Do you cringe when you see "centre" spelled (or spelt) "center" (or vice-versa)? Which Americanisms do you think are super awesome?

This book asks us a simple question:

What if, instead of worrying about the “ruination” of English by young people, jargonistas, or Americans, we celebrated English for being robust enough to allow such growth and variety?

Without evolution, languages stagnate and die. Without a vast corpus of work, which responds to changing circumstances around the globe, languages can be extinguished. English is no different. Lynne Murphy makes an excellent case that English isn't the sole preserve of the English; it's now a worldwide phenomenon that allows understanding (and, sure, a little confusion) between people born thousands of miles apart.

Without a doubt, it challenged some of my prejudices.

The symptoms of amerilexicosis include irritability, obsessive behaviour, paranoia, and delusions.

Yes! Why do I sometimes snarl at "candy" or "soda"? Does it make me feel stupid when my brain takes a second to catch up? Maybe. But Murphy points out, quite rightly, that people mostly don't have that over-reaction to Indianisms and Australianisms - why? It's the power dynamics, stupid.

The British are conditioned to notice when others don’t talk like they do because accent is an inescapable marker of social position in Britain.

Aha! Yes, class comes in to it as well. What subtle signs we subconsciously pick up!

It's full of little titbits (or tidbits) sure to enrapture to language lover:

Based on its origin, pen pusher is an Americanism. Based on who says it, it’s a Britishism. This isn’t a lonely example.

There are so many words and phrases which started in the UK, fell out of fashion, became "classy" in the USA, and then got re-exported back to us - whereupon we denounced them as vulgar neologisms.

We also get a good glimpse at the various moral panics over the years. There's always someone who is terrified about the evolution of language:

Ten years ago, the pundits predicted that students would soon be submitting essays with are spelled R and great as GR8. That hasn’t happened. Young people now use smartphones that autocomplete the correct spelling. They would only type C U L8R with irony.

It is, perhaps, unintended - but the book made me think about computer programming languages. I wonder if anyone has done a serious study on how they evolve and how they let people express themselves. This passage is written about English, but it could just as easily be about Python or FORTRAN:

But wouldn’t it be great if language were logical and maximally efficient? If sentences had only as many syllables as strictly needed? If each word had a single, unique meaning? If there were no homophones, so we’d not be able to mix up dear and deer or two and too? No, absolutely not. No way. Quit even thinking that. What are you, some kind of philistine? If Shakespeare hadn’t played with the number of syllables in his sentences, he would not have been able to communicate in iambic pentameter.

I found out about this book because - get this - it cites one of my blog posts!
Citation in a book which points to my blog post about Shakespeare.
So it gets an extra star for that.

This is a brilliant book for language lovers.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Prodigal Tongue - Lynne Murphy

  1. @Edent I love this! Have you listened to the History of English podcast? I feel like it’s impossible to consider the English language to be any other than a constantly changing mirror of what’s occurring in the world once we know its history. And there’s exquisite symmetry between the “melting pot” paradigm of America and the “everything but the kitchen sink” history of the language. English was made for this.

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