Useful as a source of fun trivia but lacks linguistic depth


For a few years now, I’ve been examining prescriptive attitudes and pet peeves targeted in current mass-market publications dealing with English grammar, writing and other communication concerns, especially works that have achieved considerable public recognition, such as Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves and June Casagrande’s Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.

So a fitting addition to my ongoing consideration of all things prescriptivism-related, as well as a contribution to the growing body of work on World Englishes (see Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue, reviewed in the December 2009 issue of MultiLingual, for example), is another recent book attempting to shed new light on English standardization, globalization, electronic transmutation and perceived deterioration: Arthur Rowse’s Amglish in, Like, Ten Easy Lessons: A Celebration of the New World Lingo. While its main goal is to “[describe] how informal American English . . . has begun to dominate the globe,” as the back cover says, Rowse also has something to say about the state of this dialect and others’ opinions of it.

The book contains the usual array of six chapters, index and so on, plus over two dozen cartoons drawn specifically by illustrator John G. Doherty to reflect various anecdotes or other material in the text. The Preface establishes Rowse’s slightly conflicted feelings about the apparent decline in English speakers’ mastery of formal grammar and educated usage, and each subsequent chapter considers some array of topics related to the informality or spread of Amglish, Rowse’s adopted name for informal American English. The overall focus of each chapter is helpfully identified in a statement of purpose located in its last paragraph. For example, Chapter 3, “The New World Lingo,” “[describes] how Amglish has become the first truly international language” and Chapter 6, “Ten Easy Lessons,” “offers ten lessons in how to master Amglish.”

While these synopses suggest an easily identifiable focus and purpose for each chapter, the actual reading experience is something more fragmented, even rambling. A good example is presented by the very first chapter. It opens with the Sarah Palin “refudiate” incident; ties it to “the new lingo that’s sweeping around the world” — that is, Amglish; and goes on to consider other recent neologistic or grammatical controversies, including Greta Van Susteren’s coinage of the term squirmish to characterize the United States’ role in the uprising in Libya. George W. Bush’s malapropistic “They misunderestimated me” after his 2000 court-decided election victory is then presented, and other more general prescriptive shibboleths such as nonstandard past-tense verb forms and chaotic spelling. It carries on from there to offer a bulleted list of “fading commandments” such as “Thou shalt not make verbs out of nouns” before finally reviewing some Native American and other language influences on English. All this discussion is mixed in with commentary from various language pundits — Mark Twain, George Orwell, H. L. Mencken and many more — and background information and opinion from Rowse himself, as in “All nitpickers should put their picks away. Let’s face it, formal English is dying. A new, much less formal language is taking over this country and the world. And it’s time to welcome it with open arms. In fact, there’s no way to stop it” (p. 2).

Following chapters proceed in much the same way. As another example, Chapter 2, while mostly focusing on teachers and professional education organizations, also comments on the 1954 cigarette ad proclaiming that “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” and devotes several sections to the influence of popular music, from Woodstock to hip-hop, along with references to comedians, authors and radio shock jocks. Other language shapers and trends covered in future chapters include business and marketing forces, MTV and other American music developments, anti-Amglish movements, and electronic and social media innovations, sometimes with at least broad category overlaps across chapters. Thus, MTV and American youth-oriented music appear in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.

While all these anecdotes, examples and commentary are often amusing, and I admire the depth and breadth of information that Rowse, a longtime, now-retired journalist, brings to his discussions, the book as a whole ends up feeling like something less than the sum of its many parts. Yes, I recognize a logical and coherent plan laid out in Amglish’s chapter titles and chapter-ending synopses, but for me, the accumulation of often loosely (or un-) related details within chapters tends to obscure the larger focus and to some extent bury Rowse’s central thesis. Perhaps this impression is reinforced by the decision to save the “ten easy lessons” of the title for the last chapter. This choice is certainly a logical option, even a fitting capstone for any consideration of English around the world, but much of the content of previous chapters still might feel like delays or digressions to other readers besides me.

Moreover, even though according to the book’s back cover Rowse “has spent five years researching language,” his lack of linguistics training does occasionally show. For instance, on page 49, he proclaims UCLA students’ use of schwa for the exclamation wow “an example of pulling new words out of thin air.” Granted, this use of schwa looks new, but the word itself has been used by linguists and others for over a century as the name for the mid-central (neutral) vowel found, for instance, at the end of the word sofa in most informal English. And while Manglish (Malaysian English) may be more exotic to other English speakers than Singlish (Singapore English), it cannot be the case that Manglish “doesn’t follow any grammatical rules” (p. 196), since all languages are, by definition, rule governed. Rowse also seems not to be aware of the many resources available for English educators, as his plaintive question, “But where are all the studies of innovative techniques to help other teachers adapt to today’s scene?” (p. 49) can be answered by any member of the National Council of Teachers of English and other professional organizations.

I also find him misrepresenting some language professionals’ attitudes toward various aspects of language use and change. For instance, I suspect that as a descriptive linguist, I would have several objections to his claim that “Amglish was partially certified in 1997 when the Linguistic Society of America formally declared it ‘incorrect and demeaning’” (p. 83) but since no citation is offered for this quote (an oversight, I assume), I have no idea of its source or the larger context from which it was taken.

However, I can offer a clearer and particularly egregious example of Rowse’s interpretive failings. He quotes a small part of the well-known 1974 statement “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” by the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC): “We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language. . . . The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans.” He then goes on to say, “In other words, what could be called a mistake in formal English could mean a dialect that needs protection, not correction. . . . The instructors obviously chose [to be politically correct], and the cause of promoting less formal English has benefited as a result” (p. 40).

Now, as anyone in linguistics or English education knows, and as the full CCCC statement itself makes clear, defending any speaker’s right to use the dialect of his or her home community does not argue against the benefits of mastering the conventions of formal academic written English for all speakers. Nor does this position indicate approval of a linguistic free-for-all, where learning how to use different forms of language in different contexts in order to achieve strategic ends is no longer effective or important. Quite the contrary. Proponents of language and dialect rights simply believe that all language forms have legitimacy. Being able to use multiple styles, dialects and languages appropriately for the purposes at hand, as variable as they are in real life, makes anyone a better communicator, not a linguistic outlaw or know-nothing. The fact that Rowse refers to “correcting” dialects suggests that he is indeed unaware of this distinction. As opponents to the movement to make English the official language of the United States frame their own approach, we should be supporting (formal) English Plus, not (formal) English Only — a position for which Rowse actually seems to be arguing in his Preface, when he says, “The ultimate cool is knowing how and when to use the prevailing language of business and government for one’s own benefit while fully enjoying the ‘current’ wild world of informal language” (p. xi).

The chapter I might be feeling most conflicted about, however, is Chapter 5, “The Lishes of Amglish,” in which Rowse surveys 26 native-language-influenced dialects of English around the world, from Arablish to Yidlish, though some, including the first just mentioned, are not English dialects at all. My dissatisfaction stems not from a lack of humor or interesting tidbits about these varieties, but from the lack of a substantial analytical grounding for any of the cases presented. Each Lish’s home territory is identified, true, but then each section offers what amounts to a hodgepodge of language examples from speakers, signs, or other sources without any systematic review of language features to enable either an overall sense of each variety’s nature or a consistent framework of comparison across varieties. In other words, it offers lots of fun bits and pieces but will certainly leave readers hungering for a deeper and more linguistically sophisticated survey of global English dialects feeling unsatisfied.

As for the “Ten Easy Lessons” themselves (Chapter 6), most of them are actually well considered and likely to be helpful to those conflicted over the vagaries of modern English. I wholeheartedly agree with Lesson One (“go with the flow”), Lesson Four (“be creative with language”) and Lesson Ten (“learn to code-switch”); can see the point of Lesson Two (“better to phone than write”), Lesson Five (“abbreviate where possible”) and Lesson Nine (“kill obscenities with excess”); but do take issue with Lesson Three (“fudge the grammar”), Lesson Six (“let words spell themselves”), Lesson Seven (“disconnect the dots”) and Lesson Eight (“use fillers, like, a lot”). In other words, I agree that we need to recognize and accommodate to language change and variability. However, though some recent English developments can be adapted for many communication contexts, even some more formal ones, we still need to recognize the many situations where prescriptivism does still hold sway. Details of fluency, appropriate vocabulary, formal grammar and punctuation do still matter to many readers. My impression from the very opening of the book is that Rowse may not be quite as laissez-faire about formal English conventions as many of his comments suggest on the surface — that is, he may be exercising a certain amount of irony in his “free English” pronouncements — but this last chapter’s tone seems earnest enough to give me pause. Even descriptive linguists recognize the social functions of many prescriptive rules for formal language use, especially for writing and most especially for visual elements like punctuation and spelling.

So final verdict? Pretty much as mixed as my feelings about many of the individual elements of the book. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes, most of the time. Its humorous stories, examples and turns of phrase certainly kept me amused when I wasn’t finding something to contradict or wish to see discussed in more linguistically-savvy detail. Who, for example, could resist references to “the perfection police” (p. 21) for prescriptivists, “lapdogs in bulldog drag” (p. 82) for Amglish-deficient Brits or “digital diarrhea” (p. 154) for nonstop texting?

Do I think non-linguists would benefit from reading Amglish? That very much depends on those readers’ goals, though the rich source notes, including some resources by well-known linguists, would certainly provide useful additional references (and possible correctives) for those wishing to delve more deeply into specific topics just touched on in this book. Does the book contribute anything new to the discussion of modern English? Not in any significant way, but it does collect a host of different language factoids and language-pundit observations into one convenient package. Bottom line: Do I think this book is worth adding to a reader’s own collection of works on English? It could be useful as a source of fun trivia for use, say, in the English classroom, or simply as a current snapshot of numerous English worldwide incarnations, but personally, I’d wait to acquire it until it could be found at a good discount, rather than pay the full $16.95 for a fairly slender paperback. By then, its shelf life might well have expired. Amglish 2020, anyone?