Talk on the Wild Side

“Language is a wild animal” is the metaphor upon which Talk on the Wild Side is based. Author Lane Greene asks his readers to consider a wide variety of examples proving this, starting with constructed, “logical” languages such as Loglan that nobody is quite capable of speaking. The book covers everything from the Great Vowel Shift to Vietnamese grammar to adult language acquisition — and this is just in one chapter.

The book is thorough, entertaining and thought-provoking. Greene asks us in Chapter 2 to imagine “an extreme grammar-stickler” and what this person might look like: he guesses someone British, “expensively educated” and “silver haired.” This is not my first thought when I imagine a prescriptivist grammarian; for every aging finger-wagging, bemonocled academic, there are dozens if not hundreds of sophist internet warriors, hand-wringing over how nobody can tell the difference between you’re and your anymore, haggling among themselves about the sin level of ending sentences with prepositions.

In short, I don’t picture an Oxford don, I picture a homeschooling mother who never went to college and who, therefore, has never moved past the “these are the rules” portion of her education — an education she is now tasked with passing to the next generation.

Homeschooled mothers are often fans of the kind of language instruction Greene describes in his second chapter, of the “if you don’t do grammar right you don’t think right” variety. Greene takes a look at a current proponent of this way of thinking, Nevile Martin Gwynne, an aging British gentleman with silver hair and an extremely British name.

How do you deal with the phrase “someone left [possessive pronoun] umbrella”? Gwynne insists in his first book, Gwynne’s Grammar, that “his” must be used exclusively when gender is unknown; “his or her” is in his estimation “disagreeably clumsy” and using “their” is “shockingly illiterate.”

Greene gently pokes fun at this with “technically generic but socially gendered subjects,” asking his readers to consider the sentences “a young nurse should always remember his bedside manner” and “a prostitute risks his safety walking the streets.” Greene asks if we can imagine Gwynne agreeing with these examples, and says that if not, “perhaps ‘he embraces she’ has something awry.”

Greene also points to an example from 1375 of the sex-neutral, singular “they,” from a poem called The Romance of William of Palerne. Of course, in 1375, it was spelled Þei. Either way, it predates using “he” as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, which first appeared as a recommendation in 1405.

Homeschooled moms everywhere may find their heads spinning at this point. And although Greene may not fully realize it, here is where his untapped market lies: people just educated enough to be annoying about it. Perhaps, also, people who conflate grammar with morality. “Prescriptivists in this school of thought are playing a morally and intellectually dubious game: they are implying that people who don’t speak like they do are necessarily stupid,” Greene writes.

If you’ve studied grammar and linguistics with any seriousness, you’ve almost certainly encountered the idea that grammar changes over time. None of the professional language enthusiasts I know are prescriptivists — meaning none of them demand that everyone follow the grammar rules of 1905 or 1965, or adhere to rules just because someone ordered them to once. Indeed, they would recognize this as patently absurd.

Language professionals, and especially localization professionals, are descriptivists. That is, they recognize that “whom” has all but disappeared. They field-test grammatical constructions to compare colloquial and formal speech patterns, to see which would play better for their products. They would never dream of using “he” as the only singular possessive pronoun option. They look not to the rulebook, but to how language is actually used in modern parlance — because they realize that rules, in order to be correct, must mirror what is actually happening in the real world.

Homeschooling moms would do well to dive into a book that explores language as its own feral entity. And for those of us who are not demanding that children follow grammar rules, it’s an equally good education.

Trumpian rhetoric makes it into the book as well; Greene describes it as “the rhetorical equivalent of a bunch of beer cans, crisp bags and the odd shiny pool of oil floating down a filthy river,” but said the effect of focusing on Trump’s non sequiturs blinded “Trump’s opponents to how effective he was.”

The localization industry, although not mentioned by name, gets good billing. Greene devotes 19 pages, more or less, to explaining what machine translation is and why it’s difficult in layman’s terms — which means parsing out actual language examples, such as the difference between “time flies like an arrow” and “fruit flies like a banana.” He ends the chapter marveling how children who cannot tie their shoelaces effortlessly learn rules that baffle machines, long before they’ve gotten any formal grammatical instruction: “rules cannot be the end-all, be-all. Whether or not a child’s mind is a computer, it can’t be programmed like one,” he concludes.

This idea takes us in turn into what language really is. “As a system, natural languages are less like C++ or JavaScript, and more like an ecosystem. Ecosystems have thousands of species in a complex web of dependencies.” This makes them dynamic and varied, different from day to day.

Greene is highly knowledgeable and endlessly patient with his subject matter. Although he can discuss topics at great length, at other times he is understated, provoking reflection in what he does not explicitly spell out. His comparison of language to ecosystems sent me into a reverie on how deeply human — almost animal — our communication is. It reminded me of something that happened recently at a festival in British Columbia. I had spontaneously befriended a girl named Carmen, and she spotted me taking a break, coughing.

We were 20 feet apart, separated by a number of dancers and loud music, but she asked me nonetheless if I was OK. I responded that I was fine; the dust from the festival and the smoke from nearby forest fires were getting to me and I just needed some water. We had this conversation entirely via gesture and facial expression. I got my water and went back to dance with her. “I can’t believe you understood me,” she exclaimed, high-fiving me.

If language is an ecosystem, it lives in a social milieu. The spoken word is dependent on an infinite number of unspoken factors. Children learn by intently watching their surroundings; before they say (or sign) a single word, they have learned what makes the caretakers in their lives smile and frown. Before they learn please, they absorb the idea that following social niceties means that food will slide down their gullets from the hand of a beaming parent.

Language is like an ecosystem, like an Amazonian forest teeming with life. The dynamic, contingency-dependent nature of language is precisely why it cannot be tamed.