Lately, on my weekly runs (aka meditative jogs), I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The History of English.” I have to confess that my first thought when coming across the ninety-plus episode podcast on iTunes went something along the lines of, WTF? Who can a) talk that much about the history of a language and still have new things to say; and b) make this sound like anything but the aural equivalent of watching paint dry? I mean, I love linguistic nuggets as much as the next writer, but ninety-plus episodes of one guy talking mostly about white Europeans? Wasn’t that my junior year in high school?
But in all honesty, I think I also feared an endless reckoning with all the things I don’t know about this language I live, love, and write in. Because, as this sentence (which begins unconventionally) and the last (which ends in a preposition) show, all writers secretly worry about the grammar police. (Even if we’re deputy members of their squad, we still worry.)
In their defense, grammar police are generally well-meaning folks who are rightly concerned about the obfuscation and general misuses of language. They find themselves bruised and battered by the carelessness with which many people speak and write, and it makes them testy. Oftentimes, their deeply embedded concerns surface in socially awkward attempts to correct those who are bandying the language about like intoxicated cowboys. Unfortunately, this behavior frequently backfires and leaves those who might otherwise wish to know how to be better speakers and writers feeling chastised and sore.
But much to my delight, “The History of English” turns out to be written and narrated by Kevin Strout, a honey-voiced lawyer who speaks with the insight and intelligence of a seasoned linguist, but who clearly just loves to geek out over how this strange and wonderful beast we call the English language has been Frankensteined into existence.
I can’t tell you what an itch this scratches for me. And it’s also brought me to a realization: there are lots of us out there who care deeply about the language but don’t have the inclination or desire to become members of the grammar police. I was one of those kids who would tear through a book without looking up a single word because I didn’t want anyone interrupting my stories, much less those restrictive voices that lie within definitions. But while I would never want to interrupt any kid riding a literary wave, avoiding dictionaries and style guides until I was in graduate school probably wasn’t the way to go. Ultimately, anyone who works with language is going to need to develop some kind of working understanding of how its structure affects its meaning. Which makes me wonder: Is there a way to care deeply, to acquire deeper knowledge (in this and other things), without becoming, as they say, too high-falutin’?
Maybe it’s just about speaking out and up about the value of being a word nerd. To insist that we have as deep and intelligent an engagement with language as our more formal counterparts, but that we’d rather spend more time blown away by how weird and wonderful language is than trying to reign it in. We study grammar books insofar as they help us to manipulate the nuances of what can be said and how, not because we hope to become authorities on the subject. We’re OK with tripping over our own words in deep conversations, knowing it’s probably because we chose to read a few more stories instead of completing our due diligence with a dictionary, and that it’s the conversation that matters above all. And while many of us are teachers, we’re more students than anything; more eager to be dumbfounded than proclaimed expert. After all, who wants the responsibility of saying she knows it all, even when it comes to even the smallest area of knowledge? What’s the use of knowing everything about anything? Wouldn’t that just mean you’re, well, done?
I love to lurch my way through Scientific American every now and then, and I’m always struck by the tone of awe and delight that comes through when existing theories are proven to be incorrect. Informal studies of language will never be awarded the same gravitas and attention as, say, astrophysics, but I think the willingness they lend to explore those terrains grammar and its brethren cannot access makes them just as important. Because just as studies of the solar system invite our brains to explode with the vast, incomprehensible nature of the universe, the act of putting words to human experience is as incomprehensibly variable and rich as humanity itself.