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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-11-2)

I suppose that this, the fiftieth article in this series, constitutes a milestone of sorts. By a happy coincidence I recently came across an article by Malcolm Venter, a linguist much more erudite than I am, on the same subject as Contextually Yours No 1. My article was entitled “What is Correct English? From Chaucer to Hamlet…” His was called “An Aggravating Situation? What is ‘Correct’ English”?

It was a relief to me that we came to much the same conclusions. Languages, English among them, change with time; and, as he put it, “what is correct is what the majority of (educated) native users of the language actually use – some kind of international basis with local variations.” In my own article I quoted a radio programme about words: “(Correct English is defined by) the consensus eruditorum, the agreed opinion of learned men.” That’s close enough for me.

Where Mr Venter and I differ, perhaps, is in his conclusion that “we should celebrate the wonderful diversity of our dialect(s).” In a country with eleven official languages, that diversity is likely to cause more confusion that enrichment. “No (linguistic) form is inherently good or bad; it is society which decides this,” he says. But can present-day South Africa be described as a “society”?

We accept that the language will change, but to describe this process as “growth”, as many people do, is often misleading. I don’t suppose we object very strenuously to new words designed to cope with new demands, such as computer language – download, megabyte, hypertext and so on. But what worries me is the loss (of precision, if not actual meaning) that often accompanies a supposed linguistic gain. If “media” is now a singular noun, what is its plural? And what is a “medium”?

Perhaps all we can do is retard change as much as we can by using our language as well as we know how.

Enough of these apocalyptic musings. I am indebted to a rather dull crossword puzzle – one of those that deals in general knowledge – for a couple of verbal oddities. One clue asked for “Rock composed of pebbles (geol.)”, and the solution turned out to be “psephite”. That rang a faint bell – haven’t I heard of “psephology”, and what is it? It turns out to be “the sociological and statistical study of election results and trends” (Chambers Dictionary). And what, pray, is the connection with pebbles? Well, it turns out that a “psephism” was a decree of the ancient Athenian assembly, which employed pebbles for voting – “psephos” is Greek for a pebble.

In the same puzzle was a clue that used the word “sparable”. This turned out to be a dignified spelling of “sparrow-bill”, the name given to a shoemaker’s nail on account of its shape. We’re accustomed to “asparagus” giving rise to the colloquial “sparrow-grass”. “Sparrow-bill” seems to have moved in the opposite direction, and become gentrified.

Finally, a quotation from an anonymous columnist in The Weekly Telegraph, London, in defence of the rules of language:

“It may well be that, as the Oxford University Press puts it, the apostrophe is disappearing from where you would expect to see it (e.g. Lets go) and is appearing elsewhere (as in the plural pear’s). But that’s because people are getting it wrong, not because grammatical rules are pliable toys to play with as the writer sees fit. Theyre their because, if the rule’s arent followed, book’s and paper’s are a nightmare to read.”

And there, for the present, I must say my goodbye’s.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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