Book Review: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

Posted on January 5, 2011

An entertaining guide through the debate over prescriptivism and descriptivism in the English language.

There’s no question where I stand in the Holy Wars for the soul of the English language. I strongly believe that the beauty of our mother tongue comes from the fact that it is constantly evolving and is always taking on new forms. It is hard to get a read on Lynch. On one hand, he’s a scholar of Samuel Johnson, one of the first men to try to create a dictionary. On the other, his final chapter can be summed up thusly: Language changes. Get over it.

This book makes the point, over and over, that the battle between prescriptivism (setting down rules for proper English) and descriptivism (You can’t own English, man) is, at its core, class warfare. Not only is there a strong correlation between political persuasion and your linguistic bent but Lynch contends that the English prescriptivists are generally “upper-class men from two generations ago.”

For all the controversy on this subject, this book really is a history of the attempts to contain the English language. If there’s one thing that we can take from this work, it is an appreciation for how vast the English language is. We have more words than any other language. Codifying it, word-for-word, may not be a cultural problem. It may be a problem of logistics.

On top of that, there are very tough compromises that must be made. Take for example English spelling. There is a great deal of merit to the ‘simplified spelling’ movement. However, there are more phonemes (sounds) in the English language than there are letters. Do we distinguish between the ‘th’ in ‘the’ and ‘thistle’? Could you really live in a world where you wrote the word ‘enuf’? There is a deep history to our spelling. At the same time, it is nearly devoid of convention and is unfortunately complicated.

As with any good book on linguistics, there are tons of interesting tidbits. For example, Chaucer used the word ‘axe’ in the context of ‘axing’ a question. So, I’m going to be using it that way, guilt-free. On top of that, the chapter on expletives is wonderful. It spends a great deal of time on the contributions of George Carlin, not so much as a linguist, but as a defender of free speech.

If anything, this book is worth it for the brief histories of the creations of dictionaries. For anybody who gets really really mad at kids these days with their cell phones who don’t know how to talk anymore, I’d go ahead and read this. There are tons of examples of phrases that got people ‘mad as hell’, that are nothing but common now. For those of you who are all like, just let English be, then I think you’ll appreciate how you’ve benefited from the attempts to codify the language.


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