Right Argument, Wrong Protagonist

Review of Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulation of the English Language by John Humphrys.

I read Lost for Words because I agree with the basic argument: English is an endangered language or, perhaps better said, the connection between the English language and the expression of actual thought and genuine meaning is disappearing faster than the rain forest.

Unfortunately, Humphrys argues with clarity only about half the time. For the rest of the book, he’s expressing right-wing views (one is amazed at how many times he manages to work in his opinion that abortion is murder, which a person might be forgiven for considering irrelevant to the topic) or simply being a snob.

Are we really going to argue, for example, that the difference between British and American pronunciation is a question of correct vs. incorrect usage? Humphrys does: If, when you intend the noun “romance,” you accent the first syllable rather than the second, you’re a cretin as far as he’s concerned. In fact, a decent slice of Humphry’s book is dedicated to bashing American English, which is perhaps low-cost fun for the entire family if you’re a Brit, but for anyone else it’s a comedy routine, not an argument.

His chapter on journalists and journalism – the professional category to which he belongs — is particularly murky, and Humphrys all but gives himself a side stitch in disapproving of journalistic “mangling” of English while, at the same time, not criticizing his profession too astringently. His “Gosh, I do the exact same thing” commentary ultimately becomes repetitive and annoying: If Humphrys is guilty of the identical linguistic crimes and misdemeanors, and if everyone commits solecisms from time to time, and if people should thus be forgiven for the errors he finds so grievous, what is the point of this book?

Humphrys provides a reasonable analysis of general categories of malefactors (politicians and advertisers, to name two) and his overall point – that we are all too frequently hypnotized into believing that language has conveyed meaning when it has not – is well taken. It is in the specifics where he stumbles, and no more so than when he fails to address the most frequent rejoinder tossed at those who are alert to the necrosis that afflicts English: language changes. Surely there is a counter-argument to be made here (the difference between the evolution of language, for example, which tends to be relatively slow, and the cleaving of language from meaning, a phenomenon that tends to be rooted in mass culture and which is exceedingly fleeting). Humphrys is smart enough to have made it, but he doesn’t seem to want (and he’ll have to forgive me the cliché) to climb out onto that particular limb.


Posted on 4 January 2008, in Book Reviews & Literaria. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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