The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, By Henry Hitchings

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The Independent Culture

This erudite but eminently readable book recounts the story of English from Anglo-Saxon to the present-day, with emphasis on how it has changed and the bitterness with which those changes were and are contested.

There are two main camps when it comes to linguistic change: the prescriptivists, who know what correct English is and won't see it tampered with; and the descriptivists, who hold that change is inevitable and observe it dispassionately. Refreshingly, Henry Hitchings does not quite belong in either camp. He is primarily a descriptivist and confesses to being annoyed by the hyper-correction "between you and I", but he sympathises with the prescriptivists and sees that protest against change is as necessary and natural as change itself.

Chapters are brief and enticingly titled: "Flaunting the rules"; "The comma flaps its wings"; "Of fish-knives and fist-fucks". Hitchings defends split infinitives, argues against wholesale spelling reform and makes a convincing case that English is not in decline. One small criticism: there are points when I would have welcomed more examples. Hitchings discusses Dr Bowdler's cleaned-up edition of Shakespeare but without giving any of the changes Bowdler actually made. I would have loved to know whether there is any truth in the old story that Bowdler rendered a line in Cymbeline respectable by the simple expedient of dropping an S: "Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the trumpet in my bed".

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