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Talk Talk

A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 4; Se-Z

edited by R, W, Burchfield

(Oxford University Press, 1,454 pp., $150)

The Story of English

by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil

(Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking, 384 pp.,$24,95)

American Talk: The Words and Ways of American Dialects

by Robert Hendrlckson

(Viking, 231 pp., $18.95)

Take My Word For It

by William Safire

(Times Books, 357 pp., $22,50)

A Word or Two Before You Go .. ..

by Jacques Barzun

(Wesleydn University Press, 190 pp,, $14,95)

Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name

by Vicki Hearne

(Knopf, 274 pp., $17.95)

In 1897 James Murray, the first editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, paid a courtesy visit to one of the most prolific of his "voluntary readers"—the army of retired curates, amateur philologists, widows, and other people with time on their hands who supplied the dictionary with the hundreds of thousands of quotations needed to illustrate the history of words. The reader was a Dr, W, C, Minor, who gave his address as Crowthorne inBerkshire, When Murray arrived, he was driven from the station to an imposing brick building that seemed too large to be a house. In fact, he discovered, it was not a house; it was the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr, Minor was an inmate.

The story has piquancy not only because it suggests the ad hoc conditions in which the world's most famous dictionary was produced, but because the enterprise itself had something of a lunatic quality. The notion that the entire written record of English might be sifted for quotations that would document every word in use since 1150; that every change in meaning and usage to the present day might be accounted for by this method and summarized in a book; and that the whole business might he run (as it was for many years) out of an iron shed in the editor's back yard, smacks of a peculiarly Victorian craziness.

James Murray was not an Edward Casaubon, of course. He approached the work in a spirit of high drama—he lived with his words, and spoke of them with a kind of frightening intimacy (he refers in one of his letters to "the terrible word Blacic and its Derivatives"), And he did not regard the dictionary in a transcendental light: he did not imagine that his years of toil would be rewarded by a peek at the secrets of consciousness. But even he shared in the fantastic expectations of the OED's originators. They calculated that the project would fill four volumes—about 7,000 pages^ and, with Murray, a tiny band of assistants, and the unpaid readers doing all the work, be delivered in ten years. Progress was even delayed at times by protracted haggling over the distribution of the expected profits. In the end, the thing required 13 volumes and almost 16,000 pages; it took 54 years to complete (the last volume appeared in 1933); and it cost the Oxford University Press £300,000.

It improves our respect for the judgment of those 19th-century lexicographical planners to learn that when work on the Supplement to the OEDwas begun in 1957, projections were made that proved to be overly optimistic in just about the same degree: a single volume of 1,275 pages, requiring seven years of work, was envisioned. The fourth and final volume finally appeared last May, 29 years later; the total number of pages is 5,646.

On its own terms, of course, the Supplement is a masterpiece. Beyond Its obvious philological usefulness, it serves as a kind of anthology of 20th-century writing in English—an almost surreal anthology, in which sentences from Joyce and Lawrence find echoes in forestry journals, medical textbooks, and the novels of Mickey Spillane. It is probably the most addictively browsable book ever published. And browsing is a perfect way to use it, for when one lifts one's head from its pages, it is like waking from a dream of knowledge.

But the Supplement is in some respects an even crazier enterprise than the original. The OED is a monument to the idea that the printed word is the essence of a language, to the idea of the cultural centrality of the book. It is in fact the consummation of that idea: it is a book written by books. Regarded as the record of usage in the published writing of the 20th century, the Supplement is (except by the standards of some fabulous Borgesian dictionary-of-the-fourthdimension) beyond judgment. But the record of usage in published writing is not the record of the language, and the special craziness of the Supplement arises not only from the fact of the enormous proliferation of printed material since the 19th century, which gives the operation its Sisyphean character, but from the more significant fact of the technology of the reproduction of speech. The 18th and 19th centuries were the era of the book; the 20th begins the era of the spoken word.

R, W. Burchfieid, the editor of all four volumes of theSupplement, has met these challenges with a contradictory policy. The browser of the Supplement notices immediately the exercise of a principled unselectivity in the matter of including words. Scientific terms ("umohoite": "a hydrous uranyl molybdate"), words net naturalized in English ("songkok"; "a cap worn by Malays"), brand names ("Slinky," "Triscuit"), and words generally associated with speech ("yum": "an exclamation of pleasurable anticipatior, with implication of sensual or gustatory satisfaction") have all been treated as philological equals. But of course their inclusion has in every case been justified by quotations from written sources, and here the browser will sense an effort to record whenever possible a highbrow use, with a result that is sometimes a little comic—so that "yucky," in the sense of "messy, 'gooey,'" is supported by a citation from the Times Literary Supplement ("I'eanut butter, that yucky staple standby of the American snackeater").

Or take the case of an ancient English word that Murray (to his regret) could not treat in the parent dictionary. One of the most common 20th-century uses of "fucking" in speech is as a virtually empty intensifier: "He led the fucking platoon up the fucking hill." This usage is documented in theSupplement with quotations from: James Joyce (1922), Frederic Manning (1929), John Dos Passos (1930), Dylan Thomas (1939), Doris Lessing (1960), W, H, Auden (1969), and IT (the first British underground paper: "The Youngbloods... are so fucking good they can do spontaneous albums" [1971]).

The inference that a taboo word is likely to be found in highbrow writing well before it shows up in popular literature (if that is in fact what the quotations are meant to show) is provocative. But what the entry demonstrates most pointedly is that against the background of its actual use, a word's literary history is a drastically circumscribed thing, (Th-j insult to common speech is aggravated in the case of "fuck" by the curious absence in any quotation of a frequent, and semantically mysterious, use of the word in the phrase "Fuck you.") 

IN SHORT, although all words are equal in the Supplement, some people's sentences are more equal than other people's. In the introduction to the first volume, Burchfield announced his intention to represent "liberally" the vocabularies of major literary figures—noting that Murray had attempted to account for the complete vocabularies of Chaucer, Gower, Shakespeare, and other (pre-19th-century) writers. Thus the inclusion of nonce words—invented words or words used in a unique sense—from the works of anthologized writers: T, S, Eliot is cited for "smokefall," Joyce for "smellsip," and so forth, Auden is credited with two words—"Princeton-First- Year" and "plain sewing" (denoting unspecified homosexual practices)—that he claimed to have included in a book review expressly to ensure that he would be cited in the OED. 

But this practice only highlights the increasingly anachronistic character of the OEUs method: Who regards contemporary poets as arbiters of usage? And it reminds us that granting authority to the written word means excluding all but a tiny fraction of language users from the "official" history of usage. Why isn't a bad poet's coinage for "evening"— or, for that nnatter, why isn't some "erroneous" usage in an office memo, or my term of abuse for my cat— as much a part of 20th-century English as Eliot's "smokefall"? The answer, of course, is that Insofar as language is regarded as a list of meanings, there are as many languages as there are language users, and no dictionary maker can undertake to account for them all. But language is not a list of meanings—which is why although dictionaries can provide information about language, language cannot be found in dictionaries. 

The fourth volume of the Supple^ ment marks the end of the OED's growth as a book (though a microphotographic edition of the entire, collated dictionary will eventually appear). But it is not the end of the OED: it will continue to expand, on the model of Lexis and Nexis, on laser disk—a neat commentary on the culture of print. Another commentary, fitting in its own way, was the appearance last fail, a few months after the last volume in the 107-year career of the OED was published, of the public television series "The Story of English." For "The Story of English" is a history of language for the television age; it tells the tale almost entirely in terms of speech.

One of the great fears of people who associate technology with cultural homogenization has been that radio and television will mean the standardization of speech, as listeners pick up cues for pronunciation and usage from announcers who have been selected specifically for the blandness of their speech patterns. This anxiety was actually matched for a time in England by an anxiety on the part of the BBC that announcers would inadvertently spread hadhabits of pronunciation and usage unless they were schooled otherwise—which led to the establishment in 1926 of an Advisory Committee on Spoken English (C, T. Onions, one of the editors of the OED, was a member; so were George Bernard Shaw, Kenneth Clark, and Alistair Cooke), and thus to the invention of an essentially artificial dialect: BBC English.

But there is a sense in which telecommunications (assisted by the permutations of the Zeitgeist) has had something like the opposite effect. Radio and television thrive on variety; by their natures, they make salient—in a way written language, which of course is far more standardized than speech, cannot—the sounds of difference in the way people talk. And they often make those differences seem worth cultivating, if only because the ear perks up at a new style of noise. It is because of radio that white working-class Liverpudlians decided they wanted to sound like black American blues singers. It is because of television that people inMaine (and probably people in Milan) know that "tubular" means "awesome" in the San Fernando Valley, and can even reproduce the local pronunciation. Television, which can make and break usages overnight, is the mocker of dictionaries. 

Spanning the globe to bring us the constant variety of speech, "The Story of English," with Robert MacNeil as host, celebrates this new world with an enthusiasm that is a little unexamined. The program's thoroughgoing egalitarianism about language use—pidgin is as good as Received Standard—has provoked (as its producers no doubt hoped it would) a few solemn protests from guardians of the tongue. But the pleasure the show takes in dialectical difference is the most attractive thing about it: this is, or should be, precisely the ideological point of television. And its vision of global linguistic miscegenation is unusually bold and appealing.

What is disturbing is the show's (and the accompanying book's) colossal, overweening, unblinking chauvinism about its subject. It seems that English is destined to become the first language of the world—not because of anything the British navy and the American dollar might have wrought, but because it's such a wonderful language. We learn that English is the universal language of air traffic controllers; it's the official language of the Olympics, the Miss Universe competition, and the World Council of Churches; it is (a Strauss waltz swells on the sound track) the language in which Kurt Waldheim's message "on behalf of the people of our planet" was broadcast into outer space from Voyager One, It's as though English had been made the subject of an episode of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," and there are moments during the survey of the language's history when one can almost hear, beneath MacNeil's measured Canadian accents, the unmistakable cadence of Robin Leach: "It's hard to imagine that the language of this savage people would one day become the most widely spoken in the world."

In this respect "The Story of English" shares an ambition with the makers of the OED. A mid-Victorian faith in the glorious future of British culture inspired some of tbe members of the Philological Society of London when it undertook to be the dictionary's original sponsor; one of the most enthusiastic, F, J, Furnivall, envisioned the dictionary as "a National Portrait Gallery . , . of the race of English words which is to form the dominant speech of the world." The television series sounds at moments like a late echo of that sentiment: "The African sun set on the Union Jack," MacNeil announces in the opening segment, "but not on the English language."

The companion book for "The Story of English," by Robert McCrum (who also wrote the script for the series) collaboration with William Cran and MacNeil, is much less effective than the show in its celebration of linguistic polyphony. Like Robert Hendrickson's American Talk, which gives a similarly picturesque and upbeat account of American dialect forms, it suffers from an obvious ontological problem: it is a book about speech. This leads to various orthographical expedients that only make the distinction between talking and writing seem invidious, which is exactly the sort of thing the authors want to attack. In Hendrickson's book, for instance, black speakers say, "Sho' nuf"— but what does the apostrophe replace, and isn't "nuf" the way all speakers pronounce the second syllable of "enough"? 

THE STORY OF ENGLISH is also not a particularly thoughtful piece of writing. It is riddled with trivial errors: "pacification" as a military euphemism predates the war in Vietnam; Nev/ Orleans is not the capital of Louisiana; Rhode Island is not an island; an idiom is not an aphorism; and so forth. And it is filled with sentences that range from the silly ("The year the Anglo-Saxons first crossed the sea , , , the odds against English becoming a world language were about a million to one") to the bizarre ("[English's] genius was, and still is, essentially democratic. It has given expres sion to the voice of freedom from Wa: Tyler . , , to Martin Luther King") to the alarming ("In retrospect, that settlemeni: [of the North American continent], and the extension of the sway of the English language into a potentially huge arena, seems inevitable, obvious and natural").

What is most conspicuously missing from The Story of English, as this last sentence illustrates, is any kind of realistic awareness of the political context of language use. "The passion for English [inChina] drives people to make extraordinary sacrifices," the book explains. "A young man whose monthly wages are 36 yuan spends one-third of his total income on English classes, dictionaries, cassettes, novels." But why? To read lane Austen in the original? One of the advantages the television program has over the book is that we can hear for ourselves in interview after interview the truth the narrative pointedly ignores: that people learn English to get ahead in those parts of the world increasingly dominated by American culture, and that they are perfectly aware that being dialect speakers on the margins of the language means being deprived of access to certain desirable kinds of opportunity. Students of the language need to avoid judging people by their usage, but they should not forget that judging people by their usage is something users of the language do all the time.

Now that the schools have more or less abandoned the responsibility, passing judgment on speech has become semi-institutionalized in our society in the columns and commentaries of the so-called "pop grammarians," The label is a little unfair, since talking about talk is, or ought to be, a kind of right of cultural citizenship. But the unfairness reflects a suspicion that usage commentators are not really talking about talk at all: they are trying to tell us how to live.

William Safire, who writes the "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, is usually counted among these linguistic authoritarians—The Story oj- English lists him with Edwin Newman and John Simon as one of the "high priests of correct English usage" whose writings "play to a wide public anxiety about the changing language." But Safire is not really the high priest he seems; he's a descriptivist in prescriptivist's clothing. Like most people in what he calls "the usage dodge," Safire's attitude toward linguistic change is a function of his attitude toward social and pohtical change generally. And sociopolitically, Safire is a (self-proclaimed) libertarian conservative: his motto is "Let thinking people decide for themselves." (He opposes, for example, the suppression of pornography,) Thus he can sometimes sound like a subscriber to the principle that "The native speaker is never wrong"—a principle dreaded by most usage experts for the obvious reason that if natives cannot be wrong, they can have no use for experts, Safire sees nothing incorrect about "It's me," for instance, on grounds that "when established idiom clashes with grammar, correctness is on the side of the idiom." And he determines the number of the noun "savings" by administering a broccoli-or-spinach test: "I say that 'savings is' sounds funny and if something sounds funny I say to hell with it." He has (like Shakespeare) little Latin and less Greek, and he regards with skepticism the language dictator's secret weapon, etymology.

Safire reprints letters from readers when he publishes his columns as books; it's an attractive custom, and the letters are sometimes as informative as the columns themselves. But they reveal the remarkable extent to which the column's readers take its author to be an embattled champion of "standards." This happy misprision can be attributed to Safire's canny ability {developed perhaps during his tenure as a speechwriter in the Nixon White House) to make fun of the neologisms, solecisms, and Alexander Haigisms he dissects without ever quite registering disapproval.

The task of having the fun look serious is made easier by Safire's trick of picking targets that are inherently mockable: corporate types, yuppies, bureaucrats, and, especially, politicians (just as "60 Minutes" plays crusader by attacking people—medical quacks, arms dealers, executives of chemical companies— no one wants to defend). But Safire does occasionally slip into an authoritarian mode, casting out newness. He justifies these disciplinarian moments with the following baffling syllogism: "In a thousand years, change will win, but if we do not fight change, there will not be much left to be changed"—in other words, it's a pointless job, but somebody's got to do it.

When this mood strikes, Safire finds himself confronted by every linguistic lawgiver's dilemma: how to make a usage everyone manages to live perfectly comfortably with seem like another step on the road to anarchy, Safire takes Jane Russell and Playtex severely to task for the phrase "For we full-figured gals," only to have a reader (Henrietta Wexler of Washington, D.C) point out that no doubt "we" is used instead of the grammatical "us" because it sounds more ladylike—just as the "us" in "Us Tareyton smokers" suggests a manly indifference to the niceties of proper usage. Similarly, Safire makes exceedingly heavy weather of a promiscuous use of the virgule (/) and other offenses against sense and syntax in a Henri Bendel's ad. But advertisers don't care about sense and syntax; they care about attracting attention. If they want to treat punctuation like paint, dabbing it here and there on the page, let them. No one will get the wrong idea. In usage, as in meaning, context is all. 

JACQUES BARZUN, former dean, provost, and university professor at Columbia, is an authority often cited by Safire when he wants to throw cold water on a usage but needs someone else to look like a pedant for doing it. For where Safire fiddles, Barzun burns. His brief pieces on language, written over many years and to meet a variety of occasions, attack, but with the prescriptive and proscriptive fervor missing from the "On Language" columns, the same kind of stock villains that Safire's do—psychiatrists, sociologists, advertising copywriters— along with a few real pigeons: Esperanto, Basic English, and the advocates of phonetic spelling. But Barzun reserves a special fury for the depredations of copy editors.

Barzun's diatribe against copy editors, drawn from a longer screed he published two years ago in the American Scholar, is a piece of work—though it does perform the useful service of exploding the assumption that punctiliousness about language is the token of a civil nature. Like many writers, Barzun has been frustrated at times by having to undo changes made in his copy by editors who missed an allusion, or who followed some rigid requirement of house style beyond the bounds of good sense, or who sought counterproductively to improve clarity with a new word or a different phrasing. The frustrations of editing (which, he can be sure, run in both directions) are part of the business of writing for publication. This is the style of generosity in which Barzun reflects on the situation: "It is a paradox that when language at large is being roughly treated by the heedless, a set of rigid notions and worthless rules are being enforced by the unliterary and illeducated." And he accuses copy editors of "error, confusion, arrogance, and coercion, ail doing damage to style and intellectual independence."

"Perhaps nervous fiddling becomes an uncontrollable habit when one earns one's bread by striking, slashing, changing," Barzun muses. The sentence sums up exactly the social context the piece pretends does not exist. Most copy editors are young and earn perhaps a tenth of the income Barzun earns. Their job is to render uniform and unambiguous material generally written by people who make far less of a fetish of correctness than Barzun does. The task is often difficult, since it is in the nature of even the most careless writers to be wounded when their copy is changed. And it is in the nature of the business of writing that when the editor improves the story, the writer gets the credit. The notion that the people who, without prospect of greater reward, attempt to enhance that credit are really engaged in sabotage smacks of superciliousness. When Barzun writes that "current jargon and vulgarisms , , . [are] perhaps the copy editor's native tongue," he is guilty of basing a personal and social judgment on merely literary evidence. When he writes that "many an editor is determined to furnish thoughts out of her own stock to eke out the author's poor supply," he is guilty of something worse. For it is the only sentence in the entire book in which the feminine pronoun is used when the gender is unspecified.

Barzun does offer a few hints about the social vision that informs his critique of other people's usage: 

Two of the causes of decline in all modern European languages have been: the doctrines of linguistic "science" and the example of "experimental" art. They come together on the principle of Anything Goes—not in so many words, usually, but in unmistakable effect. 

And elsewhere he attributes the decay of the language to "the poets and novelists of the last hundred years. It was they who taught us to reassign meanings to words—not occasionally but steadily— at the same time as they showed for syntax a disregard all too easy to imitate," This analysis has the advantage of all reductive generalizations: by explaining everything, it makes more thoughtful discriminations seem supererogatory. Having identified the villain, the author feels free to spend the rest of the time railing at the victims.

The obvious difficulty with Barzun's larger picture is one that often undermines prescriptive talk about talk: If language abuse is simply the outer sign of some profound social disease, why should we waste time curing the symptom? But in fact writers like Barzun do have a reason for naming and rootirg out language deviants. It is to identify those members of the group who are not to be trusted in the larger matter of curing the disease. If this is so, then surely we have a right to turn the tables. Should we trust someone who writes, as Barzun does in his final essay, "On the Necessity of a Common Tongue," that blacks are among the groups in our society who "speak . , , English unwillingly or with difficulty"? The characterization reveals a sensibility of astonishing impercipience. What does Barzun think American blacks are speaking—African? 

The jacket of Vicki Hearne's Adam Task: Calling Animals by Name features blurbs by a variety of luminaries. One of these is the distinguished philosopher of mind A. J. Ayer, who offers this tribute: "I much enjoyed Vicki Hearne's book, and I learned a great deal from it about the possibilities of communicating with domestic animals," Since Ayer is not famous because of his way with dogs and cats, the newcomer to Hearne's book may feel justified in wondering what the fuss is all about Reading the book may not be immediately helpful, as some of the reviews have shown. One confronts a book that seems to be a treatise on the proper training of dogs and horses but that reads like a study in moral philosophy, embellished with references to Aristotle, The Faerie Queene, Wittgenstein, and Stanley Cavell, The solution to this contradiction is that Adam Task is a study in moral philosophy that works as philosophy only because its author is genuinely obsessed with the practical problems of training dogs and horses.

Still, it is easy to be put off. The writing is an engine that could not be more beautifully tuned. But like all good stylists, especially those whose prose seems perfectly transparent, Hearne has a domineering authorial personality. The reader chafes at the throat-clearing selfreferences ("1 understand myself to be writing about Washoe's [a chimp's] training"), at the name-dropping ("I takehappiness to have at least the range of significance Aristotle saw in it"), at the blanket pronouncements ("I do believe that things like education by and large serve to defraud humans of their own interests and sometimes thereby of their souls"), at the use of Ripley's Believe-It-Or-Not anecdotes about tracking dogs and jumping horses to make philosophical points.

This affective response to Hearne's text is not beside the point; in an important sense it is the point. For Adam's Task is one of the most perfect realizations of the conversational style of ordinary language philosophy: we resist the blandishments of its style at every stage because we are meant to resist them. If we find the writing pretentious, or extravagant, or obnoxious, or too smooth to be true, it is because its author wants to break us of the habit of reading passively and to force us to become active participants in a conversation.

THE BOOK'S style enacts its program. Hearne's polemical point about animal training is that both the behaviorists and those she calls the "humaniacs"— people who are "kind" to dogs and horses—do not understand animals because they do not understand the way language works, "The investigation of animal consciousness, like the investigation of human consciousness, is centrally an investigation of language," she explains, "and this ought to remind us of what an investigation of language is." Skinnerians and sentimentalists confuse "talking to" with "talking at," They leave no room in their worldview for the notion that the animal they are addressing is simultaneously addressing them. They fail to realize that to talk—even to give commands or to murmur sweet nothings—is to engage in conversation.

But is this a book about people talking to dogs or is it "really" a book about people talking to people? To assume that the stories Hearne tells about animal training are merely allegorical is to miss the genuineness of her commitment to her subject. At the same time, though, the emphasis on the nitty-gritty of animal training is exactly what makes the metaphysics credible. Ordinary language philosophy and its offspring have always grounded themselves in the empirical: when the later Wittgenstein writes about language, he wants to know what happens at the level of everyday talk; when Stanley Cavell (Heame's immediate model) writes about film, he keeps returning to the experience of actually sitting in a movie theater watching a movie, Hearne's meditations on the language of dog and horse training are meditations on the language of everyday life because she regards dogs and horses as part of the social, human world. There is, for her, no metaphysical difference between communicating with a horse by sitting on its back and tapping it with your heels and communicating with a colleague by standing in front of him or her and holding forth verbally. What is brilliant about the book is that it presents a compelling view of conversation by discussing relationships in which one of the partners cannot "talk" at all.

As impressive as the book is, there are sides to its argument that even the can* niest literary style cannot make wholly appealing. This is a book about the nature of obedience; its subtext accuses the modern world of having abandoned, in its recoil from the horrors of fascist authoritarianism, the virtuous uses of authority. Thus the dignity of trained dogs and the nobility of trained horses are made to stand as mementos of what we lost when we shirked our responsibility to lead, to instruct, to command—and to be led and instructed by others.

Hearne's argument depends on the premise that the essence of dogness is, mutatis mutandis, the essence of humanness— that the experience of successful training, which she compares to the experience of creating a successful work of art, touches on the reality of what it means to be human. The trouble is that her notion of the human virtues is not universalist at all, but quite culturally specific. A sense of duty, selflessness, noblesse oblige—she wants all her dogs to be like Sir Philip Sidney. Those attributes of character were no doubt fine in the Renaissance, and retrospect makes them seem finer still. But this is not the Renaissance, and different cultural dispensations require different virtues.

Still, Adam's Task is a message to language prescriptivists. It reminds them that language is not a series of words, or a checklist of correct and incorrect usages, not the contents of the dictionary. Nor is it something that can be learned by rote: teaching someone not to say "hopefully" when he or she means "I hope" is not teaching someone how to use the language. If our future as a society somehow depends on the way we talk, it will help us to talk about talk with the tolerance and patience and even the inconclusiveness that is the spirit of a good conversation.  

Louis Menand is the author of, most recently, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (W.W. Norton & Company).

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