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"Talk on the Wild Side" Is a Sharp Ode to Our Unruly, Resilient Language

To sum up: language is not so much logical as it is useful. It is not composed; it is improvised. It is not well behaved; it is resourceful. It is not delicate; it is hardy. It is not always efficient, but its redundancy makes it robust. It is not threatened; it is self-renewing. It is not perfect. But it is amazing.

—Lane Greene

That paragraph—a paragon of parallelism—should give you a sense of Lane Greene's terrific new book Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can't Be Tamed. In this multifaceted yet focused book, Greene makes a powerful argument for the inherent resiliency of language, and his own sharp writing is serious support for language's power.

Like most well-informed language books, this one is not going to be popular with the English-is-going-to-hell crowd. If you prefer superstition and hearsay to facts and logic, look elsewhere. This book is anti-griper but doesn't fall into simple griping about gripers. Rather, Greene has a scientific, naturalistic bent he applies to language in clear and charming fashion. This approach lends itself to comparisons that work as well as a Border Collie on a farm.

Speaking of canines, they greatly inform Greene's thinking on lexical control freaks: "Language is a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and its needs. But there are those who want to tame language, to teach it to behave. Their ideal language would be a show dog, one that will come, sit, fetch, shake hands and roll over on command." As Greene demonstrates, the wildness of language goes hand in hoof with its resiliency, and that's the theme echoing through chapters on a boggling range of topics, such as invented languages, English's alleged lack (cough, they, cough) of an epicene pronoun, George Orwell's dubious language guidance, and the tricky topic of register, which is beautifully illustrated via a Key and Peele sketch. Hard to say whether Greene's grasp of history (lexical and otherwise) or breadth of sources is more impressive.

One of my favorite pet peeves is other people's pet peeves about the words awesome, decimate, and nauseous. Some folks' lexical sticks are so deep in the mud they believe these words should never, ever be used otherwise than their original meaning, evolution be damned.

Greene's takedown of such hokum is swift and logical and clap-worthy. I'll be quoting and paraphrasing him forever, particularly on the subject of language's "spontaneous order" in which "words change meaning, new ones are born, and other ones die." When a word changes meaning, it doesn't send its old meaning to the lexical glue factory, from which it can never be expressed. As Greene points out, words such as awe-filled and awe-inspiring pick up where awesome left off just fine.

Warning: Greene's theme of the non-ruinability of language may ruin some of your lexical prejudices. Euphemisms get constant blame for the degradation of discourse and society, and Greene tackles the topic in a chapter on Orwellian language such as the Bush Era rebranding of the estate tax as the death tax. In keeping with his vision of language as a system, Greene pooh-poohs the idea that slick euphemisms alone have a significantly deleterious effect on the world. Euphemisms may have a sulfurous smell, but they're just more examples of language change, and there's always a bigger picture. Euphemisms can't ruin anything without a lot of help.

Similarly, Greene acknowledges the terrific work of George Lakoff but says, "there are good reasons to doubt that frames are almighty." Just as decimate changing meaning doesn't demolish English, a euphemism probably isn't going to crush, save, or dramatically alter the political scene. Greene's pragmatism is, I hope, contagious: "Frames can help, but they are not magic." In other words, don't get hung up on the words. Dream a little bigger.

Aside from the power and persuasiveness of what he's saying, boy howdy, does Greene say it well. This is one of those language books that's so quotable you'll strain your quoting muscle. A few gems:

"Scientists have never found a language that has fallen to pieces. It's not in language's nature."

"…if whom is so important, why is there no difficulty whatsoever understanding a sentence that omits it?"

"The language tamers have an expensive show dog that nonetheless insists on barking at invisible cats and marking its territory on the living-room rug."

I like solid arguments and facts, but I love well-constructed sentences. Greene provides all of the above.

In summing up, Greene says he's tried "not just to puncture myths, but to sketch a set of beliefs about language that add up to not just a coherent whole, but a positive, optimistic one."

I reckon he succeeded, and I double-reckon I needed that positivity in these dark December days. Greene finds hope and strength in the multiplicity of language uses and users, who bend and twist English but can never break it. That's inspiring, folks.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday December 22nd 2018, 9:25 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Language is like a public hospital, accessible and open to all. But thank god for private rooms.

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