‘What’s wrong with totes amazeballs your such a sarcastronaut, get on my ironocycle and have some fun BTW!’ tweeted Jack Whitehall. Every year, in Britain at least, the bestseller lists seem to bring news of another hit book on how our language is going to the dogs. As the eye-popping sales figures of authors such as Lynne Truss, Simon Heffer and NM Gwynne show, it’s an irresistible subject.
The Oxford scholar Simon Horobin’s new volume, by contrast, is part of an opposing genre of books by serious linguists on why, essentially, we shouldn’t care. Unfortunately the text sometimes slips into tutorial mode. We are treated to quite a lot of Old English, and talk of “preterite” tenses, “weak verb classes”, “inflexional endings”, and so on, as well as intermittent flashes of professorial humour (these days, would you believe it, “trolls are not just found lurking under bridges preying on unsuspecting billy goats, tweeting is not limited to birds, and surfing no longer requires a surfboard”).
But Horobin is also on a laudable and more interesting mission – to educate the wider public. Like David Crystal, Henry Hitchings, Mark Forsyth, and a host of other learned and witty authors before him, he has set himself the dual task of explaining why our linguistic standards are arbitrary and changeable and why we are nonetheless so invested in upholding them.
In seven brisk chapters, he hurries us through the development of Old, Middle and Early Modern English, the increasing 17th and 18th-century concern with correct usage and standardisation, and the 19th and 20th-century heyday of language manuals, prescriptiveness and verbal snobbery. As George Bernard Shaw observed a century ago: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”: like most modern philologists, Horobin is keen to dispel all remnants of such dialectal prejudice.
As in his previous book, Does Spelling Matter? (the answer was yes, but not all the time), he is at his best when illustrating how modern usages that horrify linguistic purists in fact have deep historical roots. “OMG” was used by a septuagenarian naval hero, admiral of the fleet Lord Fisher, in 1917: so get over it. Long before Facebook, Thomas More, Shakespeare and Alexander Pope all wrote of people who’d been “un-friended”. Though Tesco was shamed by grammatical purists into altering the wording of its checkout signs from “10 items or less” to “Up to 10 items”, there’s no sound historical or logical basis for such pedantry. (As Horobin points out, the fact that the tills of its upmarket rival, Waitrose, read “10 items or fewer” cleverly confirms its customers in their false “sense of social and intellectual smugness and superiority”).
Instead of bemoaning the supposed illiteracy of texting and social media, Horobin prefers to highlight their creativity and playfulness. (Like any up-to-date media don, though he doesn’t mention it in the book, he himself tweets: you can follow him @SCPHorobin.) He is keen to stress the value of everything from the use of “amazeballs”, to the Brummie accent, to Singlish, Chinglish, Japlish and other mixed tongues.
All the same, the book’s perspective is very much the view from an Oxbridge high table. If, as I did, you grew up happily paging through the different editions of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or if you still worry about the distinction between a jack and a knave, or can’t abide the way that Tony Blair speaks, this historical survey will help you understand why.
But its approach will be less illuminating to anyone who enjoys hip-hop, or revels in the prose of Junot Díaz, or has ever wondered why all the tannoy announcements at Heathrow airport are nowadays made by a woman (or, rather, a robot) speaking English with a Dutch accent. The fact that English is a world language, even more than it is the mother tongue of most people living in the UK, is gestured to at the beginning and end of the book, but otherwise largely ignored.
Looking ahead, Horobin’s focus is likewise on “what the future holds for standard British English”. Other varieties are portrayed mainly as threats to the status of this privileged dialect. As he concedes, there are now far more speakers of English in the United States than in Britain, and American English dominates the world. Yet, like all those British politicians desperate for their nation to punch above its weight in world affairs, he persists in arguing that we plucky Brits are still a linguistic superpower. As English spreads across the world, Horobin fantasises, it’s possible that the upper-class British accent (“received pronunciation”) will end up becoming the new global standard, trumping all others. It’s an oddly parochial stance for a self-proclaimed champion of pidgin and creole languages, emoticons and emojis.
He has, of course, set himself an impossible task. The brevity of How English Became English means that it inevitably raises more questions than it can answer. Why did the mania for regularising spelling and grammar take off in the 18th century? How far have other European languages evolved in similar ways over the last 500 years? Why have the English always been more obsessed with linguistic class-indicators than other cultures?
Inside this svelte tract are several larger and more polemical volumes struggling to get out. But we all need to start somewhere.
• Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex is published by Penguin