Thus far, with rough and all-unable pentium,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story of “grammar”
In little room confining mighty data; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
— with apologies to King Henry V
VIII.1 I hope to have made plausible that the three-sided linguistic, cognitive, and social notion of the real GRAMMAR -- as the system of operations, guidelines, and strategies actually applied to forms, patterns, and positions by speakers and writers of English, as well as their audiences -- is far broader, deeper, and more variegated than any compiled “grammar” could hope to encompass. In return, I also hope that my Friendly Grammar may do its bit toward broadening and deepening public or educational notions of “grammar ”, and toward encouraging respect for its dynamic flexibility, creativity, and variation.
VIII.2 The aspirations peaking in 18th century Enlightenment “to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, Purity and Propriety” (Daniel Defoe) and indeed to “fix our Language for ever” (Jonathan Swift) (II.92) seems to live on as a theory magisterially impervious to the problematic exigencies of practice. The recalcitrant discrepancies between theory and practise can stake out an ominous terrain for many teachers and learners of English around the world, as if we can be held responsible and even assailed for failing at a chaotic mission whose methods, objectives, and outcomes are so disputatious, divisive, and inconsistent.
VIII.3 Given that a divided society ruled by a moneyed elite is a firm credo of Tory ideology, their grand initiatives like the Revised National Curriculum for English might raise some uncertainties about their motives. As noted, the goals of that turgid enterprise are set so high – not merely being “confident” in “using the grammatical, lexical and orthographic features of Standard English”, but doing so in seventeen distinct “written forms” (II.46, 12) – that complete success for all learners can hardly be anticipated, even if we shared a clear and coherent account of what those “features” might be, which we apparently do not.
VIII.4 Many Tory politicos themselves cultivate an orotund “Standard English”, which is a crucial support for their tacit claim to power and, as needed, a smoke screen for “saying a lot of silly things”, as John Major was wont to do (New Statesman) (cf. V.76). The linguistic and social sides are thus brandished like fetishes, much at the expense of the cognitive.
VIII.5 Surveys indicate that “Standard English” (along with its “Received Pronunciation”) as a medium of daily use in Britain is increasingly an elite minority variety. Meanwhile, respect is rising for alternative varieties, such as Estuary English, which, as cited in III.15, is seen by “significant numbers of young people” “as modern, up-front, high on ‘street cred’ and ideal for image-conscious trendsetters” (see also Note 2 to Part III). Socially, then, both the low and the high ends of “society” may be attracted; but I doubt whether “Estuary” will come to be “Standard” as long as the latter remains the language of power among those most reluctant to share it.
VIII.6 Other regional Englishes too are being treated more like vital media of solidarity and rendered generally accessible on the Internet, including what are still quaintly called their “slang” versions. These last are no doubt also “high on street cred”, and plausibly oppositional, anti-elitist power media of resistance among the disempowered within a sharply divided society.
VIII.7 Furthermore, the Internet is an arena where young people are becoming major improvisers of language. As demonstrated in III.23, they focus on break-away orthography, pronunciation, and punctuation, presumably as a gesture of spontaneity and individualism, yet also as a signature of membership in trend-setting in-groups of their own fashioning. The effects depend critically on knowing the “standards” that are being displaced. Illiteracy is therefore not a factor; indeed, the very fact that young people are happily writing, in their own languages about themselves and their lives, to friends and strangers alike -- not glumly knocking out “school essays” in some dutiful stab at “standard” language -- certifies them to be literate, albeit on their own terms and turf.
VIII.8 The “future of GRAMMAR” is difficult to foresee, yet perhaps some conjectures may be ventured. Runaway technologies at fiercely competitive prices should significantly increase the prevalence and facility of spoken English and facial contact in arenas where writing has predominated in the past. In parallel, the public self-consciousness about the labyrinthine imperatives for “correctness” should be relaxed, eventually even for ostensibly “formal” discourse, which many could find hard to produce and understand in spontaneous speech. And the public’s shyness and fastidiousness about one’s image and environment, which has held back “picturephones” and “videophones” since the 1960s and 1970s, is likely to fade under the outreach of adventurous or exhibitionist teenagers.
VIII.9 The “future of grammar” as a subject-matter for schooling and training will depend vitally on whether it moves ain step with social and communicative trends, tuning away from a long and rancorous history of decrying them as signs of “Ignorance and Affectation” (Defoe) or “Corruptions” and “Licentiousness” (Swift) (II.92). Perhaps the confrontational ambience may finally be defused as “non-standard” varieties like “Estuary English” flourish as media of empowerment (cf. § VIII.5). But the image of “grammarians” as professional or amateur devotees of one-up-man-ship and gotcha, inheritors of that stony gargoyle on the Cathedral at Chartres (II.144), will be hard to shed without some clear manifestations of a firm will for change, among which my “cyberbook” may be counted as a something of a start.
VIII.10 In the new millennium, the issues are hugely complicated by the egregious uncertainties of breakneck social change and instability at large. We are, I believe, approaching the final showdown between money power versus people power. Hardly by coincidence, this matches the contest between language of power (e.g., deceitful and befogging doublespeak from polluting corporations) versus language of solidarity (e.g. humanitarian appeals from the Greenpeace movement), where the notion of “grammatical correctness” is rather a red herring.
VIII.11 To judge from those Tory crusades, “grammar” will remain a playing chip in this end game. Indeed, elites have pungent motives to welcome and prolong the long-standing impasse whereby “grammar ” has been subjected to a general confabulation – meaning “a fantasy that has unconsciously emerged as a factual account in memory” (Skeptic’s Dictionary).WWW Thus , a presumptuous bishop of London with spare time on his hands and no commitment to apostolic poverty, could, without serious challenge much less ridicule, peddle a “grammar” pronouncing the likes of Shakespeare and Milton to have been “guilty of errors” (II.98).
VIII.12 The last 35 years or so have finally set aside this conveniently doomed crusade, yet, in my view, many of the new grammars are rather too ponderous, expensive, “formal”, and indebted to tradition to facilitate the daily travails of English teachers I have talked with from places like the highlands of Northern Luzon, the shores of Lake Maracaibo, the olive groves of Galilee, or the urban “favelas” (informal settlements) of Manaus along the upper Amazon. These hefty tomes still do not go far enough to push out the edges of envelope in which “grammar” has routinely been delivered.
VIII.13 The vital challenge I would see for “grammarians” – perhaps under some more tactful title like “consultants” – would be to keep tabs on where the real GRAMMAR of English, or its family of GRAMMARS, is in fact heading. So far-reaching a enterprise is becoming steadily more tractable with the tactical support of electronic media and its results can be expected to snowball as broader and deeper issues congeal into focus from large data sets.
VIII.14 If this projection sounds a bit sanguine, then because the dynamic vitality of English itself is growing ever more accessible to exploration; and even long-term explorers can expect to uncover a shimmering tapestry of surprises. So intense has been my own experience that I might well feel abashed to recall some sketchy views of the subject-matter I had so long sustained without large-scale, systematic access to data. Instead, I feel privileged as if I were gazing from above upon such a vast floating archipelago as the Solimões of the Amazon Basin, where the surfeits of discovery are limitless indeed.
-- CLICK HERE TO GO TO TABLE OF CONTENTS --
-- CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO RdB'S HOME PAGE --