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How words make history: reading the signs of the times


Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell

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270 pp. $24.95

QUIET of title, ``Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary,'' issues a powerful lament over the massive drift toward vagueness and noise in the English language as we use it now.

With a genius for organization and summary, Geoffrey Hughes recapitulates and integrates masses of historical material from the Oxford English Dictionary and the insights of Owen Barfield, Raymond Williams, C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, George Steiner, and other students of ideology and language.

Chronological charts lay out various ``semantic fields'' (the key words in various activities such as economics, or states of mind, such as rudeness) and trace historical shifts of emphasis and value. This is the story of English for the critical reader. The golden thread that runs through it is woven of two strands, historical evolution and something like conspiracy.

Beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville's (1805-59) insights into the ``broad evolutionary social dynamic of liberation'' found everywhere in Western democracies, Hughes discusses medieval and Renaissance words in terms of social hierarchies. He finds ``a strong correlation between status and implied moral quality.'' Ceorls and earls were not equal under the law, and ceorl became churl, whence churlish: Thus evaluation is tied to social structure.

In a chapter on ``Moneyed Words: The Growth of Capitalism,'' Hughes accounts for the change from medieval feudal society to modern capitalism. For example, the word ``purchase'' once had more chase in it than cash (though some of the original ``strong physical sense'' is still seen where purchase means leverage in physics and engineering).

Hughes, a professor of English at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, is an outstanding interpreter of the signs of these times. He notes how, under the impact of third-world rhetoric, the word ``debt'' has become loaded in favor of the indebted, and ``developing'' has replaced ``underdeveloped'' or ``poor.''

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Agents of rapid change and eventual leveling receive detailed analysis. A chapter on what Carlyle called ``the Fourth Estate'' includes fascinating studies of headline language and how it reflects the shifting attitudes of society about the breaking story as it unfolds day by day, from initial emphasis on violence to ultimate euphemism for the damage done. A discussion of ``gamutone'' alerts readers to the manner in which newspapers run the linguistic gamut looking for punch. Hughes comments on the obfuscation caused by unnamed sources and the false personifications in ``Canberra takes the view,'' ``Bonn confirms ...'' and the false consensus impled by phrases like the West, the superpowers, the third world.

About the press's management of linguistic capital, he quotes Gresham's law about the bad driving out the good. The bottom line for current English is suggested when he writes, ``In much political journalism the conflict between syntax (with its requirements of clarity, causation and sequence) and fact (elusive, complex, and often incoherent) is very evident.''

In the key chapter on democracy and language, Hughes notes how the word democratic has come to mean good (a process he calls ``amelioration'' that applies to many key words in the increasingly vague vocabulary of democracy). He also notes how Raymond Williams, author of the classic study ``Key Words,'' occasionally allowed his own Marxist views to shape his discussion into a kind of ``ideological wish fulfillment.''

One of the key words of our time is ``standard.'' While Standard English - the written English found in most books - has suffered displacement by ``substandard'' varieties in a process Hughes calls ``fission,'' dictionaries have sought to provide guidance on usage, though in terms not of correctness or taste but of a new standard of decorum determined by ``a vague sociological relativity.'' Dictionary users are now told when it is OK to misuse Standard English in order to communicate appropriately.

Hughes's own standards derive not from a freely - or coyly - acknowledged ideological bias, but from an appreciation for the concrete precision of English at its best. He distinguishes - and teaches us to distinguish - between ``natural, evolutionary and symbolic change'' and change that is ``artificially contrived or cynically imposed by an oligarchy'' - the language of feminists, for example. As his historical surveys amply demonstrate, clarity of expression - which includes the rhythmic nuance of value registered by cultivated, ``written'' syntax - does seem to be free of politics. Good English knows no party. Freedom of expression is a universal discipline.

Today, Hughes says, ``words are utilized solely for effect, and meaning is conceived of as arbitrary, endlessly relative to the point of idiocy.'' Quoting Daniel J. Boorstin on how consumers actually wish to be mystified by advertising copy, Hughes formulates what he calls the ```language conspiracy' in which manipulator, medium, and mass connive.'' As goes capitalism, so goes modern democracy. Elsewhere he quotes Tocqueville: ``With regard to language, democratic nations prefer obscurity to labour.''

The only flaw I see in all this - beyond the unfashionable pessimism - is Hughes's tendency to create technical terms by adding a noun to a noun: for example, ``language conspiracy.'' I forgive him. His vision of ``verbicide'' - the murder of language - gives new meaning to the old symbol with which he closes his book, the tower of Babel.

At the center of the book, in a chapter called ``The Mobilization of Words: Printing, the Reformation and the Renaissance,'' Shakespeare takes a bow. Citing his big vocabulary - 20,000 to 30,000 words, as against 8,000 for Milton - Hughes says: ``His intuitive understanding of the strengths and follies, charms and banalities of the tongue is as profound as it is of other aspects of human behaviour.'' That sentence gives a fair sense of Hughes's own alertness to his many-sided and uniquely important subject. As a book that shows how words make history, ``Words in Time'' has few peers, if any.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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