The depth, breadth, and playfulness of English; :The State of the Language. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. $14.95
As one who teaches English to non-active speakers, I can attest that for such students there are two primary difficulties with the language: its multiple exceptions to the rules and the similarity of so many sounds. As a native speaker, reader, and writer, I can also attest that it is just those peculiarities which combine to give this tongue its depth, breadth -- and playfulness.
Appropriately, "The State of the Language" has a broad scope and a healthy variety of entries. An anthology without a schematic point of view, its only doctrine seems to be the avoidance of any narrowly governing principle; as such, it lacks focus but includes a multitude of vistas. Like its subject, the English language, this book is sprawling, uncoordinated, uneven, noisy, and appealing. Among its 63 contributors are Leonard Michaels (also one of its editors), Simon Karlinsky, Frederic Raphael, Dianne Johnson, M.F.K. Fisher, Enoch Powell, and Hugh Kenner. The voices of the participants are rarely in harmony with one another and, in fact, it is another virtue of this work that it is hard to imagine all of them peacefully in the same room at the same time.
There are a few -- among them, John Simon and Kingsley Amis -- who have a strict idea of what English should be and an explicit sense of the worth of that strictness. There are some -- Leo Braudy, David Lodge -- who are more flexible and willing to allow for some anarchy, and others -- Geneva Smitherman, Ishmael Reed -- who believe the language should adapt in order to help rectify political imbalances. A sizable group deals with particular dialects (law, architecture, business, music, philosophy) in which they have a particular stake, either as academics or as professionals, and a final number with no clear message to profess have written intimately about the relationship between language and their private lives.
A motley crew it is, and with some fascinating things to say. On the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, a heinous act according to Margaret A. Doody: "It seems to be felt that we shall be nearer to God if we are not caught by language." Explaining the power of an ancient story for children, Karla Kuskin points out: "Blending gossip with superstition and imagination, it made magic rituals of the rhythms and repetitions of familiar speech." Feminist Angela Carter insists on the value of redoing languages:
"And we feel a compulsive need to rewrite those myths, since myth is more malleable than history, in order to accommodate ourselves in the past." Regarding the struggle to get one's point across in a very harried medium, Ronald Harwood says: "The screenplay must communicate to so diverse an audience as to make the hopes of those who promote Esperanto seem positively parochial." "A cliche," records Christopher Ricks freshly, "begins as heartfelt, and then its heart sinks." And Anthony Burgess is witty about cinematic translations: "Dubbing, like murder, is a craft; one can deplore the end while admiring the means." "Some people," Maxine Hong Kingston succinctly reports, "dry up each other's language."
And by implication, some people, writers, and books refresh one's wish to speak and listen. Although I would have liked to have read pieces on such matters as sports, humor, lying, rewriting, and acronyms, this book certainly had a salutary effect upon me. Most readers, I think, will mostly give thanks as what first appears to be a daunting and overwhelming tone turns out to be a miscellany of pleasant and interesting and provocative soliloquies. "Bricolage, " we learn in one of these essays, is a word which means an assembly of odd juxtapositions, a good enough subtitle both for English in general and for the manner in which it is treated in this book.