English purism – the ideal vs. the real(ity)

We’ve talked a lot about errors and correctness – especially in grammar and punctuation. Though some would argue that there are certain rules that are fixed, we’ve seen that they are arbitrary, at best those of personal and professional standards. For instance, conventions are necessary in writing, whether in academic discourse or publishing houses. Even these format guides allow for judgment calls, such as when using the Oxford comma or punctuating introductory elements—as long as the writer is consistent within a document. We’ve also discussed purism in debates about grammar (split infinitives, subject-verb agreement) and word usage (aggravate/exasperate, different from/different than).

Desire for a linguistic purism in English is a similar phenomenon, what Richard Nordquist on Thought.com describes as “a zealous conservatism in regard to the use and development of a language.” Nordquist labels purism as pejorative and goes on to use the word “grammaticaster” for a purist. Though it’s a term that isn’t found in many dictionaries. Bryan A. Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, tweeted “grammaticaster” as the “word of the day” on 1/2/2019: “a nescient [ignorant] would-be grammarian.” Garner concedes that some authorities include pedants such as himself in this category. (Garner has sometimes weighed in on the purist side in those debates discussed in the posts on this blog.)

Purism in English language, sometimes referred to as Anglish or Root English, is the belief that English should be closer to its roots or its Anglo-Saxon (and Jute) origins. As discussed in the post on the history of the English language, English is close to a universal language in its reach and plasticity, spreading over the globe and absorbing the vocabulary of other languages through invasion or conquest either of England or by England (especially through colonialism). Ammon Shea in Bad English describes the spread as “a massive linguistic cancer across the globe” (160). And though English has taken over linguistic and geographical territories, purists see difference and change as “degradation” and would allow “only one fixed, immutable, correct version” in a quote Nordquist includes from the early 19th century.

Purism, however, dates much earlier as seen in examples from 16th century scholars. William Lambarde noted that “our language is fallen from the old Inglishe, and drawen nearer to the frenche” (qtd in Shea 161). A popularly cited quote is the one by John Cheke, who wrote in 1561 that “our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges.” Thus, Old English has been held up as the ideal.

Purist in particular object to the absorption and use of Latinate words, which tend to be polysyllabic versus the shorter, blunter words derived from English’s Germanic origins. From the 16th century, there have been attempts to replace words of Latin origin with Saxon-derived words, sometimes inventing new “native” words for this purpose. For instance, another 16th century scholar Ralph Lever provided these alternatives: say-what for definition, endsay for conclusion, and wight for animal (Shea 162)

The 19th century Welsh poet William Barnes agreed that Germanic languages were more concrete and earthy. Robert Lane Greene in The Economist relates that in one exchange, Barnes recommended sun-print for the Greek-derived photograph, which translates to “light-writing.” In Old English, including kennings, word compounds with metaphorical meanings in its poetry; like Beowulf’s whale-road for sea. Greene gives contemporary examples of this “over-literal” nature of cousin languages, such as German: “The vacuum cleaner is a Staubsauger (“dust-sucker”), the television a Fernseher (a “far-seer”) and gloves are Handschuhe (“hand-shoes”).”

But as Shea points out, “Old English is not quite the Ur-English that some would like it to be” (165). Not only was it the language of the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the area roughly now Germany and Denmark). This is the language of invaders who displaced the Celtic language of those peoples then living on the British Isles. And Old English was highly inflected, as we noted in the posts “What is grammar?” and “Using the right verb form.” Moreover, Latin influences came from several waves of other “invasions” – from the Romans beginning in 43 BC, the Christian missionaries, the Norman Conquest (1066), the educational system, and the technology and scientific inventions. (For more details, see the post Brief history of English.)

What advocates of linguistic purism overlook, Shea argues, is that “pure English is neither etymologically or historically pure”:

“One of the problems with attempting to enforce any sort of pure English is the fact that so much of our vocabulary does not come from English roots. The word pure, for instance, is itself taken from Latin (purus). If we wanted to keep such a phrase entirely within the realm of our presumed linguistic heritage we would have to use the Old English clæne (since that was their word for pure), and ‘clæne English’ just doesn’t sound right.” (164-165).

Arguments for Anglish or Root English, however, continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st century.

Opponents felt just as strongly, as seen in this statement by the 19th century English novelist Thomas Hardy: “Whether in grammar or vocabulary, purism almost always means ignorance” (qtd in Nordquist).

Perhaps Greene sums up the reality succinctly: English has been “a global language for hundreds of years now, and a mongrel for a thousand. Flexible, growing, always being renewed, but never again to be ‘pure.’”

(Resources: Richard Nordquist; Bryan A. Garner [on Twitter]; Ammon Shea, Bad English; Robert Lane Greene in The Economist [online].)

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