You can feel the collective shudder among language purists: “innit”, “grrl” and “thang” have been admitted into the Collins Scrabble Dictionary. Admission into any dictionary is the first step on the road to legitimation, thus raising the question of whether mispronunciation constitutes a genuine neologism. I hate to admit it, but historically speaking the answer to that question is yes.
The cynics amongst us might wonder whether the dictionary’s editors made deliberately provocative choices to stir up publicity. The Americans amongst us might wonder why an American like me is using the archaic “amongst” instead of “among” like a normal person. Language usage matters, in other words, not merely because of our need to communicate denotatively, but because of the complex, subtle array of connotative meanings conveyed by specific usages. Usage creates groups; it includes and excludes, and it hierarchizes. To wit: my use of the “-ize” suffix in “hierarchize” will brand me as a philistine to certain readers – a point to which I’ll return.
We all know that language is mutable, that it must either evolve or wither away: there’s no language so pure as a dead one. Babylonian is untroubled by the intrusion of new slang, as it is untroubled by speakers. The word “slang” is itself illustrative: it was first recorded in 1756, I learn from the OED, which offers a wonderfully sniffy definition: “The special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable character.” Language thus signals not education, but character: not what you know, but who you are. And who you are, linguistically speaking, is all about class, innit.
It is no coincidence that the word “slang” entered the language immediately after Samuel Johnson codified it for the first time in his 1755 dictionary. Johnson took a surprisingly descriptive (rather than prescriptive) stance toward English, acknowledging that change wasn’t just inevitable, but normal. He also thought that an F was the same as an S, so what did he know? (This is a joke. I may be American, but I am familiar with the orthographic peculiarity that was the “long S” in the 18th century.) Standardized spelling soon followed, and the British generally chose the Norman route.
It took an American to start purging the French out of English. After the revolution (not “war of independence”, thank you) the fledgling US sought to establish its independence culturally as well as politically. Moreover, the Enlightenment project of America’s founders meant emphasizing literacy education; and pronunciation had already altered over the previous two centuries. In 1828 Noah Webster produced the first American dictionary, seeking to establish America’s cultural distinctiveness. The much-maligned (in Britain) suffix “-ize” is not a modern outrage derived from US business speak, but dates back to Webster, who returned it to words derived from Greek verbs ending in “-izein”. He also took the French out of words ending in “-re”, and the “u” out of the suffix “-our”, another French spelling. In other words, when the British mock “American” spellings, they are usually defending the French. That’s what you call historical irony.
I was recently upbraided by an English woman for using what she called an “American barbarism” – the form “gotten”, as in “I’d gotten tired of being corrected by arrogant, misinformed persons”. I explained that “gotten” is a Renaissance usage found throughout Shakespeare; he uses “ungotten” too.
The mongrel tongue of English has always been a gallimaufry, a point acknowledged in 1579 by Edmund Spenser in his Shepheardes Calender: “So now they haue made our English tongue a gallimaufray, or hodgepodge of all other speches.” Gallimaufry comes from the French; so, ironically, does “hodgepodge”, which the OED informs me is a variation of hotchpotch, from hotchpot, from hochepot – an Anglo-Norman word.
The standardization of language may be a comparatively recent phenomenon, but fears about its corruption by foreign or degenerate “speches” are as old as xenophobia. The argument is always framed as an effort to keep the original language from “degenerating”, but language can’t degenerate: it can only live or die. The idea that languages are threatened by the inclusion of new words is as foolishly nativist as the idea that exogamy threatens bloodlines. What may be threatened by admitting new words are class prerogatives based on exclusive access to standard forms – and from a democratic perspective, that’s not a bad thing.
From an aesthetic standpoint, however, “innit” remains an abomination. That said, true language purists won’t admit the authority of Scrabble’s dictionary in the first place. But they should: the first recorded use of “scrabble” is from no less canonical a source than the King James Bible itself. But note to the Scrabble editors: they spelled it “scrable”.