Berks and wankers, prescriptivists and descriptivists
Jun 6th 2011, 17:25 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
I WOULDN’T have expected Kingsley Amis to be the one to nail this just right, but he did. His son Martin wrote an essay for the Guardian a little while back about Kingsley’s 1997 usage book “The King’s English”. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read the book. I paged through it in a shop once, but didn’t buy it. The few entries I read were funny and enlightening.
It turns out that Kingsley Amis not only got many little things right, but hit on something bigger, about prescriptivist and descriptivist thinking. Any intelligent prescriptivist is a bit descriptivist. You must accept language change or insist on the English of “Beowulf”. And any intelligent descriptivist is a bit prescriptivist: you can’t say “the language has no rules” unless you are prepared to live your creed and speak word salad. Fortunately, no sensible person takes either extreme position. So we’re all somewhere on a spectrum.
And where we are, wrote Amis, is at a point where on one side are “berks” and, on the other, “wankers”.
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
The berks and wankers are really, of course, also Kingsly’s sly parody of the language pundit. Every language writer thinks that there are mistakes that only idiots make. And every one considers certain rules stuffy or bogus. Where pundits disagree is deciding which language sins make you a berk, and which usage shibboleths make you a wanker.
I thought of the berk-wanker paradigm when I read John McIntyre’s response to Bryan Garner last week. Both are thoughtful language commentators. But they are separated tribally. Mr Garner wrote one of the better usage books out there. In it, he acknowledges (descriptivist) principles like letting “actual usage”, not just hoary old rules, guide him. But he identifies himself primarily as a prescriptivist.
Mr McIntyre, by contrast, seems to have joined the descriptivist tribe. He is a newspaper copy-editor by profession, and so spends his days cleaning up sloppy or hurried writing. But the only people who annoy him more than bad writers are
The risible Queen’s English society and Shouting Lynne Truss. The propagators of zombie rules: no-split-infinitives, no-split-verbs, no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences. (Mind you, there are prescriptivists as well as linguists who have flailed away at these shibboleths and superstitions for years without making much headway.) The English teachers who impose idiosyncratic and idiotic strictures on their students. The people who rant that the slang of the young is the End of Civilization.
I imagine that Mr Garner and Mr McIntyre would rarely disagree on actual usage. (Mr McIntyre supposes the same thing.) Where they differ seems to be only in their states of mind. Mr Garner’s fear is letting the berks take over. Mr McIntyre would rather be anything than a wanker.
Amis’s insight is that wherever we place ourselves on the berk-wanker spectrum is arbitrary. It can only be defended with an appeal to a sense of style and taste, with a strong dash of self-deprecating humour. Anyone who gets red-faced insisting that their place on the berk-wanker spectrum is the only place God intended language to be can be safely ignored. Fortunately, neither Mr Garner nor Mr McIntyre is in that camp.
I think I’ll pick up “The King’s English” now. Better late than never.