Monday, June 11, 2012

You Are What You Speak, by Robert Lane Green

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

This liberating book takes aim at 'grammar grouches’ and sticklers. Robert Lane Greene, who speaks nine languages, argues that language grows organically from the people, and any attempt to stifle it with excessive grammatical rules, and in some cases political coercion, is doomed to failure. Grammar grouches need to get over it, and realise that languages don’t stay fixed, but reflect the creativity and spontaneity of their speakers.

You Are What You Speak
argues that languages grow organically, that they are more fecund than virgin, more freewheeling and creative than bound by rules. Hence any attempt to formalise language, whether it be by laws or fastidious ‘grammar grouches’, is bound to fail.

Robert Lane Greene is a journalist (The Economist, The New York Times, The New Republic) and speaks nine languages to boot. He comes from the angle of someone who writes professionally but also knows how languages actually function in the real world. He finds rules for writing can be more typically useful as guides to making ourselves understood, but that there is nothing wrong with replicating in writing what is common in everyday speech.

There are several brilliant passages in You Are What You Speak where Greene really drills down into the rules of some the most inflexible ‘grammar grouches’, people like Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) and William Strunk, Jr (Elements of Style) to show how they really have no authoritative basis. These rules have simply been long held conventions that have no discernible purpose. In a bit of pop psychology, Greene suggests that people like Lynne Truss who get so angry about grammatical errors are likely to be shrill conservatives anxious about change.

Which leads to another major theme of the book: the intersection between politics and language. Greene shows many examples of where repressive and authoritarian governments have done their best to enforce rules in language, most notably in the use of vocabulary. This can have a disastrous effect on clarity of expression and communication. In the modern era of the nation state, attempts to nationalise languages have become more pronounced. A light example: when the French would not support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, there was a half-hearted attempt to re-name french fries as ‘freedom fries’. Greene gives many more examples along these lines.

The take away from this useful book is that language is more amorphous and free floating than static and fixed. Languages borrow words continuously from each other. Languages have their own dialects, accents and regional variations. Languages also change much over time. Words go out of usage while new ones are created by popular use.

You Are What You Speak is a liberating book. Robert Lane Greene convincingly shows that excessive grammar rules and language enforced by political will are last ditch efforts to exert control over what we write and say. They are unnecessary, as such rules and laws are bound to fail. Language grows from the people as a living expression, not from rulebooks that censor creativity and spontaneity.

You Are What You Speak, by Robert Lane Greene. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863955416. RRP: $24.95