Linguistic botany

Posted by on June 26, 2012

In his book The Growth and Structure of the English Language, Otto Jespersen said the language was “like an English park, which is laid out seemingly without any definite plan, and in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your own fancy without having to fear a stern keeper enforcing rigorous regulations.” For stern keeper we may read language academy.

Jespersen was not the first to draw this analogy, and he won’t be the last, but it remains a fruitful comparison. We wander the park of language at will, speaking more or less like those around us. We can stick to the established paths, or we may forge new byways and see where they take us. But despite the great scope for variation in expression, we can take idiosyncrasy and experimentation only so far before communication begins to falter.

A related metaphor replaces the park with a garden, which makes it more personal: each of us has a plot (or plots) to plant and prune as we see fit. Ideas of correctness and appropriate usage tend to recur in discussions about language, so weeds often crop up when the metaphor is extended this way. Some people see weeds everywhere, and feel the urge to stamp them out in irritation. Others, you might say, prefer irrigation.

At Lingua Franca recently, Allan Metcalf wrote a fine post that cultivates the analogy of language as a garden which its users tend at their discretion. “We each have to do our own gardening,” he writes. That is, everyone takes responsibility for their own usage. For example, I deliberately used singular their and restrictive which in this paragraph, and I can defend these if need be, but someone else might consider them weeds, and strive to prevent them taking root in their idiolect.

When writing formal English, we align our style with the necessary standard, or we rely on an editor to do so. In other contexts, we’re generally more relaxed about how we speak and write, though we might be conscientious about avoiding certain words, phrases and pronunciations. Each of us has a unique approach that’s reflected in the language we use in different settings.

C. S. Lewis once drew on the gardening metaphor in a letter to a young reader. He compared the girl’s teacher to a gardener who made the distinction between flowers and weeds, and described himself by contrast as a botanist “interested in both as vegetable organisms”. It’s a generous differentiation that would allow his correspondent to appreciate her teacher’s efforts at establishing the requirements of formal English, while also showing her another way of looking at language that’s independent of the bias of social norms.

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Comments (9)
  • It’s interesting that you don’t see the same sort of fractious debates between gardeners and botanists as you do between descriptivists and prescriptivists. I wonder why that is. Perhaps vegetable organisms simply don’t inspire as much passion as language.

    Posted by Jonathon on 27th June, 2012
  • Jonathon: If they do, they inspire it in fewer people! I think one reason there’s so much acrimony in language debates is that people are inclined to think themselves experts because of their everyday familiarity with language, whereas with botany or gardening most people willingly defer to experts. Also, inasmuch as language is a matter of etiquette and social behaviour, people may feel a greater sense of duty to express their opinions on how others should do it or discuss it. I’m sure there are other reasons.

    Posted by Stan on 27th June, 2012
  • Good point, Stan. In a way, every single speaker of the language is a linguistic gardener. Having invested in our own linguistic gardens likely makes us feel like greater experts than we’re really entitled to be, because we rely so much on intuition and experience rather than explicit knowledge.

    Posted by Jonathon on 28th June, 2012
  • Exactly, Jonathon. We’re not ideal judges of our own usage, but I think we often assume that we are. And there’s a common tendency to universalise our personal preferences. It takes systematic analysis, or an editor or other attentive third party, to see our blind spots.

    Posted by Stan on 28th June, 2012
  • I’m not sure that the world of gardening is immune from fractious debates, though perhaps gardeners tend to defer to botanists because of their their expertise. But gardening styles can arouse great passions – Christopher Lloyd was greeted with howls of protest when he dug up the rose beds at Great Dixter. And I know from bitter personal experience that the humble allotment can be the scene of rivalries and animosities to match those afflicting the labour party in the Brown-Blair years.

    Posted by Liz on 3rd July, 2012
  • Thanks for the insights, Liz. No doubt differences over gardening styles have led to many a war of words, and there is the added danger of all those implements lying around.

    Posted by Stan on 3rd July, 2012
  • […] Linguistic botany looks at metaphors that draw parallels between language usage and gardening, beginning with Otto […]

    Posted by On linguistic pruning and peeving « Sentence first on 20th July, 2012
  • Another one I read recently: “Nobody would attack a botanist merely because that botanist was interested in finding out what plants are like, instead of creating beautiful gardens.” It’s by Larry Trask in Introducing Linguistics; full passage here.

    Posted by Stan on 19th August, 2014
  • […] A post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog looks at some more examples of the linguistic botany analogy. […]

    Posted by C. S. Lewis, language botanist | Sentence first on 7th September, 2014
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