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.Email this Post