knowledge, not rules

Read these quotes:

“Another fundamental mistake is to think of the ‘standard’ variety of a language as the language, with dialects relegated to substandard status.” (Clive Upton, OED)

“We should avoid the temptation to draw misguided conclusions about what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ grammar.” (British Library)

Now read this review of my work. (UPDATE: damned linked piece has gone.)

If you accept the authority of the OED, then the reviewer has made a “fundamental mistake” with his English. He was unable to get over his dislike of my dialect to read the poetry. He was quite emotional about it. Still, at least the reviewer shewed that hatred of difference harms poetry as well as people.

I speculated wonder why the reviewer made such a fundamental mistake. Often, when you don’t understand an area of knowledge, but need to use it to get things done, you use a set of rules instead. For example, you don’t have to be a car mechanic to know that if the red light on the dashboard comes on, you take the car to a garage. A set of rules, though, is no substitute for in–depth knowledge. Knowing about the red light does not make you a mechanic. Similarly, the set of rules for Standard English is no substitute for an in–depth knowledge of the language. If you’re an ordinary user, following the rules of standard English fine. If you’re a professional, and you follow the rules instead of building in–depth knowledge, you should probably change profession.

I’m not saying that poetry shouldn’t be written in Standard English. That would be daft. It would be as silly as saying that poems musn’t rhyme. But suggesting a poem must be written in Standard English is akin to suggesting a poem must rhyme. Standard English is an essential linguistic form for English language poetry, but it is only one form. To restrict poetry to that one form is to reduce the expression and effect available to poets, and as such it is to weaken poetry. It is a fundamental mistake.

Had the reviewer looked at the title of the poems in the book, he’ll have seen the word engineer appearing rather a lot of times. This could have been seen as a hint. Most professions have their own dialect. Software engineering creates its own languages. Had the reviewer been able to overcome his negative emotions to other dialects, he’d have spotted this. He didn’t. This illustrates the truism that hatred of difference harms the hater.

He criticised particularly strongly my usage of the word get. Here are some things about get which I suspect his hatred means he doesn’t understand.

  • First of all, get as used in my work is documented in Wright (The English Dialect Dictionary). Thus it is correct.
  • Secondly, it’s found in a number of dialects in Germanic language dialects. For example, in both Moselle–Frankish dialect of German, and in the Luxembourgish language, hien gëtt (he gets) is the German er wird. This is very interesting because the German tense built around werden does not appear in English as such, and can be quite knotty to translate. I’m not saying get as used this way in English dialect is the missing werden–based tense, just simply that this connection cannot be ignored.
  • Thirdly, a number of languages have been created from English, because the professional language of informatics is English. For example, get is very common in C++ (simplified examples from the C++ 11 standard):
    • T& get () const { return t_; } // get the current value of
    • T get () const { return t_ + u_; } // calculate a new value
    • T& get () { return t_; } // change the value of
    The final example is the most interesting, since it is effectively a contract to change the value of something. It is not “become&rquo;, it is more of an auxiliary like werden, in that it’s a formal and sure future use with serious consequences if got wrong. But this use comes from English! If it isn’t in Standard English, as the reviewer seems to believe, but it is in my dialect, then my dialect must be richer tthan standard English, at least in this respect. Might this be what got the reviewer’s bile up?

So we see my usage of get is correct, it has a long and noble history via English’s Germanic roots, and continues to play a vital role in new languages created by English speakers. The reviewer’s fundamental mistake seems to have him unaware of these usages, suggesting hatred of difference reinforces ignorance.

When I was young, usage of Standard English and correct spelling represented education and learning. Nowadays, both represent an ability to press a button. Their usage no longer says anything. The social caché of Standard English has not yet caught up with the reality, but I think it will. This is a good reason to give it up, to move to a less artificial, more expressive, more varied English. Even now, insistence on it’s use can imply someone is a little technologically backward, unable or too lazy to self–educate.

To balance the original reviewer’s fundamental mistake in English, I commissioned an independent review of my poetry. And you’ll tell from the review that it is independent. At least the reviewer read the book.

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