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The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from…

di Jack Lynch

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4664439,934 (4.05)41
In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers--those who have tried to regulate or otherwise organize the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors and shows clearly that what we now regard as the only "correct" way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history and the characters peopling his narrativeare as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition: the sharp-tongued satirist Jonathan Swift, who called for a government-sponsored academy to issue rulings on the language; the polymath Samuel Johnson, who put dictionaries on a new footing; the eccentric Hebraist Robert Lowth, the first modern to understand the workings of biblical poetry; the crackpot linguist John Horne Tooke, whose bizarre theories continue to baffle scholars; the chemist and theologian Joseph Priestly, whose political radicalism prompted violent riots; the ever-crotchety Noah Webster, who worked to Americanize the English language; the long-bearded lexicographer James A. H. Murray, who devoted his life to a survey of the entire language in the Oxford English Dictionary; and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who worked without success to make English spelling rational. Grammatical "rules" or "laws" are not like the law of gravity, or even laws against murder and theft--they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Witty, smart, full of passion for the world's language, The Lexicograher's Dilemma will entertain and educate in equal measure.… (altro)
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Intrigued by the cover blurb: "This delightful look at efforts through the centuries to define and control the English language turns out to be a history of human exasperation, frustration and free-floating angst." --Washington Post
  Karzke | Apr 10, 2021 |
Questa recensione è stata scritta per Recensori in anteprima di LibraryThing.
I am absolutely not a professional writer, but I did find this to be a fascinating look at how the English language, and the rules regarding usage to be much more interesting than I would have suspected. Other reviewers have gone into great depth about the views presented here, but I do not have the temerity to follow in their footsteps as I am not a professional. I did thoroughly enjoy reading the book! ( )
  MsMixte | Dec 31, 2020 |
Entertaining, but about half way through I started skimming. ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The historical presentation, present condition, and future pathways for the English were all so well done that I found this to be a book that was very difficult to put down. As an aside, I was delighted to discover I have the same edition, I believe, of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary as did George Washington. I love the book and when I get back to the states I intend to confirm that tiny piece of trivia. Back to the book....Everything about it was great. I would be hard pressed to come up with a negative. The culmination of the tome indicates that we should be more concerned with what is appropriate English rather than what is correct English, a conclusion with which I firmly agree. I intend to reread in the not too distant future for even further illumination. ( )
  untraveller | Aug 5, 2017 |
Those who compile dictionaries are called lexicographers. There are relatively few of them in this world. Does anyone go to college with the idea of becoming a lexicographer? Yet lexicographers serve an important function. The question, as expressed in Jack Lynch's book "The Lexicographer's Dilemma," is what exactly is that function? Is it to describe words as they are actually being used in spoken and written language or to determine which uses are, in fact, proper and which are not?

The existence of the American Heritage Dictionary resulted from this conflict, Lynch tells us. Critics decided Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 was just too descriptive, including vulgar words and such words as ain't that, while often heard, had never previously been recognized by a dictionary. So the American Heritage Dictionary was introduced to provide a prescriptive alternative to Webster's.

For most of the history of the English language, there were neither prescriptivists nor descriptivists. But there were no dictionaries either. Those who could write were free to spell words however they wanted to and make them mean whatever they chose. In time, as printed material became more commonplace and more people learned to read and write, some standardization became necessary. This led to dictionaries and, inevitably, to attempts by some people to tell other people the proper way to use their language.

Lynch reviews the contributions to the debate made by such people as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Priestly, Noah Webster, James Murray, George Bernard Shaw and even comedian George Carlin. And it all makes more interesting reading than you might think.

The author concludes by suggesting there is a place for both prescriptivists and descriptivists. What's most important in any language is clarity. I must be able to understand what you are saying, and vice versa. That means we need some common ground about what words mean, how to spell them and how to use them in sentences. Enter parents who correct our grammar and teach us to say please and thank you. Enter teachers who red-ink our theme papers. Enter those copy editors who strive to make sure those books, magazines, newspapers and websites we read are, in fact, readable and understandable.

Instead of worrying about what is correct English, Lynch says, we need to focus on what is appropriate English. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Apr 5, 2017 |
... an entertaining tour of the English language ...
... spends a good deal of time on the evolution of dictionaries ...
... throughout this very readable book he makes clear that he thinks the grammar scolds need to shut up, or at least tone it down ...
 
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Everybody complains about language, but nobody does anything about it—well, almost nobody. This book is an account of some of the people who did try to do something about it. It's about the rise of "standard English."
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In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers--those who have tried to regulate or otherwise organize the way we speak. The Lexicographer's Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors and shows clearly that what we now regard as the only "correct" way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries. As historian Jack Lynch has discovered, every rule has a human history and the characters peopling his narrativeare as interesting for their obsession as for their erudition: the sharp-tongued satirist Jonathan Swift, who called for a government-sponsored academy to issue rulings on the language; the polymath Samuel Johnson, who put dictionaries on a new footing; the eccentric Hebraist Robert Lowth, the first modern to understand the workings of biblical poetry; the crackpot linguist John Horne Tooke, whose bizarre theories continue to baffle scholars; the chemist and theologian Joseph Priestly, whose political radicalism prompted violent riots; the ever-crotchety Noah Webster, who worked to Americanize the English language; the long-bearded lexicographer James A. H. Murray, who devoted his life to a survey of the entire language in the Oxford English Dictionary; and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who worked without success to make English spelling rational. Grammatical "rules" or "laws" are not like the law of gravity, or even laws against murder and theft--they're more like rules of etiquette, made by fallible people and subject to change. Witty, smart, full of passion for the world's language, The Lexicograher's Dilemma will entertain and educate in equal measure.

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