bent and broken
The linguist/scholar David Crystal writes that “Poetic language is the domain where linguistic rules are maximally bent and broken.”
The context here (in his book The Stories of English) is an explanation of how historians of language accomplish their sleuthing; Crystal notes carefully the differences between written and spoken versions of the same language, not to mention dialects and artistic expression and diversified diction based upon the intended audience, and uncertainty as to region, origin, and date of the manuscripts and texts under scrutiny. He cautions readers not to take linguistic theories and received stories about language evolution too readily; the story is a multitude of stories, examinable from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Much of the story is ephemeral, being oral/aural and carried on in dialects. A fascinating puzzle, really, full of lacunae and contradictions…and a reminder that when I am in my teaching role, I should remain mindful that Standard English is something of a misnomer. A living language, as Crystal demonstrates, operates on many levels and evolves concurrently with social, economic, religious, and technological trends.
I fervently agree that poetry offers language new routes of expression, a place to expand, warp, and break rules while managing all the same to convey information. The information may be conveyed in surprising ways, though, non-standard ways: neologisms, compound words, old words used in a new fashion, or as a different part of speech. Poetry is a major arena for this sort of experimentation, though not the only one. Further, I am inclined to follow a non-prescriptivist approach to writing even though my job at the college is to impart the basic rules of Standard English, a task which (alas) tends to involve judging things as less-than-correct or “in need of improvement” for the sake of clarity and general comprehensibility.
Should I therefore be more tolerant of non-standard use of the apostrophe? I’m not quite ready for that, because the resulting texts are still so frequently confusing. The point of good writing is, most often, to convey information–though that could be argued–
Crystal points out that much stereotyping of speech patterns and much arbitrary standardizing (to the degree possible) has been due to our creative writers, and compounded by writers’ love-hate relationships with printers (and, later, editors) who rely upon codification. A widely-literate audience benefits from generalized written standards, he notes–but there’s no need to become “Grammar Nazis” despite human beings’ natural inclination to be conservative and, let’s face it, contentious. He takes a sociological all-embracing stance about English, welcoming changes.
Having read this text, I am of the opinion that ours is another of those linguistically-transformative periods of messy additions and alterations thanks, largely, to technologies and the sciences but also to media and particularly social media. [viz, meme. What an adaptable coinage!] As long as I have been teaching, I have reiterated to my students that I am giving them a code, a tool, Standard Written English; the way they speak or write is not wrong or incorrect. It is simply not clear and standardized enough for academic work. Get the right tool for the job!
Crystal lauds Samuel Johnson for his zeal for language and languages and dialects, even as Johnson sought to “stabilize the disorder” of English in the 18th C. The author goes on to insert his view that prescriptive, “correct” approaches to the language “prevented the next ten generations from appreciating the richness of their language’s expressive capabilities, and inculcated an inferiority complex about everyday usage which crushed the linguistic confidence of millions” (not to mention enforced class distinctions even further). I need to remember this balance between clarity and variety. I admit I have been a not infrequent eye-roller at the “sloppy, slangy, abbreviated” English of television, tabloids, Twitter, texting, and my students’ lingo. It is refreshing to think of these annoyances as potentially enriching–rather than degrading–to the language I love to read, speak, and write.
When I read poems, I know there are writers who employ archaic words, dialect words, slang words, colloquial syntax, interrupted syntax, irregular capitalization and punctuation, neologisms, invented compound word-phrases, curses, technology terms, scientific jargon, Latin, Spanish, Spanglish, Chinese, obscure place names, alternate spellings (orthography)…and on and on. Some are looking back; others look ahead. Some are encapsulating the moment–now–in the framework of a verse. They bend and break the language in startling, haunting, beautiful, memorable ways. This they can do because a living language allows them to.