The State of the Language is not primarily a historical linguistic survey of how English has “drifted,” in terms of pronunciation or meanings of words or even usage. It is more concerned with English as it is situated in its present social contexts. The titles of some of the sections give an idea of this—for example, “The Body Politic,” “Practices,” “Art,” “Rectitudes.” But the underlying (and sometimes overlapping) categories are even more revealing. A cursory look through the pages reveals at least four articles on feminist issues in language use, three each on the language of AIDS, pornography and censorship, and regional dialects, and two each on the language of public policy, advertising, Afro-English, the law, and computers. Some articles are hard to place within any framework, but what they all have in common is that they seem to capture a slice of how English and certain social contexts are interacting in 1990.
There are also two different kinds of interludes in this book, both very welcome. One kind takes the form of poems scattered throughout as actual entries under the section headings. The other interludes are to be found at the beginning of each section, in the form of epigraphs, sometimes obtuse, much of the time delightful. The book is large enough and diverse enough, in spite of the general trends noted above, that the appeal of the major articles themselves will vary greatly depending on the interests and values of the individual reader.
The first section contains mainstay articles on British English versus American and other versions (e.g., Australian). It also contains comments on the social depth in Black and Jewish versions of the language as well as its regional breadth. It looks from these articles as if the contributors are genuinely open-minded toward pluralism on both social and geographical planes. This comes as something of a surprise, since until recent times language scholars have traditionally been both conservative and prescriptive. Perhaps this change in itself tells us something about the state of the language.
Randolph Quirk (“Further Thoughts: Sound Barrier—Ten Years On”) and Richard Bailey (“English at Its Twilight”) contribute two of the volume’s handful of “survey” articles describing English in relation to changing demographics and political and cultural realities in various parts of the world. These short pieces conclude that, contrary to popular intuitions about the matter, English use as a unifying force or even a lingua franca is quickly eroding in two ways: It is continually being spoken by a lesser percentage of the world’s population as regional (and especially Third World) identities come into play, and it is being spoken in increasingly disparate ways in local situations (e.g., Nigeria and in the Afro-American culture of New York City). These articles are fascinating for their challenge to the widely held notion that English will become the new koine. Apparently, if English was ever to have that role, it has already passed its zenith.
Roger Scruton (“Ideologically Speaking”) has written a brave, clear article on feminist language, though he seems naive linguistically speaking. Rather than appealing to sociolinguistics as such, he stakes his case (or the first part of it) on his readers’ intuitions about the difference between “person” and “man.” When he complains of the bad style produced by strict enforcement of feminist ideology in writing, however, he is on better ground. Finally, his major philosophical point about the dangers of subordinating language to ideology, if not decisively proven, will certainly resonate with many readers’ experience.
Sandra M. Gilbert (“Reflections on a (Feminist) Discourse of Discourse, or Look, Ma, I’m Talking!”) makes the sensible, pragmatic case that ordinary, clear, simple speech belongs to women as much as to men. This may seem obvious, but she makes her point in the face of anarchistic tendencies in contemporary feminist criticism. In the work of some feminists she sees an arcane jargon, appealing only to a small group of like-minded intellectuals, alienated from the real world of their mothers and sisters and daughters. Ironically, for Gilbert—who is herself a committed feminist—this kind of esoteric speech resembles much male language in its domination of others...
(The entire section is 1790 words.)