Essay in Aeon

I summarize one of the core arguments of Talk on the Wild Side in Aeon magazine: that language is extraordinarily self-regulating. At every level—sounds, words, grammar—huge changes happen. But they never lead to chaos. How that can be? Read all about it, from the massive change in English grammar over the last thousand years to the strange history of the word “buxom”.

Excerpt: Talk on the Wild Side in Politico

“Since Orwell, it has become a common complaint among pundits and commentators that overblown or confusing language stacks the deck against ordinary citizens who just want to know what their government is up to. His notion that plain language will make awful politics unbearable is simple and appealing — and largely wrong. Remember that for people to recognize a falsehood, they need to know the truth. Orwell assumes that once deception is stripped away, the truth will be plain. But populism, or at least the brand of populism represented by Trump and Brexit, proves that Orwell was wrong.” (Read the rest.)

The Spectator review of Talk on the Wild Side

“Pedants and grouches and sticklers and ‘authoritarian scolds’ don’t come out of this book too well. That’s not to say that Greene takes an anything-goes, ultra-descriptivist attitude (i.e. people can do whatever they want, and we merely observe what they do rather than dictate it). On the contrary, he knows what he likes. It’s just that what he likes is not people like N.M. Gwynne, who combine fervent prescriptivism with what Greene calls ‘an unerring instinct for getting it wrong’.

Greene’s book takes in the inevitable failure of quixotic — if sometimes admirable — artificial languages, and the rapid improvement in automated translation (this section is particularly good). With well chosen examples, he demonstrates languages’ resilience and variety (his subject is mostly English but he ventures abroad for a spell, too). He takes Orwell to task over his naivety about the uncomplicated benefits of uncomplicated language. Even Donald Trump and Nigel Farage make an appearance (when don’t they?). He is open-minded and discerning (if you need a basic rule: look at what good writers do, and do that), but he’s no zealot and no snob.” (Read the rest.)

Johnson column: Why Arabic punches below its weight

“Arabic is the fifth-most-spoken language in the world, with more than 313m speakers. It is an official language in 25 countries—more than any other except English and French—and one of six official languages at the United Nations. As the vehicle of one of the great faiths, Islam, it is widely studied for religious reasons. So why does it seem to punch below its weight in the secular world?” (Read the whole thing.)

Booklist review of Talk on the Wild Side

“The language columnist at The Economist, Greene (You Are What You Speak, 2011) has a lot of metaphors for the nonconformity and wildness of language. It’s a wolf, not a show dog. It’s a recipe, not computer code. It’s jazz, not classical music…This slim and accessible treatise is rich with keen insights about the politics, pleasures, and possibilities of language. Recommended for linguaphiles and anyone looking for rhetorical ammunition against the grammar snobs in their life.”

Vocal fry

My latest column is on “uptalk” an vocal fry, and the generally unmeetable standards women’s voices are held to. While I admire the efforts of feminists like Lake Bell to tackle the problem at a short-term and practical level—telling women to deepen and in some ways masculinize their speech—the fact remains that women have to walk a tightrope when taking such advice: be authoritative but not mannish, firm but not angry, and so on.

Recent radio

I had a great conversation with Michael Rosen and Laura Wright on BBC Radio 4’s “Word of Mouth” (a great show you should add to your podcast subscription right this second, if you enjoy language). The topic was editing: what an editor’s there for, what a good one does (and doesn’t do), and so on. You can listen to it here.

And for German-speakers, I had another fun one with Bayrischer Rundfunk, talking about the book and the history of language complaints. It’s a 4,000-year-old habit to think the kids don’t care about language anymore…

Kirkus review: "Erudite and ebullient"

"Economist language columnist Greene (You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, 2011) sees language as 'ambiguous, changing, incomplete, redundant and illogical' as well as 'robust, organic, and evolving.' Language, he writes admiringly, 'is a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and its needs.' Erudite and ebullient, he disparages prescriptive pundits and purists who bemoan the decline of correct word choice and resist change. Spoken language is continually in flux, and even written English, while abiding by grammatical conventions, 'is a mixed language that provides a reader not with a rigid logical code, but a menu of options for getting ideas effectively into the reader’s mind.'

Frequently asked question

"How many languages do you speak?"

People like me are often asked this question. It is surprisingly hard to answer.

Generally, I've found that the more an obsessive language learner you are, the less you want to pin this particular answer down. A person who has just one language is easy. Lucky native bilinguals have a ready answer too: "two".

But a few weirdos out there, of whom I have to admit I am one, learn languages for fun. And if you push past a small few to study more and more, it gets tricky to decide exactly when you can add a language to the total.

On one hand, there's any obsessive's pride, and the desire to make the number as gaudy as possible. On the other, there's an obvious desire not to be shown to be lying or exaggerating. But more fundamentally, there's the simple fact that there is no easy way to define "speaking a language". You don't wake up one day knowing that you've finally nailed it, in a way you hadn't the day before.

Consider several standards. Do you know a few useful phrases? Are you able to get through a five-minute conversation of standard pleasantries? Do native speakers say "oh, you speak such excellent X"? Can you get around for a week as a visitor without using English? Have you mastered all the core grammar and a useful base of vocabulary? Does it come out fluidly and apparently effortlessly? Are your inevitable mistakes cute and minor, or do they confuse native speakers? Can you read it? Write it? Can you conduct an interview, or be interviewed? Can you have an argument? Can you follow a TV program? What about an overheard conversation? Can you make a joke? Can you understand a joke? Do you dream in it? 

I've written those questions in rough order of difficulty. Where would you draw the line? I do something like this: if you get about halfway through that list (roughly to "have you mastered the core grammar and a useful base of vocabulary?" or "does it come out fluidly?") I'd say you "speak" the language. But I'd say you want to get further down the list, perhaps to "Can you conduct an interview?", to say that you are "fluent" in a language. That's my imprecise standard, and yours may be different.

So by that standard, I'm a native speaker of English, I'm fluent in Spanish, German, Portuguese, Danish and French, and I also speak Italian, Russian and Arabic, but not fluently. So when people ask for a number, I try to make it a joke, and say "oh, about six to nine", and let them work out what I mean, if I don't have time to give them this whole long explanation.

Besides this, I've dabbled in learning about a half-dozen more languages, and at one time I could have possibly added them to the low end of the "speaking" list: Dutch, Japanese, Polish and Swedish. And I've done some lighter dabbling in Mandarin and Esperanto. I can slowly read the New Testament in its original Greek with the help of a dictionary. But I don't count any of these. If you lose them, in my opinion, you take them off the list. (Isn't that depressing? But while I once could say "I speak decent Dutch", I just can't say it today.) And I don't count reading a language as speaking it. 

As an interesting issue is that of domain. You may know a lot of the vocabulary and fixed expressions of one area, but not another. Usually this depends on your experience using the language. I was an intern at the US embassy in Uruguay, working in Spanish every day; I did my master's thesis research in French on EU politics; I've been a business and finance reporter in German; I've been a general political reporter in Portuguese; I've raised a child in Danish; and I've obsessed over the middle east in Arabic. So I can say "enlargement of the European Union" in French but not Arabic. I can say "proprietary trading" in German but not Portuguese. I can read a newspaper report on the Arab-Israeli conflict in Arabic, but not in Russian. I can say "pee" and "fart" in Danish but not in Italian. I've never been to Russia, and so that language is rusty since my study two decades ago. I still know a lot, but increasingly more passively than actively, and I wonder obsessively over whether to remove it from "the list". 

But what list? Who cares? Polyglot nerds mostly just like swapping stories and experiences, and in my experience, as The Number gets higher, they get less and less likely to puff their chests out and proclaim it. They're well familiar with the complexities I've tried to describe here. I've known lots of people to proudly proclaim that they know three languages. But I've never heard anyone boast that they know nine, even though I know people who do. It's because numbers five through nine have a way of humbling you.

Ken Hale, an MIT linguist, was such a prodigious language-learner that it was rumored that he'd learned Finnish on the flight to Helsinki. Everyone agreed that he was extraordinary. But he said that he "spoke" only English, Spanish and Walpiri, and the rest he just "talked in". I like that, and so the older I get and the more of this I do, the more I try to put aside The Number and just have fun talking in as many languages as I can.