Robert Lowth, thou art mine enemy

Finally, the evidence against the prescriptivists that I have longed for all these years is here, in the biography of Robert Lowth (provided by Wikipedia).

Robert Lowth (November 27, 1710 – November 3, 1787) was a Bishop of the Church of England, a professor of poetry at Oxford University and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar.

Of course, you have to read on to notice that, in fact, he fabricated a lot of it by transferring Latin grammar onto English. He purposefully integrated grammar structures that were not in use in English, and he turned to the texts from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope as the source of his illustrations of egregious grammatical errors. As if he were somehow appointed to show us the error of our poets’ ways.

He was just a Churchman. He could put on airs of authority, of course, but in the end it came into the clear tha6t his English grammar was gobbledegook, cobbled out of personal opinion, out of Latin grammar, out of way too much time spent designing the grammar as he saw fit. Lowell had not more authority to determine what is appropriate usage in grammar than Flava-Flave (of Public Enemy) or David Letterman. So why is it that we — well, our linguistic ancestors — believed him?

Part of it is the appeal to those who wanted a solemn form of English, a form with some authority and power to it. And in some ways, hell, I am proud of having mastered this form of writing. When I want to, I can pull it off pretty well. Written language has long been a somewhat artificially constructed form of the langauge, one designed to make up for the fact that the “speaker” is not present. Well-written texts are nothing like speech, and well-written texts can often transcend not only the limitations of an absent speaker, but also the limitations that would be faced by a speaker were he or she to be present.

But there is also the fact that it gave teachers something to refer to, to find a “right answer”. Again, from Wikipedia:

within a decade after it appeared, versions of it adapted for the use of schools had appeared, and Lowth’s stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the schoolroom. The textbook remained in standard usage throughout educational institutions until the early 20th century.

This represents, in my opinion, a case where the need for an authority resulted in the granting of authority to whichever damned fool came up first to claim it.

The thing is, this same desire for authority has affected language students profoundly. In my experience, students in Korea worry — they are often extremely anxious — about giving the “wrong answer” to a question. While this is in part because of the way they’ve been taught in other subjects, I think another big part of the problem is the way books focus on grammar as “correct” or “incorrect”, as opposed to more or less communicative.

That’s not to say some basic grammar isn’t necessary. It’s also desperately needed, especially in things like word order for basic beginners. “What do you movie like with me?” is just not that communicative, while “What kind of movie do you want seeing with me?” is much more successfully communicative, and for someone who has not recently (or hasn’t yet) studied “want to [verb]”, it’s a pretty good construction.

Yes, optimally, those little kinks need to be smoothed out, too; “What kind of movie would you like to see with me?” is optimal. But if your students are wincing and hesitating before they even have to form a question, they’ll never get beyond, “Shee mooby 같? wa-teuh, ok?”

But of course, the big question in my mind is how to get them to stop worrying so much about their potential wrong answers, and start them down the road of thinking about what kinds of answers they can manage with the English they have already acquired. I think if I could pull off such a Jedi mindtrick in whole classes, I’d be a lot happier with my students’ progress — and I’m sure they would be, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *