Language is Your Bitch

I’m a Technical Writer by trade and a Linguist by education, so I spend some amount of time reading up on what’s new (and what’s old) in the world of language, mostly blogs of editors and lexicologists. Most people who actually know what they’re talking about favour the view that, as many of the language “rules” people insist on are unsubstantiated bollocks, you should enforce whatever rules your organisation, readership or personal preferences dictate, but recognise that these rules, whatever they are, are arbitrary, and not to be treated as inviolable gospel. I agree – I’m all for adopting or rejecting any bits of language that suit you, professionally or personally.

Words aren’t… mined from the earth by linguistic engineers

For instance, it turns out the word “comptroller” is meant to be pronounced the same as “controller”. Weird. The only time I’ve actually heard it spoken was on an episode of The Simpsons, where Principal Skinner pronounced it as it’s spelled – I don’t know if that was a deliberate joke on Skinner’s ignorance or if the writers and voice actor were genuinely (and understandably) unaware of the counterintuitive “correct” pronunciation. I’ve seen it in writing a few times, though, and every time I do, I dutifully read it as “comp- no, CONtroller”. But recently I thought, why? It’s one of the many, many (many) patently retarded anomalies in the English language – it’s history involves confusion with a French word that means something similar – why indulge it?

A word that means “controller”, but is spelt differently from “controller”, BUT is still meant to be pronounced “controller”? That can fuck all the way off. And you know what? I can say that.

If, like me, you’re unable to scour Kirsty Alley’s late-90s comeback vehicle Veronica’s Closet from your cowed and whimpering memory, you may remember the episode where a character invents the verb “accribbitz”, because he’d run out of synonyms for “increase”. A running gag throughout the episode is the fastidious* character going increasing apoplectic every time he hears the word used, because “you can’t just make up words”. Only of course you can. In fact, you have to – that’s where words come from.

Language isn’t gravity; it’s not a law of physics. We just make it up. Words aren’t handed down from on high; they’re not discovered after years of experimentation, not discerned a priori by logicians, and not mined from the earth by linguistic engineers. We just make them up.

So if I want to choose to pronounce a word the way it’s spelled I can. If I wanted, I could choose to follow the popular aphorism and start using the word “opinion” to mean “arsehole” and vice versa – it’d be inconvenient, as people would keep misunderstanding me to begin with, but once I explained myself, everyone would be able to get on with their lives quite easily, and no-one would wonder why I keep telling them how Catholic priests need to stop having sex with small boys’ opinions.

*i.e. he’s probably gay! LOLZ! That should give you some idea of the level of comedic quality the show pitched for.


3 thoughts on “Language is Your Bitch

  1. apathyjack

    You have made a number of interesting points that, as an Englsh teacher, I may alternately argue with or agree with at length at some time in the future. However, I am going offline for a few days so will content myself with…

    I’m sure there exists a director’s edit of this post where the first paragraph reads: “I’m a Technical Writer by trade and a Linguist by education, so I spend some amount of time reading up on what’s new (and what’s old) in the world of language, mostly blogs of editors and lexicologists. I am also married, To a woman. A human woman. Who, evidence suggests, has let me do sex at her enough times to produce two children. I know, I don’t know what’s happening either”

  2. Pingback: Apostrophe’s | Fishbowl Toaster Fishbowl Fishbowl

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