Mon, Jun 24, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Language wars: Sixteen of the greatest linguistic spats of all time

Words are ever evolving — but not without controversy. From creative applications of an apostrophe to the overuse of literally, what makes you rage?

By David Shariatmadari  /  The Guardian

But the Linguistic Society of America took a different view. It said: “Characterizations of Ebonics as ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical’ or ‘broken English’ are incorrect and demeaning” and argued that evidence from other countries suggested its use in the classroom would help students.

The storm of criticism stifled sensible discussion of the issue for years.

“Ever since,” according to the Economist, “any recognition that there is such a thing as Ebonics sets people foaming at the mouth.”


You may have been told that it’s bad to split your infinitives in English — that you should never put anything between “to” and the verb — meaning a sentence like: “She wanted to fully support him” would be wrong.

This was certainly a tenet of prescriptive works (like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style) and classroom instruction for much of the 20th century. But the Chicago Manual of Style dropped its objection in 1983, and there are relatively few pedants now prepared to die on a hill to keep the infinitive joined in matrimony.

The origins of the “rule” are shrouded in mystery, with perhaps its earliest appearance in an 1803 grammar guide. But in reality, English speakers have been splitting their infinitives for hundreds of years. For an edict that’s never been properly observed, it has loomed surprisingly large in the grammatical consciousness.


The self-appointed guardians of French, a once dominant language assailed by the rise and rise of English, can be especially touchy about changes to the conventions that govern speech. Particularly, it seems, when you add gender to the mix.

In 2014 a row over whether masculine titles should be changed when the bearer is a woman erupted in the French National Assembly. Conservative representative Julien Aubert insisted on referring to socialist Sandrine Mazetier as Madame le president, using the masculine article and noun ending. Mazetier responded that he must call her Madame la presidente, and when he refused, she fined him US$1,378.


In the late 2000s, the problem of obscure government language was getting so bad that the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee wrote a report on it. They referred back to comments by Tessa Jowell who, as culture secretary, said: “I have what I call a ‘bollocks list,’ where I just sit in meetings and I write down some of the absurd language we use.”

The report notes: “The unlovely language of this unreal world floats along on a linguistic sea of roll-outs, step changes, public domains, fit for purposes, stakeholder engagements, across the pieces, win-wins, level playing fields and going forwards.”

In what must be a rare rebuke of Latin from a Conservative leadership hopeful , Michael Gove lamented that: “Since becoming a member of parliament I’ve been learning a new language. No one ever uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word, or a concrete example, where a Latinate construction or a next-to-meaningless abstraction can be found.”


An interesting sub-genre of language controversy is the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev told western ambassadors at an event in Moscow My vas pokhoronim!, using a Russian idiom that means roughly “we will outlast you” — in other words, that communism would prevail in the long run. Against the background of a nuclear arms race, the English translation, “we will bury you,” took on an altogether more sinister meaning, particularly when it was splashed across the front pages of western newspapers.

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