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A CIVIL TONGUE

by Paula LaRocque on September 21st, 2010

Recently, a TV commentator referred to a politician as a “barbarian” – not because of his behavior but because of his misuse of the language.  That word barbarian reminded me how passionate we are about our mother tongue and how visceral our response to its use.  We don’t say: My, his grammar is off-putting, or Her pronunciation is a bit quaint. No.  We say:  If he says ‘irregardless’ again, I’m going to shoot him.  Or:  The next time she says ‘ax’ instead of ‘ask,’ I’m going to strangle her.

We adopt violent metaphor for language misuse:  People “maim,” “abuse,” “massacre,” “brutalize,” or “butcher” the language.  Our native tongue is vital to us, so we’re sensitive to its use even if we ourselves are not expert users.  We wish to protect it.  Some countries even have ministries meant to preserve the “purity” of the language.

Maybe that’s why we feel bound to correct others’ grammar or usage.   Even if we don’t correct, the temptation to do so is strong – sometimes almost a reflex.   Let someone say “this is between you and I,” and someone else will blurt – almost without thinking: “between you and me.”

And most of us have linguistic pet peeves – sometimes baseless but peeves nonetheless.  That’s the case with the supposed “errors” of the split infinitive, ending sentences with prepositions, or beginning sentences with and or but.  Not one of those practices is wrong, according to language experts, but folks who think so are no less peeved for being mistaken.  Instead, they say: “OK, it may not be a mistake, but I still hate it!”

It’s hard to give up a peeve, especially a pet one.

We have peeves in speech as well as in writing.  Many can’t bear to hear the word nuclear pronounced “nucular,” or Realtor pronounced “realator.” Others are made crazy by double negatives: can’t hardly, don’t have no, can’t do nothing.  Still others tear their hair over the repeated use of you know or totally.  I once saw a roomful of editors flinch (I was one of them) when someone said “antidote” instead of anecdote.   A friend says that when he hears literally and figuratively confused, he stops in his figurative tracks and grits his literal teeth. On my own list of teeth grinders are “ekcetera” instead of etcetera and “asterick” instead of asterisk.

Many hate the suffixes “-wise” and “-ize,” and they have loads of opportunity to exercise their peeve – we hear those suffixes everywhere.  I arrived at a hotel to give a banquet speech, and the host greeted me with the news that they’d had some trouble “microphonewise.”  A story on a slain police officer said he would be “funeralized” Tuesday. “Utilize” and “incentivize” also are outcasts in the land of the peeved.

Back to barbarian. Long ago, the Latin balbus meant one who stammered or spoke haltingly.  Balbus passed into Spanish as bobo and elsewhere spawned booby or boob.  And just as we today greet gobbledygook with the words blah blah, the Greeks met it with bar-bar.  Eventually, bar-bar came to mean foreign or savage and in time transmuted to barbaros and the related barbarous, barbarism, and barbarian.  Thus we link what we consider uncivilized to a lack of fluency.  That’s because our inherent understanding of being civilized means, in part, the ability to communicate well – not only with grace and accuracy but also without offense.

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