The Language Wars: Review of the reviews

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Welcome to the first instalment of our new book blog, where we look over the reviews of a recent history publication. We begin with The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings.

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Hitchings, who is the Evening Standard‘s theatre critic, has previously written about Dr Johnson’s dictionary and the history of words. This time he focuses on the centuries-long battle over the correct use of English.

Publishers John Murray describe it as “an essential volume for anyone interested in the state of the English language today or intrigued about its future”. But what do the critics think?

Jonathan Sale of The Independent finds it to be “agreeable and informative”. He remarks that “the title … is no exaggeration: language is indeed a weapon of war”. Indeed, he explains, the incorrect pronunciation of words has regularly been used by military powers to identify enemy spies.

The Observer’s James Purdon worries that “Some will object that the title puts the case a little strongly” but also comes out in favour of Hitchings, noting that “there has been a lot of belligerence about bad grammar”. He refers to columnist Simon Heffer’s “silly proposition” that correct English can be achieved once “one has armed oneself with the Oxford English Dictionary. The true story is much more complicated.

Heffer also gets a ribbing from Marcus Berkmann in The Spectator, who awaits “the tubby one’s response with breath held”. Berkmann’s fears that The Language Wars might be “not particularly substantial” are allayed by the thorough research Hitchings has put into the volume. The 26-page bibliography is “the longest I think I have ever seen in a non-academic book”, Berkmann writes.

Over at the Evening Standard, David Sexton praises “an intriguing and committed book”. He explains how the author has launched “an attack on all who have ever thought there is any right or wrong way of writing and speaking English”. Hitchings has little time for these so-called prescriptivists but Sexton feels they may be owed a little sympathy, “for putting up some resistance at least”.

Hitchings’ assault on prescriptivists is backed up by Deborah Cameron in The Guardian. Other than orthodox religion, she can think of no other form of behaviour “where intelligent and highly educated people still defer without question to ancient authorities”. She endorses Hitchings’ desire to “engage with language … critically”, a proposal that is “much more radical than it sounds”.

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Finally, Christopher Howse of The Telegraph delights in the colourful “crowd of characters” who feature in Hitchings’ story. He is left wanting to hear more about the likes of “Francis Grose (1731–91) [who] would set off on nocturnal slang-collecting journeys in the rookeries of London accompanied by his manservant Butch and a friend known as The Guinea Pig.”