19 December 2007

Book Review: Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge

Weeds in the Garden of Words How can a part of language resemble a weed? By sharing a weed’s most defining quality - showing up where some, at least, don’t want it, or where it doesn’t quite belong. Hence the weeds of the English language are the inconsistencies of spelling and pronunciation; the non-standard grammar, pronunciations and usages that some are inclined to look down their noses at; and the little oddities of the language (like the fact that ‘finger’ and ‘singer’ don’t rhyme). They also include less commonly decried but perhaps more noxious varieties: the manipulation of the language by advertising, obfuscatory bureaucratese, and the way in which perfectly innocent words can be felled by political correctness.

Likening words to weeds is a metaphor which would never have occurred to me, but after reading the introduction it made perfect sense, and the analogy is kept up throughout by the use of garden-themed quotes at the start of each chapter. Another definition of a weed is a plant whose qualities are yet to be appreciated, and this tolerant approach is the one taken in the book. After all, if weeds don’t die out they tend to flourish, and the weeds of today are the standard usages of tomorrow. Benjamin Franklin once railed against improve and to notice, and it’s hard now to imagine why.

What I found interesting about the book was not only the stories behind some of the many vagaries of English, but seeing just what some people have seen fit to complain about - and whether I agreed with them. I know it’s commonly done, and (now) that they have actually swapped meanings, but the muddling of disinterested and uninterested is guaranteed to irk me. On the other hand, I really don’t care whether you pronounce schedule with a sh- or sk- sound. And I’m ambivalent about the practice I once saw described as ‘the verbing of innocent nouns’ (like injured footballers being ‘stretchered’ off). Most fascinating of all was the -own words. Until Burridge raised the subject I never noticed that I pronounce shown, known etc as showun, knowun ... or that there was anything odd about that. Some think it’s an atrocious linguistic habit; in fact, it’s not a weed at all but the original 10th-century pronunciation which lingered on and is now making a bit of a comeback. One place where it persisted is Glasgow, which raises an interesting question: was this pronunciation passed down to me by my Glaswegian ancestors along with some of my genes?

There’s much, much more than this, and it would have to be one of the most interesting books on the English language I’ve read all year. Best of all (for me) it has a focus on Australian English, noting where it follows British or American usage and where it falls somewhere in between. And it answers a few puzzling questions: like the third word that ends in -shion.

Rating: A


heather (errantdreams) said...

What a fascinating book! I might have to track this one down.

It reminds me of dandelions... now they're the scourge of gardeners and lawn-tenders everywhere, but they were originally introduced in the Americas as a cheap and easy-to-grow source of edible greens.

Jodie Robson said...

This sounds fascinating, but somehow I don't think it's going to show up on the shelves of British bookshops very quickly. I love the vagaries of English and variants in other countries so I really enjoyed your post.

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