This won’t be one of my more structured pieces. Let’s call it language pet peeves, but instead of my language pet-peeves, it’ll be YOUR pet-peeves that I, in turn, am peeved by. If you need a minute to reread that sentence, I’ll wait.
Let’s dive into it, because there are some fun ones.
Peeve the First: aks
First of all, if you’ve ever made fun of someone for saying “aks” instead of “ask,” congratulations on never having aksed where your next meal was coming from. Yes, I could include an article here by a reputable intellectual/cultural society that shows you that “aks” is as pedigreed an English word as “ask.” And don’t think I won’t.
But it’s more interesting to talk about why you think you’re a better person than someone who says “aks.”
Oh I don’t think I’m a better person. I just think people should take the time to….
Let’s talk about metathesis, which is the highfalutin’ Greek word for what’s happening here. If you don’t like aks instead of ask, you should say “thyrel” instead of “thrill,” because the loss of that extra syllable is just the kind of shenanigans you’re taking a principled stand against. You should also say “hir” and “hem” instead of “their” and “them” because if you’re against rearranging letters you’d probably be dead-set against adding a bunch.
That’s just… I don’t know. An outdated form of the word.
Yes but why? Why is aks wrong? Does it not strike you as remotely convenient that the form of English you speak just happens to accord so well with the form of English spoken in the city that spent the years 1620 to 1947 owning the better part of the world’s landmasses and teaching English to their inhabitants at gunpoint? The reason you think “ask” is right and “aks” is wrong is because that’s the prevailing opinion among the London intelligentsia. It’s really that simple.
What? That’s not it at all! I’m— It’s—
Peeve the Second: Eccetera
Another example. If I hear one more person brag about what they’re going to do if they hear one more person say “eccetera” instead of “et cetera,” I’m going to do something horrible to that person. To the person complaining, mind you. Not to the person saying “eccetera,” which is a perfectly acceptable word.
But it just sounds wrong.
Ok. Then start writing “exspect” instead of “expect.” Start saying “inmoral” instead of “immoral.” Start saying “adcept” instead of “accept.” The point is that language has always done this. Language has always shaved off the rough edges. And by language, I mean the people who speak it because language doesn’t exist independently of us. And by the people who speak it I mean mostly children, immigrants, and polyglots, because those are the people who play with language, often by adcident.
Peeve the Third: Irregardless
Can I get away with one more? Irregardless, I’m going to. Ooh doesn’t that just make your skin crawl? Irregardless is no more wrong than “The Los Angeles Angels” which translates to “The The Angels Angels.” I used to amuse myself on long car rides by adding languages: “Gli Ha The Los Angeles Angels K’ruvim Angeli…” etc. See how far you can get. Yes you can use a translator. The point is to keep as many in your head as possible, then say the second half in mirror-order.
The typical argument is that foreigners learning English and English-speakers learning foreign languages are how we got a whole smorgasbord of words, including smorgasbord. But I’m not going to make that argument. Nor am I going to make that other argument: that there is no such thing as “English.” Any more than there is such a thing as a white person or a black person. The variations within English are so vast that two people speaking English, even as a native language, might not understand each other, and yet might be speaking completely correctly within their respective sets of community rules. Both are true.
Words from elsewhere enrich language. And there isn’t really a single umbrella, not political, not historical, and certainly not linguistic, that encompasses Geoffrey Chaucer, something an ophthalmologist in modern-day London or Lagos or Lucknow might say, and whatever the hell e. e. cummings was doing. And yet they’re all English.
What People with Language Pet-Peeves are Actually Bothered By
But neither is the argument I want to make here because both arguments are logical and this isn’t a matter of logic. It’s a matter of the heart.
People who complain about linguistic usage tend to do so as if civilization itself were eroding. As if it’s a “sign of the times” that people from un-American places like Guam and Puerto Rico (see what I did there?) are mispronouncing English words.
I’ll grant you that civilization is eroding, if the wealth gap is any indication. But I will not concede the point (and neither should you) that immigrants looking for a better life are to blame.
What People in a Doctoral Program Actually Learn
I don’t talk in glowing terms about my doctorate very often. We’ve touched on the issues here and there on the site. In my blackest moods (which is a high proportion of them) I think it was 8-10 years of my life (depending on how you count) that were better spent doing something else. But I will grant you the following premise. That the universities are elite institutions of learning. They contain a large amount of the world’s knowledge. Behind a paywall where only the most privileged (or lucky) can access it for long.
And you know what they taught me? That language grows and evolves. Language is not uniform. It’s defined by its users, not by its grammar textbooks. And if the speakers of English are saying “aks and irregardless and eccetera” then they have no less right to say that than any Oxford Don, and I hope whoever would try to stop them gets their just deserts.
That’s “deserts” not “desserts.” And no it has nothing to do with either sand or sugar. It’s from Middle English; the past-participle of “deserve.” We don’t really use that one anymore, do we, except in that one place, and even that is slipping away.
But then. Everything slips away.
Language Pet-Peeves are Prejudices
What’s the real issue here? It’s that choosing one dialect of English, specifically the one spoken best by the privileged few, puts intellectual and cultural acceptance behind a paywall. “This song is terrible. It’s not even real English.” Or: “This essay is terrible. It’s not even real English.” You’re dissuading poor people and polyglots and autodidacts from participating. And I can’t imagine why you would want to do that. Not if you took a moment to think about it.
I do mean to say that your language pet-peeves are racist. And that you’re racist for having them. But I don’t mean to say that it’s your fault. I studied this stuff. Ironically, the place where I studied (the university setting) everyone has language pet peeves. Even though they know on some level that they’re elitist. The point is that we all learn these things in school. And then we go about our lives. But I talked myself out of these outmoded ways of thinking. You can, too. When someone says “XYZ is wrong” all you have to say is: “why?”
Oh, and FYI, I hate the phrase “language pet-peeves.” It’s that word “peeves.” It’s irritating to say. When I try to say it, it feels like I have a stuffy nose. Every time. I hate a lot of phrases. And I fucking hate the song “Love Shack.” But I don’t claim it’s not real English. If you hate the sound of something, fine. But that’s on you. Own it. Don’t blame a disembodied concept. That’s cowardly.