Language is a means to an end – not an end in itself

I was reading about the new grammar and spelling tests for 11-year-olds in England. I was a little surprised though at the apparent incoherence of politicians, teachers, teachers unions and even academics about the tests, why they were necessary and what they might help achieve. For the unions, of course, testing of any kind smacks of elitism and becomes an ideological issue. Even among the language professionals there seemed to be a fundamental lack of understanding of the importance – or otherwise – of grammar and punctuation and spelling. Ideology on the one hand versus muddled “keepers of the language” on the other.

Grammar and vocabulary are dynamic – in any living language. “Correct” grammar is a consensual thing – it is subservient to what is considered “acceptable”. What is acceptable grammar is subject to change; with time and subsequent to usage. There is no such thing as an absolute “correctness” of language. Whatever is acceptable is “correct”. No rule of grammar survives if it is continuously violated. Words are continuously absorbed into a language (from science or from other languages or from changes of behaviour or of technology). Words are invented and sometimes reach a critical mass of users and survive while other invented words disappear into oblivion. Some change their meanings over time by changed usage and some die through disuse. In fact it is the fact that a language is changing which defines that it is alive.

It is only for a “dead” language – no longer subject to change by usage – where the vocabulary and grammar are fixed and sterile.

Every language seems to have its share of “keepers of the language” who try and define “correct” grammar and dictionaries of “acceptable words”, their spelling and their meaning. Grammarians and lexicologists tend to overlook the fact that they are – for a living language always – and of necessity – behind the times. They have to be. Some finite time is always needed for the compilation of  their “Grammars” and their “Dictionaries” and – for a living language – the language will have moved on. What they actually achieve is a snapshot at a particular moment time of a living and moving thing. And by the time the snapshot is available, it is already out of date.

But I do believe grammarians and lexicologists are of great value even if language itself is only a tool for communication (no doubt the primary tool for humans – but a tool nevertheless and not an end in itself). But their value lies not (as they might think) in being arbiters of what is “correct” or “incorrect” but in establishing a reference point which then allows for the proper communication of meaning by language.

The purpose of vocabulary and grammar is clarity of what is expressed by language. And this clarity depends upon the commonality of meanings ascribed to words and the rules – the grammar and punctuation –  by which they are strung together. They become important only because an unknown recipient of the language may well have to assume the meaning of the words and their structure. But they are certainly not relevant for the judging of any intrinsic “rightness” or “wrongness”.

To take liberties with grammar and with vocabulary from some established norm is always available to a user of language. But he does need to know what the norm is to be able to take such liberties in the pursuit of an improved communication. The testing then – in my view – becomes simply a tool to ensure that 11-year-olds know what the current established norms are.

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One Response to “Language is a means to an end – not an end in itself”

  1. Never Let School Interfere With Your Education | K2 Global Communications LLC Says:

    […] Language is a means to an end – not an end in itself -The k2p blog  posted on May 22, 2013 (WordPress) […]

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