We interview Robert Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words.
Robert is an international correspondent for the Economist and his writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast and other publications. He speaks nine languages.
What's your new book You Are What You Speak about?
One reviewer put it well: it’s about language, but it’s also in large part about what we say and think about language. Why is every generation of parents worried the teenagers are ruining the language? Why do we think that some languages are more sophisticated, logical or powerful than others? Why do some countries ban or restrict the use of foreign or even native minority languages?
What first sparked your interest in language, and why did you decide to write You Are What You Speak? And why did you decide on this particular title?
I started Spanish in school at age 14, and while everyone else was either falling asleep or struggling to pass tests, I was just tickled by it. I did German in college, then Portuguese, then French and found I just never wanted to stop.
Then I realized that there was a book at the intersection of my love for language and my background in political science and political journalism. At that intersection are many of those questions I describe above. For example, why is America, the most powerful country on earth, so worried about English, the most successful language in history? The question is language; the answer is politics.
As for the title, this and all those other questions go to a central premise: what comes out when you open your mouth says a lot about who you are and what you want to be—and what group you want to be associated with.
What are some examples of how language has shaped identity?
To pick one among a million, many French intellectuals associate the French language inextricably with France itself. By extension, many view French as the ultimate vehicle for Enlightenment values France associates itself with: reason, logic, modernity, equality, humanity. There are many people who really believe that French is the most logical language going.
But France was only a minority French-speaking at the time of the revolution, a fact that many French people are unaware of. The French-France link was carefully built by a couple of centuries of French policy, promoting French and suppressing or at best neglecting native languages in France like Breton, Basque, Catalan, Provencal and others. Yet today, people take the French-France link for granted. We get the attitude of “We have always been keepers of the flame of French, vehicle of Enlightenment values,” even though this is on shaky ground both historically and linguistically.
In what way is speech a lot like jazz?
It’s composing on the fly. Jazz-lovers who have never tried to play don’t realize how much theory and how many scales and how many gazillions of hours of practice go into being able to play the saxophone like Charlie Parker and make it sound easy and fun. A language, too, is words (notes) and grammar (scales, chords) that put the notes together into bigger words, phrases and sentences. Quickly, while monitoring what you’ve just said (played), producing what you’re saying (playing) right now without error, and planning what you’re about to say (play). It’s really a minor miracle.
What are some words used in everyday English that have changed meaning over time?
Most words have changed somewhat; some have changed hugely, like how “silly” used to mean “innocent, helpless”. Some recent examples I’ve written about: “general” was once only an adjective, but was added to the military rank of “captain”, after the noun in French-style, to yield “captain-general”, a sort of captain of captains. Then the “captain” part became unnecessary, and “general” was now a noun meaning a high-ranking officer.
And it’s fun to see when a word changes in one place but not another. British and Australian people tend to think that “mad” for “angry” is an Americanism. But it’s actually an old usage (from at least the 14th century) that died in Britain while surviving in America.
Finally, easily the funniest etymology I discovered in researching the book was for “muscatel”, which shares an ancestor with “musk”: if you go back far enough, the ancestor is a Sanskrit word for “little mouse”, which was probably a euphemism for “testicle”!
Rules about grammar and punctuation provoke all sorts of arguments and discussions, why do you think people are so passionate about language and its use?
I said before that opening your mouth you reveal a lot about yourself. Well, there’s obviously a subset of people who want to reveal that they are educated, intelligent and discerning. One of the ways some people do this is by observing all of the most formal rules of the language almost all of the time, no matter the situation, and then by picking on others who don’t. Being careful with language is a good thing; but I think playing endless “gotcha” with other people can be motivated by a desire to rise up the ladder by stepping on someone else’s head and shoulders.
A more benign reason is that once people get attached to language—even for all the right reasons—change is discomfiting. Writers and prolific readers in particular get attached to the language they came to love (usually) in their youth. A generation or two on, when they’re older can get upset about the natural change that is always going on with every language. This is why complaints about language are so universal, going back (as I do in the book) to Cicero grousing that nobody could speak proper Latin anymore.
What are some of the rewards of being flexible with words and language?
I think about it as adding to your view of the world. I don’t want “sticklers” or “grammar grouches” to suddenly start using a grammar-free mishmash of English. That would be absurd. But recognizing the vitality of dialects, learning to appreciate rather than fear change, accepting that “ain’t” is appropriate sometimes and inappropriate other times, and treasuring multilingualism: all this is about widening your perspective to love language in many different ways. You walk around with a lovely sense of humility and curiosity, rather than constantly being annoyed.
What are five words (from any of the nine languages that you speak) that you’re particularly fond of, and why?
Great question. Bagstiv, in Danish, means “hung over and yet still kind of drunk from the night before.” I’ve used that one a time or two—about other people, naturally. The noun saudade in Portuguese nicely combines the sweetness and sadness of longing for someone or someplace far away; it combines “I miss you” and “It hurts to miss you.” Gingembre, French for “ginger”, is just ridiculously fun to say, though I don’t get many opportunities. Bekannte is a nice neutral German word meaning “acquaintance”, but without the coldness of “acquaintance”. (In American English, nearly everyone you know is a “friend”, but in German that term can be held more closely.) And finally, I’m not a religious person, but inshallah, the Arabic “if God wills it”, is used constantly to talk hopefully about the future. It serves as a constant little reminder that what will be is not always up to you. I find myself muttering it even in English sometimes.
You Are What You Speak is available now in all good bookstores.