I happened upon something on NewsOK.com, the online version of the newspaper The Oklahoman. I say “something” because it was certainly not an article, I don’t think it was a column, and it was so scattered that I daren’t call it an opinion piece. I suppose that this may be the sort of writing that contributed to the newspaper being named The Worst Newspaper in America by the Columbia Journalism Review in 1999. The headline (what lured me in) was “Rules of grammar are not set in stone”, but the text did not seem to hold any significant relationship to its headline. As far as I could tell, it was basically a statement that perhaps ain’t is a word, but then again, of course it’s not, but maybe it is, and by the way, I think you can split infinitives.
My brain is still a bit sore from the whole ordeal, but there’s one bit of insanity that stood out heads and shoulders above the rest:
“Grammarians still wrangle over whether the wild and wooly English language should be saddled with civilized Latin grammar.”
No, we don’t. You might as well say “biologists still wonder whether a penguin wouldn’t be better off as a lion”, or “chefs still debate whether peanut butter could be improved by making it gazpacho”. Penguins have an ecological niche just like lions do, and peanut butter has as much its own taste as gazpacho does. Similarly, English has as much a grammar as Latin did.
There is about as much debate about this point as there is about whether Barack Obama really qualifies as a “natural-born citizen” according to the Constitution. Yes, there are people who fervently claim that Obama’s birth certificate is a fake, or he was born in Hawaii before it was a state, or whatever. But these people are wrong. So too with Latin-loving prescriptivists; they exist, but they’re wrong. Very wrong. They don’t understand languages at all.
Point of fact, English isn’t so wild anyway. For instance, there is a very specific word order to English, which is not true of free-word-order languages like Russian, Warlpiri, or (guess what!) Latin. The only reason that Latin seems orderly is because it’s a dead language, so there’s hardly anyone around to use it — and therefore, hardly any data that could disprove the grammatical rules that people think Latin obeys. It’s static in a way that no living language will ever be. Which leads to one final point: if Latin’s grammar was so wonderful, why did the language die out? The answer, of course, is that it didn’t — instead, it morphed into the various extant Romance languages, which, you’ll notice, people rarely suggest English should adopt the grammar of.