Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cant is my wont

This piece of nonsense first appeared in Column 8, a column that featured in the Dunedin Midweeker, and for which I wrote for five and half years in the 1990s. In spite of this piece's age, the problem of the apostrophe hasn't yet gone away.


In the latter days of the last World War, Lancelot Hogben published a series of books, Primers for the Age of Plenty: a fairly optimistic title considering that rationing still had a ways to go. Hogben and his writers looked towards a new world order in the basics of education. Mathematics for the Millions, Science for the Citizen, The Loom of Language, and History of the Homeland, would educate the masses. More than that, they aimed to simplify complex matters for the man in the street, (as he still was).

In The Loom of Language, author Frederick Bodmer writes about a matter that, fifty years later, still concerns letter writers to the Listener, and often concerns the Otago Daily Times' Prester John, that is, the misuse of the apostrophe. Bodmer's solution to the problem was radical. 'As much as I think the English language is the greatest, I wonder if it isn't time to take up the proposals made by language reformers such as Bishop Wilkins, George Dalgarno, H G Wells, G B Shaw' - and Bodner - 'and rid ourselves of something that is, after all, only a visual aspect of English.'

English as she is spoke doesn't contain a single apostrophe.

Apostrophes are completely silent partners when English flows from our mouths. Can you imagine the difficulty we'd have if we had to speak any of the apostrophised words I've already written?
Let(apostrophe)s face it, the apostrophe is atrophied, and it(apostrophe)s only because we are used to it(no-apostrophe)s appearance on the page that we consider it at all. If we've changed our laws to accommodate adultery, de facto relationships, illegitimacy and abortion, why are we still fussing about whether apostrophes have any validity?

It's plain that the majority of schoolteachers have either given up the battle to get apostrophes in their right places - or don't know the difference themselves. Consider the endless examples appearing in every sphere: "it's" when "its" is meant; shop's for two shops; CD's; tomatoe's (good grief).

The first example is the notorious one - I have a computer manual of some hundred pages of "it's" when they mean "its." (We could blame the spellchecker, except that it should recognize both forms.)

Is this battle worth fighting? Couldnt we read English perfectly well without apostrophes? Wouldnt we get used to their absence soon enough? (Did you?)

Banning the apostrophe entirely would ensure our eyes would at least cease to be offended by apostrophes in the wrong places. (These potatoe's wer'ent old, its obvious.)

And since we understand spoken language without apostrophes, how often would we get caught out by the written version? "My cant is my wont," would be acceptable with or without apostrophes, although it's a phrase we'd be fairly unlikely to find.

The possessive use of the apostrophe - "Jenny's department's dealings," or "Ruth's budget's bites," or "Winston's brother's voters' choice," - is an antique visual convention. None of these phrases, if we were to use them in speech, would lose their sense. (Since these phrases have political overtones, however, I'd prefer not to use them at all.)

If apostrophes are invisible in conversation, what do they add to the printed page? Without them, what would we lose except a certain "look" that we know to be English?

Agreeing to changes in the language doesn't always happen by word of mouth: legislation is an alternative. China revolutionized its language by decree; France tries constantly to keep its language "pure," and prior to WWII, Norway's Government changed the nation's spelling and grammar three times in forty years.

However, since our Government will be having such a time tackling consensus, couldnt we show them how its done? We could start by agreeing to delete the apostrophe.

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Some notes: The Otago Daily Times is one of New Zealand's oldest newspapers, and still independent. It took over The Evening Star at one point, and kept its name on for a period in the Star Midweeker, the freebie I wrote for. Various local writers have been 'Prester John' in the ODT's opinion pages over many years, including Gordon Parry and George Griffiths.
Jenny, Ruth and Winston were all politicians; Winston Peters, now in his seventies, still is. 
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