Could it serve as a parable? I’m thinking about a scene in The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s 1939 masterpiece, in which antic socialites whoop it up in the grand rooms of a country manor house. In the background we hear the music of Strauss and Monsigny. We hear Saint-Saëns. And then Chopin — it’s the Minute Waltz. We’re getting a coherent, rather routine matching of class opulence with high art. But it turns out that this Chopin, no less diegetic though in an unexpected way, is coming from somewhere else, from downstairs. Renoir’s camera pans to the source: a radio in the servants’ quarters.

Not to romanticize — on the contrary. Americans, so many of us bearing the scrappy shame of immigrant pasts (or worse, forced servitude), tend to dabble in fantasies of entitlement and aristocracy. We don’t know any better. For us, Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham* registers as a genuine cultural artifact: gentleman-scholar, defender of the realm, repairs to his library, where — after setting down the postprandial Brandy and cigar — he reaches for a leather-bound De Tranquillitate Animi to verify some apposite quotation from Seneca’s Latin.

The reality turns out to be a bit different. Typically the gentry are stupid, boorish, and mumbly. There is no Latin. There’s virtually no English. Refined diction — the grammar, the so-called good grammar — does not trickle down to us from them, from “upstairs.” It never did and it never will. That’s misappropriation as well as bad science. If correct language is elevated it’s elevated in a slightly different, and more picturesque, sense of that word. Like the Chopin in the movie, it wafts upward from below. Any rules we might be inclined to enforce have originated, more or less without exception, in common vernacular† constructions. Almost always these have been, in their moments of inception, spoken rather than written ones.

When prescriptivists strive to lock down syntax or word definitions, the elements about which they obsess are sounds that have first emerged from the mouths of human beings — in the streets, in the factories, in the Eighth Grade. To be a linguist, which is very different from being a grammar fuckityfuck, is to embrace the idea that even seemingly formal usage is both fluid and polysemic. What’s amiss with the prescriptivist project is not merely that it misgauges the timbre of a living language but that it’s painfully simplistic.

Consider this phrase from Auden’s great elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:

“Raw towns that we believe and die in …”

Note the grammatical discrepancy (more properly a shiftiness of usage) that creates tension within that small rhetorical field. The preposition “in” does double duty here. Following and immediately adjacent to the verb “die,” it denotes spatial orientation: the place in which we die. It’s a locative form of “in” that conveys sense whereness and is something like “inside of” or “amid.” Yet this same preposition (literally the same word in the phrase) also relates to the word “believe,” albeit with a completely different meaning and after a slight delay to our comprehension. In this second case, “in” proposes no factor of whereness. It’s a different kind of preposition entirely — one whose function is purely syntactic. Through his use of parallelism Auden implies two separate stand-alone fragments: to believe in and to die in. Raw towns are what we believe in; raw towns are also where our lives come to extinction

So we have a single word, a single part of speech, into which a pair of simultaneous — and dissimilar — meanings have been embedded. Linguists call this zeugma, a Greek word meaning, roughly, “a binding together.” Zeugma, or this particular mode of zeugma (the term covers several overlapping operations), is a condition in which double- or multiple-meanings are deployed from a single turn of phrase, yet without necessarily disturbing that phrase’s mechanical logic (its semantic action as a part of speech). Auden knowingly summons that tension. He’s allowing the word to be pulled in two directions, or pulled apart. Our sense of irony derives from its being pulled apart. Belief (the category of things “that we believe in”), with its suggestion of oratorical frippery, ends up getting shamed by a silence — death — that is both earthy and permanent.

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What the poet is doing here, if you’re on the side of prescriptivists, is fudging a rule. By a more sophisticated analysis, he’s playing with our assumptions about certainty — fixity — of meaning. At the same time, he undermines the very reason for rules of the kind we’re speaking of, which is to prevent what pendantic types regard as imprecision and what normal people, particularly if they’ve done any thinking and reading, call ambiguity.

Why would you want to prevent that? — ambiguity being, arguably, the most important force operating in language. Without it, without that functional open-endedness, you can’t say much of anything that hasn’t been said already. And there you’re stuck — exactly at the center of nothingness.

*It’s amazingly hard to persuade people who haven’t been around them that “high-born” patriarchs in the real world bear no resemblance to the bemused, quilted sage of Downton Abbey. In fact nothing in that series accurately depicts the craven reality of such lords and ladies. Except the murderous driving skills. That they got right.

†As a point of interest, somewhat off-topic (or maybe not), the word vernacular carries with it an especially dubious history, deriving from the Latin roots vernus and verna: male or female slave born into — as against purchased by — the family of ownership.

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