George Bernard Shaw wasn’t always right, but he was spot on when he said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It’s awfully easy to leave out things we mean to impart and poorly organize our words, and human frailty doesn’t help. Recently I was cruising down the Parks Highway and passed an RV as I heard the audiobook narrator of Barbara Tuchman’s “Distant Mirror” mention “witch trials” and “bacon awards.”
That combination had to be explored in print, which revealed, Tuchman wrote, “In England connubial contentment could win the Dunmow Flitch — a side, or flitch, of bacon awarded to any couple who could come to Dunmow (England) after a year of marriage and truthfully swear that they never quarreled and did not regret the marriage and would do it over again if given the chance.”
Today the couples are judged by six maidens and six bachelors, according to DunmowFlitchTrials.co.uk. The trials date back to 1104, but “By the 14th century, the Dunmow Flitch Trials had achieved far-reaching notoriety,” gaining mention in works like “Piers Plowman” and by the raucous Wife of Bath in “the Canterbury Tales.” It’s held every four years, and online 2020 applications open next month.
Connubial contentment’s difficult with social media communication inducing people to write as poorly as they speak. Why care about spelling, syntax, punctuation, etc.? “Because you want people to understand you,” the editors of DailyWritingTips.com respond, because “it’s less distracting and easier to understand if I say it correctly. … Where students and teachers get into disagreements is when the young people insist that the way they write is now correct. Older teachers can recall saying the same thing when they were young, but in retrospect, being wrong. The slang of their youth didn’t become a permanent part of the English language. … My advice: if English speakers have been following a rule for a thousand years, you might want to follow it, too. People are probably used to it.” A Harvard study of LinkedIn profiles of young professionals in the first decade of their careers in the consumer packaged goods industry that found “the ones with fewer grammar errors in their profile were promoted to director level or above within those ten years, while the other half were not.”
“What about Shakespeare?” you ask. “He monkeyed with the language mercilessly, like when a defeated character in Coriolanus says, ‘He godded me!’” The Bard was into functional shifts, it turns out. Our public library allows ten free copies of pages from reference books, so I copied the “functional” section from my go-to usage reference book, “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” viz. “the ability of a word to shift from one grammatical function to another. A noun acts as an adjective (candy store); an adjective as a noun (a collectible), a noun as a verb (housing the collection),” etc.
Besides Garner’s examples neatly fitting our library (a candy store for the mind housing all sorts of collectibles), he adds, “We Americans will not use the more elaborate form when the simpler, more direct one is absolutely unambiguous and does the work without a hitch.” Garner must agree that no modern term fits that bill better than “y’all.” “English has no standard second-person plural word,” as TheAtlantic.com’s Van Newkirk wrote in “America Needs Y’all,” “and it’s time to change.” We used to have second-person plural pronouns, like “ye” and “thou,” but “they fell off the linguistic map around the 17th century.” That’s when many modern contractions — “can’t,” “won’t,” “they’ll,” and “y’all”— were entering the language, and so was y’all, with British immigrants bringing them to these shores before holing up in the Appalachian hollows where 17th century English pronunciation still thrives.
As Teresa Simpson wrote for TripSavvy.com, “Although ‘y’all’ is not generally considered appropriate for formal writing, it’s not an improper or incorrect term, nor does it indicate a failure to grasp grammar or the English language. It is just another way that language has evolved over time to provide us with a much-needed second-person plural pronoun.”
All y’all need y’all. As Molly Ivins wrote, “Raise hell — big time. I want y’all to get out there and raise hell about damned near everything. My word, there’s a world out there that needs fixing. Get out there and get after it.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.