Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Bye bye to the English pie

Call that a pie? Image from Google
Recent arguments on the radio about what a 'pie' is have proved very entertaining. Apparently there are those who claim something can only be a pie if it is entirely encased in pastry. They should listen to Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. The character claims words mean whatever he says they mean. He's not quite right - it's not down to a single arbiter. But words in English certainly do mean whatever they are generally used to mean. And those meanings change. A living language evolves. Try to set it in aspic and it becomes a museum piece.

Those who argue for the pastry-surrounded pie are confusing language and branding. It's fine to set rules for the official name for a product or brand. But, in English, a pie means whatever people call a pie. Hence our ability to refer unashamedly to shepherd's pie or cottage pie, neither of which have any pastry whatsoever.

When I give talks on writing, I point out a number of 'errors' that are disappearing because the language is evolving. For example, some pedants object to using 'their' when referring to an individual. But the trouble is, the language doesn't have a singular equivalent. So we end up with the clumsy formation 'A student must learn his or her foundation material in the first year.' Before long, 'their' will have entirely replaced 'his or her' - and good riddance.

Similarly, when I talk to scientists they still unanimously think that 'data' is plural. So they insist on saying 'The data are now ready for processing.' The rest of the world has realised that data is a singular collective noun and we should say the far more elegant 'The data is now ready for processing.' Scientists will catch up eventually, but they tend to be conservative, so it will take a while.

Some changes are truly painful to those who have been brought up with the original version. Remember the outcry over the 'appropriation' of 'gay'. I'm sure when 'a norange' started to transition to 'an orange' there was muttering in the streets. And I share the pain over some language changes. Yet in the end, I accept that evolution is an irresistible force and it's better to go with the flow and enjoy the ride.

So all together now, to a tune by Don Maclean:

'Bye bye to the English pie,
If language don't evolve it is going to die...'

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