Plato Ruined your English

Plato’s theory of forms, that there is some perfect archetype of each object and all manifestations of an object are more or less corrupted versions of their archetype, is a quintessentially human attempt to solidify experience into a concrete objective reality. This is no mere counting angels on the head of a pin; belief in some sort of absolute and objective reality gives people something to kill and die for, whether it be nationalism, a deity or some cause.

In linguistics, this platonic reification rears its head as prescriptivism, which I’d define as the belief that some arbitrary set of rules is, on some deeper level, a language. This leads to a rigidness that blinds a person to the reality in front of them — nearly all native speakers of a language speak one way, yet some prescriptivists insists on using the language in a different manner. The loss of thou, whither and -th verb endings is no more tragic a loss than the present decline of whom, the which-what distinction or past simple supplanting present perfect. Those in the thralls of blind devotion to prescriptivism would stand little chance of ever learning a modern spoken language to any natural level of fluency and would never produce anything but stodgy prose in their own language.

I don’t deny that the so called rules and grammar of a standard language have some value, rather I see them merely as guides and signposts. By all means, use these conventions as tools, but don’t be bound by them. To borrow from the Alagaddupama Sutta, it would be folly to cling to a raft after having already crossed a river. In the same vein, ‘grammar rules’ help one study and clarify ambiguous writing, but they are not the be all and end all of a language. They are the map, not the territory.

This debate has existed since at least the time of Early Buddhism two and a half millennia ago. While the discussion centered on reality and metaphysics, language was a point of contention as well. The Buddha gently mocked the very concept of a sacred language and taught in local vernaculars rather than Vedic Sanskrit. In the end, language provides a strong example of impermanence and continuity expounded by the Buddha. Language seems so concrete, real and permanent, yet to the majority of the people on this planet this text is incomprehensible. With time, even those who speak ‘English’ will find this as hard to decipher as Beowulf or Chaucer.

The opponents of Buddhism were keen to point out that rejecting forms — anattā in Early Buddhism, refined as śūnyatā in Northern Buddhism — was uncomfortably close to nihilism, if not already a subtle form of it. The Madhyamaka provided a robust response that hinged on the doctrine of two truths: the world around us is governed by relative truth, a set of mere conventions that are ultimately malleable, while the absolute truth is that these conventions are impermanent, unsatisfying and devoid of any inherent existence.

This balance lies at the heart of linguistics. English is ultimately undefinable: You can show me a million maps, but the territory itself remains nebulous. The more one clings to the maps and conventions of English as something inherently English, the further from English their language becomes. Despite this, the nihilism of random letters and words could never be English — that would violate the first truth and go so far beyond accepted conventions so as to be unintelligible.

Thus we have English as a living example of Madhyamaka. I would be entirely unable to converse with someone who spoke English fifteen hundred years ago. In a thousand years this text will more likely than not be incomprehensible to the inhabitants of a certain isle, yet it is perfectly readable in 2017. At no point would anyone in this chain of English see themselves as not speaking English.

When we humbly stand before the majesty that is a living language without platonic pretensions, the doors are open. Removing the instinct to reify and grasp at something fictitiously permanent is the work of a lifetime — or more.