As part of the Legatum Institute's Salon Series, author and editor of 'Humanities' magazine, David Skinner, discussed his book 'The Story of Ain’t', which looks at the spread of American English in cultural history.
The rise of the United States as a world power in the course of the twentieth century paralleled a remarkable phenomenon in cultural history - the spread of American English with its own distinctively rich idioms and vocabulary. From the end of the First World War onwards scholars, journalists and commentators in the United States discovered a new appreciation for the vigorously American use of English, and in the inter-war years colloquial American language became increasingly dominant in novels and films. But behind this development there was a striking anxiety among educated Americans about the correct use of English, and this self-consciousness was at odds with linguistic science which was moving away from language-as-rule and toward language-as-spoken.
These tensions came to a head in 1961 when the publishers Merriam-Webster, in their press release in advance of the publication of Webster's Third Unabridged Dictionary, defined 'ain't' as a contraction which was used orally in most parts of the US by cultivated speakers. Many Americans gasped. How could ain't be 'cultivated'?
The ensuing controversy is the subject of David Skinner's book The Story of Ain't:
“My book is about the rise of linguistics and the shifts in American culture towards more democratic and scientific standards of knowledge. And it’s about the sort of comedy of people getting very upset about language. We all have incredibly strong feelings about other people’s usage of words, and in this case it seemed as if the great authority on American vocabulary was, as the New York Times put it, “surrendering to the permissive school.”
In the ensuing discussion, journalist Peter Pomerantsev pointed out an interesting parallel in today’s Russia, where he has recently covered the on-going political protests. He described the linguistic concerns of the Russian protest movement as they attempt to create and shape new and effective terminology to express political opposition against the Putin’s Russia.
“There is a fascinating search going on at the moment among the Russian intelligentsia to find a new language to express political concepts and to create a new terminology for concepts of democracy and civil society that are not tainted by the stalled opening of the 1990s.”
The discussion was chaired by author and historian, Hywel Williams, and moderated by the Legatum Institute's President and CEO, Jeffrey Gedmin.
A podcast from the discussion is available below.
In its Salon Series the Legatum Institute hosts scholars, writers, artists and public figures to discuss issues that are fundamental to the success of free, prosperous, and enterprising societies. Ranging widely across the arts, sciences and humanities, the conversations promote a discourse between cultural, philosophical, economic and political modes of enquiry.
For more information about Legatum Institute events, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.