Prescriptivist fools should go to jail, sorry, gaol

If there’s one thing funnier than a prescriptivist, it’s a prescriptivist who’s clearly wrong yet doesn’t know it. I was therefore giggling as soon as I saw Neil tweet about my spelling of “jail”.

Either @stilgherrian has been transported to America, or I really am the only person who spells gaol correctly here (along with @jbugs14)

“Correctly”, eh? Hilarious, Neil.

Dictionaries record language as it is actually used, not as those with a dangerous little knowledge imagine it is used. Both the Macquarie Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary list “jail” as the primary spelling. And as Google’s Ngram shows, “jail” started to be used more often than “gaol” some time in the 1830s, at least in the totality of English.

The OED does record “gaol” as a second spelling in the entry’s head, but the Macquarie does not. Instead, it adds this note:

Usage: In general the spelling of this word has shifted in Australian English from gaol to jail. However, gaol remains fossilised in the names of jails, as Parramatta Gaol, and in some government usage.

Fossilised. See that?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, consulted online just now:

In British official use the forms with G are still current; in literary and journalistic use both the G and the J forms are now admitted as correct; in the U.S. the J forms are standard.

Looking through the OED’s citations, we see “Iaiole” dated to ca1300, “Iayle” to ca1440, “Iaile” to ca1660 and some bloke called Shakespeare, “jayl” to 1743–5 and good ol’ “jail” to 1860. Of course that last citation is R W Emerson, an American, so presumably Neil thinks that doesn’t count. But even if we imagine Australian English is derived only from British English — something that’s patently untrue — we still have precursors of the J form going back a mere 700 years.

“When spelling, I prefer The Queen’s English,” tweets Neil. Yeah? Which Queen? Elizabeth I?

I’ve nothing against people choosing to use different forms of language. Far from it. It adds colour, spice, variety. But that’s not the same as imagining that an older form is somehow “right” and newer forms “wrong”. Especially when your views are at odds with the vast majority of the language’s native speakers.

Just how far do you want to go back and freeze our language — or should I say “fossizlise” it — before it’s acceptable, Neil? A hint: When you’re “the only person” who thinks something is right, you’re probably not.

[Update 4.15pm: Google Ngram image added, with explanatory sentence. The graph showing all English usage is slightly misleading. Restricted to British English only, the “jail” form has been the more popular “only” since the 1940s. I’ll post a further update in due course.]

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9 comments

  1. Stephen Collins’s avatar

    I imagine Neil favors (note I don’t use a “u” in that work, Neil) a fixed and government-prescribed form of the language in which new words, and evolving uses of existing words aren’t permitted.

    Perhaps he’s not aware that as something that is, by and large, the language of global trade, English (or arguably, Globish – http://books.google.com/books?id=bAQeuky6XnwC&dq=globish) now has as many valid forms, or more, than it has ever had.

    As an English Lit scholar, I’m variously horrified and delighted at the words my 14yo uses these days. Her use of the conjunction/preposition-as-verb “versing” to mean “opposing” rubs me wrong, but there’s no doubt it’s an emergent usage and just as valid as things I used at her age.

    English, of all languages, is living. Neil needs to understand that. Not to mention, this nation hasn’t used “The Queen’s English” since Received Pronunciation was de rigueur.

  2. Daniel Reeders’s avatar

    Loved this entry. Prime snark, researched well dished up cold.

    Utterly wrong, but. If Neil is a prescriptivist, and as you say dictionaries and Google Ngram are in fact descriptivist, then they can’t prove him wrong, unless he’s cited either as authority for his claim.

    So that begs the question (go on, correct me, I dare you) of what standard Neil uses to judge what’s ‘correct’ — and I’d be guessing it’s derived from social class rather than linguistics.

  3. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Daniel Reeders: Actually, it does fit within linguistics, an area of study called sociolinguistics, something that I very much enjoyed studying. Vocabulary choice as a class indicator is smack bang in the middle of it all.

  4. arion’s avatar

    The Lotus Notes 6.5.4 dictionary for Australia only has “gaol” not “jail”.

    Cue massive confusion for one poor American struggling with Notes.

  5. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @arion: That’s interesting, I wonder what base dictionary IBM used. A quick search of the IBM website and then the whole web just now did not yield any joy.

  6. Rami Mandow’s avatar

    Brilliant post! Very much enjoyed it and gained some education from it too! Great comment from Stephen as well above!

    Honestly, the only time I ever even think of the spelling ‘Gaol” is when I am reminded of it as I walk past the old Darlinghurst Gaol, now art school.

    Coming from a Mesopotamian background I have always been fascinated by the evolution of languages, words etc. throughout the ages. My nationality still speaks Aramaic and lots of our words have tones of the old Akkadian within them (now it is called Assyrian).

    Due to diaspora, the Assyrian language is now on the extinction list as it bleeds and becomes integrated with other languages, words and tones from around the world – proof of what exactly Stephen states above – languages are living and evolving.

    Once again, compliments on the post mate – a great read!

  7. Stilgherrian’s avatar

    @Rami Mandow: Thanks very much, Rami. You’ve just inspired me to find the time to revisit some of the stuff I used to study in linguistics –especially the vanishing languages of the Middle East that are at the roots of so many modern languages.

    1. Rami Mandow’s avatar

      You’re most welcome mate, well deserved!

      Just saw a post about someone solving some 66-month old script you listed … looked great!

      If ever you’re interested in any of the Assyrian language stuff, am happy to share some of the family items we keep from who knows when … Pop use to study the ancient languages so we have loads of cool items passed down for several generations in regards to all this 🙂

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