The Massachusetts Medievalist on A World Without “Whom” and the Undergraduate History of the English Language class

Yes, the Massachusetts Medievalist is at that point of the semester when reading a book about language usage feels like a guilty pleasure — but this is a very funny, very informative book about contemporary language.  While I suspect I am not Emmy Favilla’s ideal reader (since I am a middle-aged medieval studies professor who does not use most forms of digital media), I found her work to be immediately relevant to mine; it will shift the tone of my History of the English Language (HEL) class in spring 2018.

Cover of Favilla's "A World Without 'Whom'"

The creative writing major at my university requires the HEL class; the class can also count as elective in the English major. My teaching is largely socio-historical rather than technical: we don’t learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and we spend only a few weeks on Old and Middle English. Indeed, many of my HEL students have never thought about the concept that our language has a history at all, and a big part of my job is to get them to realize how our language’s history affects their daily lives and communications. Discussion about the linguistic impact of the digital revolution permeates the course, and Favilla has provided a myriad of useful examples to illustrate this lightning-fast language change.

Throughout the book, Favilla emphasizes two guiding principles: respect and clarity.  She provides excellent, specific advice about “How to Not Be a Jerk” (the title of chapter 4); for example, use “marriage equality” instead of “gay marriage” and “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” Instead of trying to adhere to archaic rules about punctuation, she advocates punctuation that simply makes meaning clear: do you mean “I love your sister Drew” or “I love your sister, Drew”? She wants whom to become extinct, simply because it’s not needed for clarity in standard English, and explains the evolution and nuances of the new use of because as a preposition (as in because science)(163).

I know that my students use because as a preposition; they are more accustomed to singular they than I ever will be; they use emojis more than they use footnotes. Favilla’s work will help me contextualize these language changes that they know, that they are experiencing in real time, within the broader history of the language as a whole. For instance, English language users have been turning nouns into verbs for over a thousand years – so Favilla’s example of person as a verb  (as in “I immediately forgot how to person”)(211) is just a recent example, so recent as to sound awkwardly amusing, of a linguistic trend that also includes OE beag (n., crown) and beagian/begian (v., to crown).

Favilla has provided the most recent chapter of the History of the English Language along with some interesting sign-posts as we head into a world without “whom.”

Flavilla, Emmy J. A World Without “Whom.” New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.