Language is a strange thing.
The title of the post is actually a Yiddish word meaning crazy, nonsensical. Until a few months ago, however, I didn’t realize it wasn’t a normal English word. I had grown up listening to my mother (who was raised Jewish) use it, and I’d been using it mentally, but I almost never said it out loud. Then, I happened to use it once when not at home, someone said, “um, what did you just say?”, and I realized that not only was I not really sure what the exact definition of meshuga was, I wasn’t even sure how to spell it. Later I tried to look it up online, and found out it could be spelled at least four different ways – meshuga, meshugge, meshugah, and meshuggah. I think m-e-s-h-u-g-a is probably the most common one, so I’m using it.
Anyway, now I know that that word isn’t exactly standard English. I think it’s amazing, though, that I was able to live for seventeen years before figuring that out. It makes me kind of wonder what exactly we mean by “standard English”. If I recall correctly, linguists say that each person speaks his own language, and we only understand each other because our languages mostly overlap. But meshuga means something for me, while it might not for you; other words might have the same basic meaning for both of us, but have slightly different connotations.
So the idea that there is some sort of standard English vocabulary any deviation from which is a misuse of the language is starting to seem kind of foolish to me. What I don’t know is whether this is true of grammar as well. I tend to think that having a consistent grammar is a good thing – we might not be saying the exact same thing when we say the same combination of words, but having a standard grammar means that, given we know what our words mean, we can decipher the meaning of a sentence.
But what, then – does “English” just denote the grammar of the language, not the actual words used?