The Decline of the English Language Is Postponed.

by Pitt Griffin on August 26, 2019 · 0 comments

in Interesting

There is concern spreading from the halls of academia to the barstool language purists that the English language is slipping away and being replaced with unintelligible gibberish for the spoken word and every written word an emoticon-adorned abbreviation.

A typical assessment of the dire state of the mother tongue comes from a high school teacher, M. W. Smith, in their book “Methods of Study in English”.

“The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”

But while many of today’s advocates of the inflexible school of English may agree with the sentiment, let’s note that Smith wrote this in 1889.

Complaining about the deterioration of language started shortly after humans invented it. Even ancient Sumerian teachers had their gripes.

Sometimes changes need to be made to reflect new cultural realities. Consider the second paragraph and the use of ‘their’ in the third person singular. Historical you could have just written ‘his’ and be done with it. But women demanded equal status and ‘his’ became ‘his/her’. Which is not graceful. So ‘their’ is used to address the unknown gender.

If you think ‘their’ as a singular possessive is going too far, consider that we have already done so by consigning the singular ‘thou/thine’ to the scrapheap while gladly accepting ‘you/yours’ as both singular and plural. Queen Victoria went further and accorded herself the right to use the first person plural in the singular – ‘we are not amused’.

Sometimes what people see as ‘decline’ is welcome clarity. In his farewell to Congress, George Washington wrote:

“The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.”

To modern ears that is language with a lot of unnecessary flourishes. Contrast it with LBJ’s announcement he wasn’t running again.

“With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of this country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Had either President used the other’s words, it would have sounded odd to contemporaneous ears.

Another mistake the pedants make is to compare apples and oranges. Until we learned to record sound, we only had a written record of the language. And when people write, they tend to be on better behavior than when they speak.

Who knows what the average citizen was saying in the local tavern. God only knows what so-called abominations crossed their lips.

Let’s consider another common complaint – ‘text speak’ and emoticons. I say, why not? If it saves time and your correspondent understands your meaning, let’s have more of it. Churchill, for one, reduced ‘because’ to ‘b/c’, ‘without’ to w/o, ‘why’ to y.

No doubt before that there were ululations at the corruption of ‘will not’ to ‘won’t’, ‘it is’ and ‘it has’ to it’s – even ‘forecastle’ to fo’c’s’le. No one bats an eye at the abbreviated UK, the US, the UN. You would be considered a raving pedant to spell those out in every circumstance.

But there are limits — language changes as culture changes. Larding speech up with the unnecessary is always wrong. ‘Irregardless’ is not a word. ‘Future plans’ and ‘new initiative’ are almost always redundant.
Be careful with common sayings. “I could care less” doesn’t mean what the user thinks it does.

However, (which I was taught must be the first word in a sentence but is now acceptable later on) some adages need to be buried. ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ was nicely put to rest by Winston Churchill.

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall never put”. Note here that in English, English the first-person future of ‘to be’ is ‘shall’, but in American English, it is ‘will’.

The other is the split infinitive. The original Star Trek TV show announced that the USS Enterprise was on a five-year mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. No objection to the break up of ‘to go’. But note that changing times required changing words. ‘No man’ became ‘no one’ – “to boldly go where no one has gone before!”.

There are common mistakes you must avoid to prevent looking like a rube. Whenever you write ‘their’, ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘your’, ‘you’re’, take a breath, and review. If you can’t stick the landing every time get in the habit of dropping the apostrophe and spell out ‘are’. It will help.

Never use an apostrophe before a pluralizing ‘s’ – “we sell apple’s and pear’s” is asking what possession of the mentioned fruit has been left unstated.

And what of the word ‘impact’ as in “he impacted the game with his shooting skills.” It is an example of the linguistic process ‘verbification’ where a noun is given extra work as a verb. In this case, I think it sounds awful. But is it grammatical? What about “he accessed the wine cellar”? Here the noun ‘access’ has been pressed into service as a verb.

The prescriptivists (grammarians who lecture the common man on how they ought to talk – as opposed to the descriptivists, who merely chronicle language as people use it) are not happy with this form of ‘anthimeria’ (Greek: one part for another). They insist the proper form is “he made an impact on the game with his shooting skills” and “he used the door as an access to the wine cellar”.

But these hard guards of the way things ought to be are fighting against the tide. Shakespeare used anthimeria by the bucketful. Here’s an example from Richard II wherein Mowbray complains about his banishment “Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue, doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips”.

The prescriptivists do have a point. Just because a thing can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. English can often be grammatically correct while at the same time, be ugly, jarring, longwinded, or incomprehensible.
George Orwell, in his essay “On politics and the English Language,” gave several examples of poor – if ‘correct’ – writing. Let one example suffice:

“Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.” – Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia)

What does it mean? Who knows? And even if you can discern the author’s point, you have to agree he could have made it more plainly.
English is not carved in stone. Nor is it ‘one size fits all’.

The language you use in banter with your mates is probably not suitable in an Act of Congress. The writer/speaker must know their audience. And must tailor their language to the requirements of the job it is being asked to do.

There are technical and scientific language and legalese. Medical communication must be exact and precise. A high school essay requires a grammatical precision not expected from a sports announcer. Academic custom mandates that Ph.D. dissertations are written with a devotion to the rules.

The overriding purpose of language is to communicate. So from the most formal to the most ignoble ask yourself: Is my meaning clear? And if the answer is no, rewrite or respeak.

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