Robert Lane Greene, of The Economist’s language blog Johnson, wrote a guest post recently for the New York Times on a subject that crops up regularly in popular discussions about grammar and education: that the language itself is in terminal decline, and may be on the very brink of doom.
Greene sensibly argues against assuming the worst. That language is degenerating calamitously is a perennial lament from a subset of prescriptivists. These laments usually bypass historical evidence. Minimal investigation shows that for centuries critics have conflated languages’ mutability with decay and sometimes imminent destruction. As Greene puts it: ‘Change must be bad, they reckon, because the language they once learned in school was good.’
It just doesn’t add up. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this post, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper told me: ‘When correspondents write in to bewail the death of English, I like to tell them the Anglo-Saxons of 1100AD felt the same way.’
Declarations of doom are often an excuse to vent about what’s (mis)construed as good or bad usage, and sometimes to have a go at younger generations from whom the disparager feels alienated. Henry Hitchings wrote that purists are ‘heavily invested . . . in a fantasy of the status quo’. They want to see the rules they were taught upheld and enforced in perpetuity, whether or not these rules have grammatical validity, and they reject alternative styles because it’s simpler to have One Right Way – the way they’re most familiar with. But what’s correct varies with dialect and context: it depends on the correctness conditions.
‘Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules?’ asks Gabe Doyle, quite reasonably. It’s more interesting and worthwhile to learn what constitutes a grammatical error, and to consider how we decide. But alarmist dogma makes better copy than complicated truth, just as an emotive rant is typically more entertaining than a balanced assessment. Jonathan Swift’s tirade is among the most famous of the former, with its fixation on ‘decay’, ‘ruinous corruption’, ‘the maiming of our language’, and the ‘barbarous’ abuse of not pronouncing past tense -ed as a separate syllable. Honestly.
It’s an understandable conceit of each generation to claim special status for its own era: never more chaotic, never more exceptional, never more imperilled. The Austrian writer Hans Weigel exemplified this paradoxical position in his book Die Leiden der jungen Wörter (The Sorrows of Young Words):
Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before.
He blames journalism, and adds that the ‘explosion in education has inflicted considerable damage on language’. On this point, Lane Greene observes that the growth in basic literacy has a lot to do with the greater visibility of the sort of English likely to bother sticklers.
That is, education has resulted in an abundance of written English as diverse as its writers; this naturally includes countless non-standard varieties, which purists reflexively classify as sub-standard. Greene tolerantly concludes that this real-world diversity is ‘something to celebrate, not to complain about’.
At Scientopia’s Child’s Play blog, Melody Dye follows up on Greene’s article with a series of insights into education, grammar norms, and the conflicting pressures of standardisation and diversification:
the Internet age cultivates bottom-up phenomena, in which small trends rapidly turn global (the unconventional are rapidly conventionalized) and self-selecting communities . . . forge and disperse their own norms, be they ethical, sexual, comedic, or linguistic. . . . [M]any of the trends that prescriptivists are bent on quashing are surely bottom-up. I know for a fact that my addiction to LOLCatz has more or less ruined my grammar
Hyperbolic ‘ruined’ was presumably tongue in cheek. Dye’s post is in striking contrast to articles of the doom-laden type not only in the sophistication of its content but in the playfulness of its form. Far from relishing the often inventive fads and frivolities of informal communication, peevers are appalled by how ‘improper’ it all is and how rapidly it spreads. Barbarity! they howl, straining to heave the gates shut. Maybe they resent their own reluctance or inability to join in the fun.
The idea that languages deteriorate is a persistent one, and not without foundation: languages change incessantly, and sometimes this takes the form of weakening or inflation or degradation. Sometimes it doesn’t. In The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher wrote that ‘the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was’.
English is a globally popular language and is doing rather well, in a fractured, harum-scarum sort of way. Indeed, the great success of English depends in part on the generous flexibility of its conventions. Why, then, the recurring panic that it is on a steep plunge into extinction? In some cases it’s just a lazy way for people to grumble about perceived abuses. Teenagers, the peevers fume, are Doing It Wrong.
More broadly, perhaps deeper anxieties about the future play a part in creating these convictions of catastrophe. It’s common knowledge that advanced civilisations have risen and fallen as inevitably as the seasons, if less predictably. We’re in the midst of a vast ecological extinction for which we appear to be chiefly responsible; various other local and global crises clamour for our concern and attention.
Given how intimately language is part of who we consider ourselves to be, and the degree of perceived control it allows us, it would be understandable if some people used it unconsciously as a hook on which to hang their worries about an uncertain future. So they lambast anyone they believe is damaging the language, blaming them for the onrushing end of everything they hold dear. It is a kind of naïve linguistic eschatology.
As I commented (or over-generalised) on John E. McIntyre’s blog last year, lack of control freaks them out, so they scapegoat non-standard English because it presents an easy and ubiquitous target for griping, and offers them an opportunity to claim some kind – any kind – of authority. I sympathise with the anxiety, if not the quest for authority. But fears and facts are there to be faced and understood, not warped into a bad rhetorical bludgeon lending imaginary weight to an empty huff about pet peeves destroying English.
Languages are not crystalline artefacts in need of fervent protection; they are dynamic, distributed systems: shifting, meandering phenomena beyond the total control of any person, institution, or movement. A thousand years from now, if there are people around, whatever they’re speaking is likely to be as different from today’s language as our speech is from Old English. There’s nothing to be dreaded about this; it’s as natural as any other kind of evolution.