Language correctness, corruption, and doom

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.

Fear not: grammar rules are not divinely ordained.

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.

37 Responses to Language correctness, corruption, and doom

  1. Christopher says:

    It’s incredible to me how the topic and points made in this article relate to nearly all areas of social and cultural life.

    I never knew language is susceptible to the status quo just as my film, my area of practice.

    Thank you for the wonderful article…


  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Christopher. Though languages change all the time, they obviously don’t do so at a rate that puts us all out of step with one another. Attempts to fix them in time (to one form only, one meaning only, etc.) are understandable but, well, doomed.

    Good luck editing your film!

  3. dan says:

    Good stuff. As Christopher says above and you say in the piece itself, fears about language change seem to be linked to all sorts of other concerns over identity, be that individual, national, regional or (perhaps more often) age-related.

  4. Stan says:

    Dan: Yes, all of the above, I think. And attitudes to language change come bundled with cherished values — personal, social, cultural — which makes it a popular arena for intergenerational conflict, e.g., disapproval of slang, horror of textspeak.

  5. I must admit that I wince when I see textspeak etc but what the hell! Languages are are fluid and evolve otherwise we could read the Battle of Maldon rather than (in my case) looking perplexed at a strange language

  6. […] Language correctness, corruption, and doom […]

  7. language hat says:

    An excellent post. I’ve got Greene’s new book You Are What You Speak and am looking forward to reading it.

  8. Stan says:

    Jams: I understand your reaction, but there’s good and bad in textspeak like in any other variety of English. Some of it is funny and creative, though it might look absurd or unsightly in the midst of ‘proper’ prose.

    language hat: Thank you. I’m looking forward to Greene’s book too, having enjoyed the online previews, but it will probably be a while before I get hold of a copy.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Whatever we cling to is sure to shatter (quote from me, could be original, in fact I hope so!)
    Brilliant post Stan.
    And highly topical for me. I was speaking with an Indian call centre for a couple of hours today (software fail)and I was literally entranced with his spoken English. Circa 1850. He was relaxed enough with me as we waited for downloads and uploads to extol the beauty of his country and that I should visit, using words like ‘enchantment’ ‘honour’ ‘accompany’ ‘conveyance of my choosing’ in his every day lingo.
    In the future when you and I are grunting in our texts at each other we will revert to India to expand our linguistic capabilities.
    And yes, I totally support the evolution of language. Over fondness for the Z.

  10. nosedog says:

    A great thing about being a teacher is it keeps you young. I love language, and I especially love “good” language. But there’s a certain joy in witnessing young people be playful with language, and in taking part.

  11. Stan says:

    WWW: Thank you for the vignette. What a lovely experience you had. I wonder if it was “recorded and used for training purposes”! There’s a strong natural tendency to take shortcuts when we communicate, which means genuine effort to be expressive stands out all the more.

    nosedog: Well said. Children can’t help being playful with language, but this is not to deny the charm of their original speech forms. I wrote about one of these last month, a novel metaphor I encountered on Twitter.

  12. Claude says:

    Fascinating post! I still feel that I’m a learner in English. I cannot really see the damage (if any) inflicted to it by new ways of communications. It’s very true that the world is changing, and, with it, our ways to be. It’s not necessarily bad.

    I remember, in my very early youth, having to write, with pen, and in formal language, Merci notes to aunts for gifts received (but not always liked and wanted). Such an ordeal, when being watched by my mother who had to approve every dot on each i, and my choice of words to express my gratitude.

    I laughed so much, when this recent Chrismas, having sent a generous amount of money to grand children, (7 and 15) and my son, to his nephews, we received a Facebook message saying, “Thank you, guys! It was cool”.

    It was really cool indeed! I’m glad times have changed. And the language!

    Toi aussi, tu es cool Stan. À la tienne!

  13. Stan says:

    Et toi, Claude, t’es le plus cool de tous! Thank you, as always, for your charming stories and sunny perspective. Many old ideas about correctness in language are closely tied to beliefs about what’s appropriate socially. When conventions change, as they always do, these ideas might fit no more; and instead of updating the ideas, some people dig their heels in and insist on the eternal correctness of what are now anachronisms. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism, a generalised resistance to the new. But like you, I take pleasure in the reduced formality of today.

  14. The Raven says:

    This blog entry deserves at least one caveat: One way we have traditionally controlled usage drift in English is through publishing. The role of professional editors in book, magazine and newspaper publishing has included a certain “gatekeeper” function.

    You can see this in text circa 1900-1930, where profanity was often Bowdlerized to asterisks or dashes, normally without so much as a leading letter. Gradually, over the following decades, the heading letter did start to appear, and eventually the final one as well, e.g., “D_ _m!”

    Today, depending on the formality of the text, obscenity can be run in full, as in today’s cover story in Rolling Stone magazine (The stoner arms dealers), or as in the Economist, you’ll not find it at all.

    But the editorial function as a checking mechanism on usage drift is imperiled as publications increasingly fire production staff and produce lower quality content. Whether that’s a good or bad thing I’ll leave up to you, but it is a factor to be considered.

  15. Stan says:

    The Raven: Thank you for your helpful comment. Profanity is an interesting example, because a publisher cannot report coarse vernacular without either offending some people or exasperating others.

    Editors and publishing houses do not constitute a unified defence against linguistic change. They differ on all sorts of matters – including how to handle profanities – and their differences are themselves perennially subject to change. Take the AP Stylebook‘s dislike of split infinitives. This is not a “checking mechanism on usage drift”: it’s the superstitious perpetuation of a grammar myth.

    I’m sure you don’t imagine that I think firing people and producing lower-quality content is a good thing. For the record, I think it’s a bad thing.

  16. Florian Blaschke says:

    “Indeed, the great success of English depends in part on the generous flexibility of its conventions.”

    O RLY? Sad to see the myth of the inherent superiority attributed to English (even if only in part), rather than the power of its speakers, re-iterated and spread by someone who, I’d like to assume, really ought to know better.

    I don’t agree with the general climate among linguists, completely opposed as it is to prescription (and purism too, quite ignoring empirical data, contemporary and historical). It’s basically a knee-jerk reaction, as the arguments in favour as well as against are, in my experience, never quite properly considered: as a modern linguist, you just know that prescriptionism is bad – always -, futile, and unproductive, an invariably doomed enterprise, and a popular, anti-scientific habit of those stuck in the past, without really stopping to think why they might react like that with some justification, possibly. I suspect this is a sad case of indoctrination on the part of linguists. Conveniently, by the way, it is often forgotten or omitted that the gender-neutral language movement is a form of prescription too, just an innovative rather than a conservative variant. Conservative-minded prescription (and purism, which is a related issue, both in its conservative form – the criticism of and fight against borrowings of any sort, material or structural, especially those which merely displace native or in any event older words/phrases/rules without adding to the lexicon – and its innovative variant, which typically involves the coining of neologisms) has a point: Language change is detrimental in that it has the effect of severing the ties to older literature. In fact, that’s one of the most important arguments brought forward against English spelling reform! (Others, just in case you forgot, are the dialect-neutral nature of conventional English spelling, the etymological connections within English and connections to closely related languages it exposes and the fact that the spelling of English words tends to be learned holistically, not quite as divorced from grapheme-phoneme relationships as in Chinese but tending in that direction.) Therefore, attempts to stem the tide of language change are not altogether irrational.

    In fact, it may be sensible to use Latin as a model, and learn lessons from its history. While Latin did change and diverge regionally to a limited extent throughout the Middle Ages, being a relatively vital language for one that had no native speakers anymore, and being used as a spoken language by at least a small elite of learned men (including clergy and monastic population), it was kept as a Europe-wide medium of communication which never changed so much that older and especially classical literature had become unintelligible to its users. That remained the case as long as the tradition persisted, just as in the case of the Old English tradition. Latin was such a flexible and highly useful lingua franca because it did not change – too much, at least. And most of the change involved the addition of neologisms in the lexicon, which was unproblematic because it made Medieval Latin “downwards compatible” with the past, as the IT crowd would say. Latin, as a more-or-less standardised primarily written language, remained utterly useful for many centuries and the ultimate case for its downfall was essentially that it was not taught widely enough when basic education was introduced on a large scale – if people in Southern France had to learn Standard French, which was every bit as alien as Latin to them, you could have taught them Latin as well instead, and that isn’t even the most extreme example (just think of the Basques). The loss of Latin literacy was a big tragedy and European history did suffer for the effects, culminating in 19th century nationalism and what grew out of it. The fate of Latin should serve as a warning.

    Does that mean that I oppose people playing with language and discourage its creative use? Certainly not. But the line of tradition of Modern English should be preserved, better than the line of Old English, or of Latin, and if we are so convinced that having a global lingua franca as a democratic tool of communication that belongs to no particular interest is a highly welcome circumstance, we should do our best to ensure that it remains that. In practice, this means that people are free to speak whatever forms of language they wish – whether English-derived or not – but the register of literary Standard Modern English should be taught and remain familiar to as many people as possible, for their own benefit and the collective benefit of mankind. A lingua franca is a L2 anyway, there is no conflict with the evolution of spoken language(s).

    Just consider this: If we really wish to warn our descendants in the far future of the radioactive waste that we have left them, we better try to make sure that they will still understand – better even, use – Modern Standard English if we care for their fate.

  17. The Ridger says:

    Green’s book is excellent – for the non-specialist, at least.

    And the rest of it? Turn your hat around, pull up your pants, and get off my lawn. And your music? It’s just noise.

    Or something like that, far too often…

  18. There’s something to be said for elegance, too. Think how sports fans might react if they saw a soccer player who, every eight steps or so, stumbled briefly, but managed to keep on running. The fans might at first think that behavior strange or even amusing, but I imagine they’d soon find it annoying. Now compare a teenager or twenty-something who, every eight words or so, says like. I’ve had to listen to that kind of speech, and I can tell you it quickly becomes a kind of auditory Chinese water torture.

  19. Stan says:

    Florian: If you mean me, I don’t think I “[re-iterated and spread] the myth of the inherent superiority attributed to English”. I certainly don’t believe English is inherently superior; its success is what I referred to. Nor am I a linguist, and I don’t think prescriptivism is “bad – always“; I’ve written on this blog about the benefits of sensible prescriptivism in certain contexts.

    You write that “attempts to stem the tide of language change are not altogether irrational”. I agree (though I would say they’re often futile). I’ve made more or less the same point before, for example in cases where I find that preserving a certain meaning or distinction would be useful. What you wrote about Latin is instructive. Thank you. But it was a very different world then. For example, our modes and rates of travel and communication have since been transformed, and the changes have greatly fuelled language change.

    I also agree about the practical value of teaching standard modern English. Unfortunately, the desire to do so is sometimes undermined by less admirable motivations, which is what I wanted to address in this post.

    The Ridger: Nicely put. That does seem to be what it sometimes amounts to: idiolectal differences as a scapegoat for grouching.

    wordconnections: Of course, elegant language is a pleasure to hear and read. The ubiquitous like to which you object is a phenomenon I find interesting. Sometimes it seems superfluous, sure, but there’s much more to it than a mere verbal tic.

  20. nosedog says:

    @Raven: I’ve seen profanity (unmasked) in The Economist several times. I didn’t consider it a good thing, but it’s just a matter of getting used to it, I guess.

  21. […] what is the point of prescriptivism? [A. There is none. B. To save language from imminent doom. C. Something in […]

  22. dBunny says:

    I feel like one could pull a poe’s law on Florian Blaschke.

    The loss of Latin literacy was a big tragedy and European history did suffer for the effects, culminating in 19th century nationalism and what grew out of it. The fate of Latin should serve as a warning.


  23. rcayley says:

    I really enjoyed this article–and all the comments. Thanks!

  24. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Rachael. Thank you for reading.

  25. […] is close to being a terminal case.” (For more on the perennial doom-mongering over language, see this post.) These rules, writes Williams, have become the symbolic flags around which those most intensely […]

  26. […] Language correctness, corruption, and doom – Chi lamenta l’inesorabile declino della lingua inglese ignora l’evidenza storica, fa notare Stan Carey di Sentence first in un post ricco di esempi e link con ulteriori informazioni. […]

  27. This article was great, inspired me for help with some University work I am doing, thanks a lot my friend.

    You write very well


  28. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, Shaun, and thank you for the kind words. Please give credit, if it is due.

  29. […] martyrdom: the conviction that they alone truly care. They can lament that the language (and the world as we know it) is going to the dogs, and that we need these rules – the ones they like – to save […]

  30. […] merits of prescriptivism and descriptivism, the question of whether English is or is not ‘deteriorating’, and the role of dictionaries in arbitrating on usage. Gove himself took an active part in the […]

  31. […] no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few […]

  32. […] authoritarian, even ideological line. It is from the latter we tend to hear the lament that the English language is in terminal decline. Lionel Trilling wryly remarked that he found “righteous denunciations of the present state […]

  33. […] worries that ‘statements and opinions will become extinct’. This is feverish doom-mongering. […]

  34. […] a previous post on linguistic declinism, I […]

  35. […] idea that standards are slipping taps into various worries about changes in society. Language becomes a scapegoat for these fears. So when a new communication […]

  36. Noah C. Johnson says:

    this article makes me want to learn how to say “kids these days don’t use proper grammer; our standards are declining, and this is the end of our language” in old english; just to mess with the heads of the people who think that; does anyone know how to say it that way? maybee in proto indo european as well.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I like that idea, though I can’t help with the translations – and I wouldn’t be too optimistic about it changing the mindset of anyone committed to scapegoating the kids these days. There’s an xkcd comic along these lines, but focusing on language development.

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