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.