Stop all the clocks. Fly the flags at half mast. Bring out your dead.
It is time, fellow speaker of English, to mourn the passing of the most noble of noble things: the English language.
Let us dab a hanky to our eyes, hold our loved ones that little bit tighter, and drink several toasts to the deceased, remembering them fondly with funny and well-embellished anecdotes.
Or, you know, we could also just stop overreacting.
Since the dawn of time, and quite possibly before, at least in our English-speaking minds, that the English language has been put up on the highest of pedestals, and has been in danger of toppling off, or declining, ever since.
To attempt to get to the bottom of whether or not the English language really is in decline, we are going to make some rather general statements and see if we can’t figure this thing out.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…
…Or in the case of the English language, anything that goes outside of the orderly, neat, tidy world that is Standard English, is not ever going to be accepted by those who wield their abilities to converse in ‘proper’ English like a shield against the night.
In this case, the night is all of us who dare to dream that language, like us, is merely at the whim of evolution. And the old dogs in this scenario are, of course, those language pedants that bewail the decline of the English language.
There. We have already done something offensive; did you see what we did?
When some of us were at school, it was almost an act of treason to start any sentence with a conjunction, and especially the terror that is the word and. Many a teacher would exclaim, grow faint, and underline this heinous error with a furious flourish of their red pen. How times have changed. Firstly, teachers nowadays are encouraged to use colors such as green and purple to soften the blow of having suggestions highlighted – for the word mistake has long since been banished from the classroom. And secondly, and can be in a sentence anywhere you please, because we have realized that somewhere in our grammar history we have become confuddled; conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence are just fine.
Does a change in the way we use a language really constitute a decline? No, it does not.
It’s the tweens, teens and millennials that did it…
…Because yes, when in doubt, when things go wrong, let’s blame the bad things on the youth of today.
Take a look at this quote: “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter” by William Langland, author of Piers Plowman. To put this quote into perspective, it is worth pointing out that Langland died in 1386. It is an old, old quote, and therefore an old, old complaint.
True: teenagers are our language leaders when it comes to inventing new words. Slang has always been the savior of many a young person trying to navigate their way in the world, and what better way to do that than with words showing whether or not you fit in with your peers? In fact, this is a trait that has carried over into adulthood for many; if you don’t know what a certain word means, you are somehow deficient. That deserves some psychoanalysis, surely, although not by us.
Also true. Sometimes when you scroll through Twitter or Tumblr, some of the words, or variants of them at least, make you pause for thought.
However. That does not mean that there is anything wrong with new words at all. Change is seen as scary by some, and downright disrespectful by others, and the evolution of the English language is not excluded from that. Change in language, like in many things, is, in fact, progress.
One more point: blaming the younger members of our society for changes to language that have originated from text and internet abbreviations is downright silly. After all, it wasn’t some teenager who invented the text message that inspired this so-called decline: that would be Matti Makkonen back in 1984.
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The syntactic virus
Before you panic and buy up all the milk and bread in your local supermarket for fear of the latest epidemic being about to strike Walking Dead-style, breathe. Whilst this so-called virus is, by nature, viral, it is not a contagion that is going to damage your health. Unless you meet a particularly peeved language pedant with anger management problems, in which case, all bets are off.
We are talking of course, about the word like. Officially, according to what the grammar gods tell us, like can be used: to introduce a simile, in place of as and as if, as a subordinating conjunction, a noun (‘tell me all your likes and dislikes’), a verb to express fondness, a colloquial adverb in England (‘he was like to go back to the shop again’) – generally to mean ‘on the verge of’, and a colloquial quotative to indicate what is probably a paraphrased quote (‘she was like, “You need to watch this right episode of OITNB now.”).
However, Like has come to be used as a sort of filler word, or discourse particle, if you will. Take a look at Valley Girl if you aren’t sure what we mean.
Randy: Where do you work?
Julie Richman: At my parents’ store.
Randy: What do they sell?
Julie Richman: Health foods.
Randy: That’s cool.
Julie Richman: Like, it’s not cool at all! Like, it’s all this stuff that tastes like nothing and it’s supposed to be so good for you. Why couldn’t they, like, open a Pizza Hut or something?
(Valley Girl, 1983)
This alleged abuse of the word like isn’t necessarily a recent crime, either. Here is a quote from the autobiography of Murial Spark: “The word ‘like’ peppered her conversation. ‘My brother, like, wouldn’t go, like, any further with it, like . . .’ ” This was describing an interaction she had seen in the 1930s.
If using like in this way has been around for at least eighty years, then it is surely not a contributing factor to the decline of the language, rather, just a facet of the language itself.
Eats, shoots and leaves
Before we get all book-clubby on you, this book by Lynne Truss is a must-read for any of those grammar aficionados out there. You know the ones. Those amongst us who feel the need to correct every affect from effect and every misplaced punctuation mark. We sense it is because it makes them feel superior, and better about themselves, but then, we catch ourselves doing it from time to time too.
Let’s start with punctuation. Punctuation is important; it saves lives (‘let’s eat, Grandma’ rather than ‘let’s eat Grandma’). However, does poor punctuation do anything to contribute to the so-called decline of language? Text speak, when we used to have to get our messages across in less than 180 characters, perhaps spurned the loss of a well-placed comma. It doesn’t mean we don’t understand what is being said, even if it does take a couple of reads to figure out what is actually going on. It’s an abbreviation of sorts, and we have always, always used these kind of shortcuts.
And far as grammar goes: Yes, good grammar is preferable, but just because you may use a split infinitive does not mean you have done something truly offensive. At least, it shouldn’t mean that. If you can get your message across, then you are still conversing, yes?
Since we all became reliant on software like Word, we have all become a little lax when it comes to grammar and spelling, because it’s all checked for us. Now, while it would be remiss to say that good grammar, spelling and punctuation isn’t important, the fact that people are making the effort to write in the first place is surely no bad thing.
Questionable as social media can sometimes be, perhaps we could even argue that the internet has actually encouraged literacy, because everyone wants to be able to add their profound wisdom to Tumblr, Reddit and Facebook. Not perfect literacy, no, but communication is still happening, and how can that be a bad thing?
Surely the entire point of language, whether it is good or bad, is simply to communicate?
In short, we question this idea of the English language being in perpetual decline. We accept that change is difficult for some, and that people of a certain persuasion will hold on with their death-like grip to their issues with double negatives and incorrect inflections. However. To us, English is just evolving, and as language fans, we can’t wait to see what comes next.