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Decline or development?

January 12, 2007

Hello again,
Like many people with a professional interest in English, I am keenly critical of the way the language is used. I groan in despair as yet another "error" is made, usually...

...by somebody who should know better. It all seems to point to a general decline in standards. Yet if I analyse the nature of these ‘errors’ I often find that they fall in line with many other established practices for language use. One man’s decline may well be another’s development.

Just think for a moment of how modern English evolved. It is so different from its predecessor, Old English, as to be effectively a different language: most of the inflections and vast amounts of the vocabulary had been lost. The version of English that resurfaced after centuries of hibernation following the Norman Conquest had lost the tight paradigms of Old English and become the loose, analytic language we use today, a language that has proved sufficiently rich and flexible to be used as a lingua franca in almost all fields of human activity. So when I hear yet another solecism I try to think of similarities with earlier language use before I make a judgement.

Emphasis is something that we seem particularly to require in language use. Often, therefore, we are tempted to repeat, albeit periphrastically, what we have already said in order to drive the point home. I get a shiver of distaste talk or “our first priority”. A priority is, by definition, first. So why use the extra word? Simply because we like emphasis. In Middle English, emphasis was tolerated much more. If a writer wishes to stress that the answer is no, he piles on the negatives. Okay, so my most important priority here is to show that language errors are simply a natural part of the language’s gradual evolution. The trouble is I can’t do it. I want to correct that phrase to the tauter and perfectly sufficient: my priority is….

Another pet hate of mine is the use of the word “military” as a noun. Surely we have a perfectly good noun: “army”. But examination of the origin of the word “army” reveal that is from the French adjectival past participle, meaning armed. So army, just like military has converted and nominalized. The process of conversion from one part of speech to another is deeply entrenched in English: think of Shakespaeare’s “but me no buts”.

I have noted before that the –er inflection in the comparative adjective is fast falling by the wayside. I heard a weather forecaster telling us that the rain would be “more heavy over night”. Groan again; what happened to “heavier”. But surely this is an inevitable development. Think of those Old English paradigms; hardly any remain and if the remnants are now disappearing, well the process began in 1066.


Of course, the development of English from old English until now has been slow and gradual. Today the pressures for change are stronger and faster: text messages, e-mail, the need for information to be conveyed quickly, all take their toll. What once took thousands of years might now take decades. In fifty years’ time will English as we know it today have changed as drastically as it did from Old English? Do let me know what you think.

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Comments

  1. Carol Says:

    Thanks for the interesting article, Brenda.

    As an American living in England, I hear this argument on a daily basis... often when I open my mouth and people realize that I'm an American. There's definitely a sense here that the English speak 'real English' and that American English is a dumbed down version of that.

    I find this absolutely ridiculous, especially since there is no 'one' English in England anyway!

    Just out of curiosity, do you think American English/ Australian English/ Indian English, etc. is an example of a decline of Old English as well?

    Carol
    Writer, ESL Lesson Plan

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hi Carol, thank you for your comment. Really I think think that a language can only be said to decline as fewer and fewer people use it. I dislike some trends in English but like others. One thing is certain: languages change no matter what. It is probably as artificial an activity to try to preserve language forms as it is to try to simplify them, as in the case of Esperanto or Globish.

  1. Drew Ward Says:

    Brenda this is an interesting article.

    The differences between the various strains of English are quite amazing. Although I must say that I think ESL professionals tend to over generalize the differences while not fully investigating the actual rules or roots. To an American (like me) this can actually become quite offensive. As most ESL materials are produced in the UK, there is so often a bias toward British English. This is understandable, and it is not this that bothers me.

    What does bother me is the misinformed insistence that one form of English is superior to another. Usually it's the American varieties that are given inferior standing. Of particular offense is the use of the term 'Oxford English' to describe normal British English.

    As a linguist I have been researching the changes and developments in English for some time. And, the one thing that always entertains me is that 'Oxford English' is more than anythign else American English.

    There are two points that back this up:

    1. The most major difference in the development paths of American and British English is that American English has been more stable over the past 200 years. This doesn't mean it's better, just that it hasn't changed as much grammatically. This is mostly due to the fact that the US has a much more standardized education system that for the most part provides the same grammar training to all students regardless of location or class. Also, unlike most countries, schools in the US literally pound grammar into the heads of their students on a daily basis.

    2. Changes to the various lexicons and grammars of the Oxford Press are based on common usage. This was first pioneered by Webster as a response to our languages first dictionary published by Samuel Johnson. Johnson's work, even to his contemporaries was more humorous than helpful. He developed his own definitions, and his own rules of grammar. This led to the development of many of the truely strange constructions we deal with in modern English like 'to' infinitive form, and the rule about keeping propositions away from the ends of sentences. These are both very unnatural things to do, and the frequency of related mistakes shows this.

    Webster decided to write a dictionary based on a survey of everyday speaker. He simply asked them what things meant. This is the same method now employed by Oxford. Their definitions and grammars are based on what is understood and what is used -- what do the majority of speakers do in this case. And, since nearly 3/4 of all the native English speakers in the world are Americans, that is where much of the guidance for recording or rewriting grammar comes from.

    So, Americans do speak 'Oxford English'.


    Now, aside from debating sides, there is one interesting point. From a linguistic perspective, the changes in our language over the past hundred years have been quite interesting. To an British speaker, American English may seem silly in some of its structures, or extravagant in some of its qaulities (like the insistence of maintaining foreign pronunciation in loan words, and it's willingness to add new words). To an American many changes in British English may be viewed as actually de-evolution, as much of what has and is becoming standard in the UK has resulted from relaxing the rules of what's acceptable.

    But, both make sense linguistically. There are bits of who we are spead all throughout our languages. And, as who we are as a people changes, so will our language. Look at the British use of 'got' for posession. This is basically the norm in the UK, wheras in the US we use have while got is relegated to a few slang phrases. Likewise in the US gotten is the only acceptable form in the perfect, and in this case does not mean posession but means having recieved something, both a form and idea that are totally different in the UK.

    It's all correct in its own way, and it's all different. What's truely interesting is not so much what is changing, but how it's changing and why...


    You would probably enjoy a book called Historical Linguistics by R.L. Trask. It's got some great analyses of the changes in English over the years.

    Thanks again for the article,

    Drew

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