The Dying English Language

March 27, 2015

So I am sure you have heard it a million times:

"The English language is dying.  I mean, just look at how Ke$ha spells her name.  And these damn rappers!  Why can't they realize that it's 'whores,' not "ho's!'"

Actually, the only thing that will be dying is you if you don't keep that blood pressure down over language use.  Seriously?

 Is this really necessary?  Over a damn verb?

 

I am here to report to you that the English language is, in fact, not dying.  Just because people choose to use "u" for "you" in various settings doesn't mean the wife of the English language is getting ready to cash in on that million dollar life-insurance policy.

So why in the world are people saying that the language is dying then?  I'll tell you why:  ignorance and elitism.  I'll explain more, but first, we need to point out the two types of language people that you're going to run into--or probably have already run into:  descriptivists and prescriptivists.

Basically, a prescriptivist is a guy who says this kind of nonsense about language:
 

"And, in few words, I dare say; that of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner obtain'd, than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World. But I spend words in vain; for the evil is now so inveterate, that it is hard to know whom to blame, or where to begin to reform." - Thomas Sprat

 

I'm a polyglot, so let me translate:

"All you ghetto hood-rats with your slang and booty-popping music are destroying the purity of the God-created English language.  Oh, and I'm better than you!"

These prescriptivist guys come in different shapes and sizes.  They may be known as grammarians, language mavens, language purists, and a-holes.


Then you have the descriptivist who says:

"Descriptivism is a central tenet of what we regard as a scientific approach to the study of language: the very first requirement in any scientific investigation is to get the facts right." - R.L. Trask

 

In other words, "We don't care how you speak.  Just speak so we can study your words!"
 

So where does the ignorance part come in?  Well, you start with the language mavan having a conniption fit because I misspelled "maven" a few words before.  He starts lecturing me about how much of an embarrassment I am to the human race for my mortal transgression, and how God probably won't forgive me--ever.  This is ignorant.  He's apparently not aware that language functions by two principles:

  1. The ability to create new words as necessary

  2. The agreement on the meaning of words

Number one means that language has to evolve as it encounters new human experiences.  We have to find ways to express these experiences, and sometimes the existing words in the language just don't do the trick.  Number two means that there are still limits that we have to place on language in order to prevent it from running amok.

 

Here's an example:  Say the kids o' the day come up with this new pastime of putting one's finger as close to the eye as possible to see who flinches first.  Other than "idiotic," there's no official English word to describe this new pastime, so they collectively start using "pokester," as in, "Dude, I just pokestered you!"  This word will adopt all the forms that other English words adopt.  It's a verb, so it follows a certain conjugation scheme.  It falls on the timeline, so the past-tense form may require an "-ed" at the end, or maybe not.  This is word creation and language evolution.

 

At the same time, people have to agree, usually unknowingly, that "pokester" can not be used in certain ways, such as an adjective, as in "That pokester cat is just too darn cute!"  Or maybe it can't be used to describe an already-existing word, as in "pokester" can not mean "car," "bus," or "Rosie O'Donnell."  This is called a systematic constraint.

 

To not be aware of this reality is to be ignorant.  But this is where the elitist part comes into play.  Many prescriptivists are aware of this; they just choose to ignore it.  The issue that they actually have is that they weren't the ones who came up with the words and who put the constraint on the meaning of other words.  If the English language encounters a new phenomenon, they should be the one to name it, and they should be the one to tell everyone what it is not.  This is elitist.  And pretty stupid.

 

What's become a sort of irritant to me is the assumption that people have of me when they find out that I'm an editor/writer.  "Oh, you must be judging me all the time on my writing!"  How do we say this in French?  "Le geeet reeel!"  I am not a language elitist in the least and am damn proud of it!

 

Here's the moral of the story:  If you find yourself saying, "I can't stand when people say. . .," you're a language purist and should hop on a ship and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands.  Sure, there is a time and place for certain types of language.  Of course, I am not advocating that we shouldn't be mindful of our setting or audience.  But I am advocating that it's fine for people to take some liberties with language.  They always have and always will.  People in the creative arts do this all the time

 

The English we know today will not be the same English spoken 1,000 years from now.  And that's okay.  U should be okay with it, 2.

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