Saturday, August 27, 2011

Language Degradation

The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix published a column in this morning’s paper by Bronwyn Eyre titled “Who still appreciates proper grammar?” In it Eyre laments the loss of proper grammar in speech and writing: “…for me, the inexorable disappearance of whom and the non-nominative use of who, frequently by people who should know better, puts me into a mini-melancholy.” After describing the proper and improper usage of who and whom, and a few other common grammatical errors, she concludes “The reason grammar and usage aren’t much taught in schools these days, I expect, is that many teachers no longer know the distinctions in question. Which, for a who-whom stickler like me, is a sad development indeed.”

I’ve been thinking of writing on this topic for some weeks, so this column provides the necessary motivation to tackle it (and a wonderful introduction - thanks Bronwyn!).

Every generation has writers with serious concerns about the (then) current degradation of their language. Most believe that a generation or two back the language was spoken more correctly. Let me share some quotes from Chapter 3 of Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language (2005).

A review by Clive James in the Times Literary Supplement, 2002, lamented the falling off from the English of even just two generations ago when “a mistake was a mistake and not a sign of free expression”.

So, what did writers have to say of the language from the period of which James nostalgically refers? George Orwell, writing in the journal Horizon in 1946, stated “…most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way”.

Is this a 20th century phenomenon? Hardly! In 1848 August Schleicher, a renowned linguist wrote that English showed “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink” and predicted that English would likely further “sink into mono-syllabicity”.

Going back another century, Thomas Sheridan wrote in 1780 “…that many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground [among people of fashion]; and if something is not done to stop this growing evil …English is  likely to become a mere jargon”. Sheridan believed that only seventy years earlier “during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-14] … English was … spoken in its highest state of perfection.”

But it was during the reign of Queen Anne that Jonathan Swift wrote what Deutscher described as “one of the most astoundingly bigoted rants” among language critiques – his “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue”. Swift begins with “…our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions…” and goes on (and on) from there.

Do you see a pattern here? And this pattern is by no means limited to English. Modern Germans consider the age of Goethe and Schiller to be its “Golden Age” yet Jacob Grimm (of fairy tale fame) lamented in 1819 (during Goethe’s lifetime) that, compared to the language of his day, “six hundred years ago every common peasant knew … perfections and niceties of the German language of which the best language-teachers nowadays can no longer even dream.”

Serge Koster complained in 2001 of the recent changes in French that are “corrupting a system of grammar which was constructed throughout the centuries, and which has stayed almost stable since the eighteenth century”. In 1843 the French philosopher Victor Cousin argued with author Victor Hugo that “the decay of the French language began in 1789.” Gaston Paris, a French linguist, goes much further back, stating in 1862 that French, because it developed from Vulgar Latin (the Latin of the “illiterate masses”), was “inferior in beauty and logic” to the Latin of the age of Virgil and Cicero.

Cicero himself, comparing the Latin of his day with the speech of a century before him, wrote “…practically everyone … in those days spoke correctly. But the lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect in this respect.”

The pattern is clear. Every age laments the changes that they observe happening in their lifetime and look back on the previous generation as being superior. Why should this be?

Modern linguists now agree that language change is inevitable and unstoppable, and in itself is neither good nor bad. Even the strict Academie Francaise could not stop the French language from changing (as we saw in a previous post with the modern dropping of “ne”). But why is language change always seen as degradation? The answer, which was only recognized by linguists over the last few decades, is that the forces of destruction and decay are more easily observed than the forces of construction and creation. Both of these forces are constantly at work, gradually removing from, and adding to, the language.

I will leave descriptions of these opposing forces for future posts.


  1. One of your authors said there are no languages just a continuum of dialects. That could also apply to "perfect language" - it is simply one point in an ongoing dynamic that the writer/speaker fondly remembers.

    So her is a question about languages in general. Why do people worry when languages disappear? Who cares? Language is to communicate and the fewer languages the better. (As long as it is English)(said with tongue firmly in cheek)

  2. Linguists don't like it when a language disappears for the same reasons archaeologists don't like to see a site with unexcavated artifacts being bulldozed into oblivion. The 6,000 or so languages identified in modern times are only a handful of the hundreds of thousands (my guess) of intermediate and extinct languages that must have existed since man first began to use language. Each language provides clues not only to how languages develop but to the migration patterns of people around the globe. For this reason linguists are frantically trying to study and record those languages most at risk of extinction before they are gone forever.

  3. Here is another essay on language change, specifically changes in word usage, and the reaction to the 1961 publication of Webster's Third.

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