I Don’t Think Our Language Is, Like, Going Down the Tubes Any Time, Like, Soon

by Aug 20, 2013Linguistics

Most of the time you say something, you want to be understood. So you use the linguistic and other signs—words, gestures, facial expressions—that you know by long experience to be shared by others in your culture. Even when you (deceitfully) purpose to be misunderstood, you rely on the basic reliability of all those signs.

The language police you will always have with you, but I’ve just given one big reason why their fears are unfounded. The language police are generational profilers, wanton stop-and-friskers especially wary of young people. Let’s think about this. For young people to radically change our beloved tongue, they would have to drop out of forms of communication used by adults and resort to new forms used only by the young. If they didn’t, communication would not happen because the adults wouldn’t understand. And most of the time teens say something to adults, they actually want to be understood (“Mom, can I have the car?”).

However, there is one form of communication in which adults take relatively little part but has become a lingua franca for the young: texting. Indeed, various new signs (linguistic and even typographic =) have developed within this new form of communication (and others like it): LOL, lol, lal, rofl, omg, ttyl, cuz, u, etc. It’s no perfectly clear that it was all invented by teens, but, generally speaking, it’s interesting that most adults seem to need to check Wikipedia in order to clue in to the jargon.

But I don’t think the nation’s middle-aged copyeditors are the last line of defense before, like, our whole writing culture disintegrates into, like, txtng tlk. I think aspiring writers, people who want to communicate respectfully and powerfully to the whole nation, are making much more subtle adjustments to our language, adjustments they are not making on purpose.* I think they know they would not be taken seriously if they peppered their prose with texting acronyms.

The existence of a huge written culture is a massive erosion-slowing force in language. It’s illiterate Papuans who have the most to fear, I would think, regarding language change (or even loss). They have little or no incentive to hold on to forms used by their grandparents. Once grandma’s dead, nobody needs to understand anything she said.

But we have Jane Austen. We have Daniel Defoe, George Herbert, William Shakespeare. We have Newman and Bacon and Emerson and Sandburg and a lot of other people whose mastery of (various forms of) English we don’t want to let slip. Chaucer’s too hard; he’s lost to all but the very diligent. But most educated readers can do well going back to at some point in the 16th century.

I do think American English could degenerate, but I would tend to see that as a symptom of a deeper cultural problem: we’ve ceased to care to produce good prose, we’ve ceased to have a high-cultural literary canon providing us with allusions, we’ve ceased to pay for journalism which even pretends to be non-partisan and high-brow, we’ve decided that our politicians should be men-of-the-people who aren’t allowed to be as profound or as eloquent as Lincoln, we’ve all started playing video games and forgotten that the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour ever existed. That’s all possible; it describes some anti-intellectual sub-cultures in America today.

But I don’t see texting forms transforming speech and formal writing, even journalistic writing, the way the language police fear. I think reports of the death of good English have been greatly exaggerated.

*An example: I took some delight yesterday in a little paranomasia from New York Times editorial columnist Maureen Dowd: she called the Clintons “America’s roil family.” I imagine that this locution could possibly pick up steam and one day become part of everyday language—the Kardashians, the Kennedys, and others might all become “roil families.” I don’t think this will happen, but if it does I have no objection. This would not be language degradation, but language enrichment.

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