My old schoolfriend Alan Booth wrote this letter to a magazine for retired police officers and asked me for my comments. My reply is below his letter, which I post here with his permission.
I write in reply to your correspondent, George Smart ( Narpo News August 2009 ) concerning the perceived degradation of the English language.
I too, used to get annoyed by ‘Americanisms’, bad grammar, spelling etc. until I took the time to study the English language in detail after retirement. I particularly recommend the writings of Bill Bryson and Professor David Crystal on the subject.
English is a living thing, - it has been evolving for centuries and will continue to do so. I don’t think that anyone got irate about this process until now. This is probably because the speed at which changes are occurring, like everything else in this civilisation is increasing at an exponential rate, simply because of the speed and scope of modern communications.
Words become obsolete or assigned a different meaning; abbreviations, contractions and acronyms become words in their own right to convey information in a concise manner. Pronunciation changes. Fashions change. ’Twas ever thus and ever will be. We don’t say ‘’twas’ much these days, ‘bachelor gay’ doesn’t mean what it used to, you don’t want to know where ‘quaint’ came from and ‘ain’t’ has been going in and out of vogue for donkeys’ years, - which is a concept an eighteenth century scholar might have a bit of trouble grasping.
Maybe a few people got upset about the 15th Century Great Vowel Shift, but were probably more upset about the Black Death, which is thought by some to have been a significant contributory factor. A few may have complained about the degradation of ‘God be with you’ to ‘Goodbye’. Maybe Mr. Smart’s great grandfather got annoyed by the replacement of ‘Good morning /afternoon /evening, etc.’ by ‘Hello’, a word apparently brought into common usage by the introduction of the telephone. Maybe his father chafed against the rise of ‘Hi!’ just as a few monks may have resisted the replacement of ‘Lo’ by the exclamation mark.-And yes, it was irritating to receive badly spelled ( or is it spelt ? ), badly punctuated, ungrammatical reports and statements, full of colloquialisms and sometimes almost devoid of meaning from probationers ( and in later years, senior officers ). The thing is, it’s happening. Whether it be due to poor education, fashion, emigration, plague or its modern analogy, - corporate requirement for the endless repetition of fatuous greetings and questions in restaurants – these are all agents of change whether we will it or not.
We don’t and can’t have a language which is controlled by an authority such as the Académie Francaise, fighting a rearguard action against change. That may suit other tongues but not ours. The B.B.C., with its promulgation of ‘received pronunciation’ had the peculiar effect of highlighting the division of social classes but, whilst providing some sort of standard to be aspired to by some, had relatively little, now waning effect on the way the vast majority of the populace speaks.
Because of our former huge influence on the global civilisation we now ‘enjoy’, the English language has developed and changed, almost beyond recognition in some places - but it’s still English. Inevitably, words and grammatical structures find their way back into everyday communication on this sceptred isle and who is to say whose word for a given object or concept is better than anyone else’s, provided it conveys its meaning to its audience and is not offensive or inappropriate in the setting in which it is used?
I am English and live in Scotland. Everyday I hear and read English which would be understandable to Mr. Smart, but which is quite different in grammar, stress, pronunciation and vocabulary from that which he hears and speaks, because it has evolved differently. ( OK, there may be one or two words he might have trouble with, but the man’s no’ glaikit, - he’d work it oot). That’s only a few hundred miles from him and in the same nation. Those among us who insist on The Queen’s English, whatever that may be, are a tiny majority in what is now a huge, interconnected world population of English speakers.
Relax, Mr. Smart! It is going to happen. The appalling errors in television subtitles ( in fact, television itself ), texting and ‘youthspeak’ – are just the evidence of an ongoing process. Were you to return ( the ‘proper’ use of verb tenses is on the wane ) in 100 years’ time ( as is the ‘correct’ use of apostrophes ), - you wouldn’t understand a word, but it would still be English.
Thanking you for your kind attention I am,
Yours sincerely, ( and I do mean that, although I wouldn’t had I written ‘ Your obedient and humble servant’ ),
Thank you for sending me your latter. Basically I agree with you. I suppose you have come across a pedant who knows all about apostrophes, less and fewer, split infinitives, between you and I, and the like. Such people need dealing with severely. (The links are to relevant articles on my own blog.)
However, I do differ from the anything-goes school of thought in some ways. The problem is that some standard must exist if communication is to take place efficiently; I don’t doubt that I could find people not far from you who would insist that they are speaking English but whom I would find impossible to understand. For that matter, I do not always find checking in with easyJet at Liverpool Airport to be an easy linguistic experience. Not to mention this.
Nevertheless, it is always important to differentiate between clarity of pronunciation and accent itself. It is possible to speak with a strong Scottish, Scouse or other accent while producing the individual sounds clearly, and it is possible to speak RP so sloppily that it is barely intelligible. It should also be borne in mind, but often is not, that we produce far more spoken language than written language in the course of normal communication.
Something similar happens with the written language. Language is a medium; it is the means by which our thoughts are made available for others, so it follows that the communication can be no more clear than the thoughts themselves. In this regard I worry that the present sloppy communication is a symptom of sloppy thought processes, which in turn has implications for education beyond the simple teaching of the English language. For example, there ae people who write could of etc. for could have etc. Is this a simple evolutionary change that we should accept or does it show us that people are failing to understand the meanings of the words that express the logic of their thoughts? When a man tells us that he ‘may have been dead’ what are we to assume?
To answer a few particular points that you raise.
Chaucer’s use of queynt to mean cunt was a pun; the OED gives the etymology of quaint as:
[a. OF. cointe (quointe, cuinte, etc.), queinte:—L. cognitum known, pa. pple. of cognoscĕre to ascertain. The development of the main senses took place in OF., and is not free from obscurity (cf., however, couth and known).
In its older senses the Eng. word seems to have been in ordinary use down to the 17th c., though in many 16–17th c. examples the exact meaning is difficult to determine. After 1700 it occurs more sparingly (chiefly in sense 6), until its revival in sense 8, which is very frequent after 1800.]
Chaucer used queynt with its normal meaning more than once. The OED does not record cunt having been spelt with qu-. See also here.
It is easy for British people to criticise the Académie Française. I don’t know much about that institution, but I can say that the Spanish Royal Academy does a lot of good work. There are intrinsic differences between English and Romance languages that militate against complete standardisation of the English language; the formation of compound nouns and the associated use of hyphens is a case in point; so is the formation of phrasal verbs, which come, change, and go away as fashion demands. A Latin-based language is much simpler to standardise, and the Spanish Academy works with the academies in all Spanish-speaking countries (including the Philippines and the USA) to produce guidance that is valid worldwide. It is also worth mentioning that clear guidance from an academy could clarify some of the more egregiously stupid aspects of English spelling such as dependant (noun) and dependent (adjective), or practice (noun) and practise (verb), which survive because language snobs like to show off how clever they are. It might also allow us to do away with whom, which is quite useless but which hangs on to such an extent that I have used it myself above.
I am not certain that the British class system ever needed any highlighting, and the BBC’s use of RP was an attempt to use a form of English that would have national validity. It did so too; it was the form of English that we learnt to speak in Merseyside.
You’re quite right about the vowel shift. I’m sure that people who survived the Black Death sat around in their fifteenth-century taverns supping their newfangled hopped beer and bemoaning the way that the language was going to the dogs. ‘Chaucer must be turning in his grave,’ they said to each other. ‘The English language is done for. It’ll never recover from this.’ There is an obvious parallel here with the British suspicion of modern architecture. ‘That Hampton Court Palace. What a carbuncle!’ was the popular opinion of the time, I have no doubt.
You might like to look at David Crystal’s blog; Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words; the professional but very readable Language Log, where one of the contributors is Geoff Pullum, co-author of the monumental Cambridge Grammar of the English Language; Grammar for Grown-ups by my e-friend Barrie England, aka Baralbion; and of course my own language blog.