illustrator Daniel Egnéus
The English of the early twenty-first century is vastly different from any English ever spoken or written before, and some people are distressed by this. Not me.
I’ve been a pretty tough grammarian. In the years that I’ve been an English teacher and in the books I’ve written on the English language for young readers, I’ve tried to uphold the highest standards of my native tongue. Pity a student who says “brang” within my earshot, or tells me that “Me and him are going to the lunchroom.” So you might think I’m a rigid traditionalist.
But the truth is I’m not bothered by the steady erosion of my beloved English. Actually, it’s not erosion. It’s evolution. The manipulation of vocabulary, the deconstruction of punctuation, the invention of new verbal shortcuts all seem natural by-products of our new cybercommunication world where more is typed and less is spoken. The globe has been shrunk by technology, and so have elements of our language. And it doesn’t seem such a bad thing. It seems natural . . . inevitable.
Though perfect punctuation is a thing of beauty, most sentences communicate their meanings well enough, even with misplaced commas. Consider the apostrophe. It can be eliminated altogether. It’s probably the most misused punctuation mark there is. It’s there in false plurals, missing in contractions and possessive nouns, and usually in the wrong place if it’s used at all. But sentences like “Its useless. I cant drive my brothers car. Dont ask me,” read and just sound just fine, thank you, without apostrophes. Major American companies like Walgreens have done away with it in their corporate names. So have most “mens” rooms, but guys still know which door to head for when they need to.
Latin, perhaps the greatest language ever, didn’t have punctuation marks or lower case letters, and millions of people communicated very nicely in it (including Livy, Ovid, Seneca, and Vergil—no slouch writers) until the Visigoths swept in and ruined everything. If Julius Caesar had actually said “Et Tu, Brute?” when Brutus shoved the shiv into him, and if it had been reported in the press of the time, the headline would have read ET TU BRUTE, in all caps with no comma or question mark, and readers would still have gotten the message perfectly.
As for vocabulary, we all have two: active and passive. Your active vocabulary consists of the basic set of words you established for yourself in your twenties and which you’ve been using ever since in your daily doings, adding or subtracting words to suit the moment. Your passive vocabulary is much broader. It consists of all the words you don’t say or write, but which you can understand when others use them. Sort of like when my grandmother spoke Yiddish to me. We also have different vocabularies for the venues we’re in. Every high school kid knows what he can say in a locker room and what he can’t in a classroom.
As long as we get our messages across to those who read or hear us, the job is done with whatever words we use. That’s the bottom line.
But do we have too many words? Some word experts estimate that there could be as many as 750,000 distinct words in English, maybe more. There were only about 50,000 in Shakespeare’s time, and he didn’t think that was enough, so he messed around with the grammar of his day. He made adjectives out of verbs, verbs out of nouns, hooked words together in novel ways, and invented thousands of words that were unheard of then but are common now. (Today you can say that some people are disheartened by the dwindling proper use of apostrophes because Shakespeare made up the words dishearten, dwindle, and apostrophe.) What if some sixteenth century fuddy-duddy linguist had reprimanded him with, “Hey, Will, you can’t make up words. Who do you think you are?” Obviously it’s not how many words you have, but what you do with them.
And you can’t stop people from adding words to our vocabulary. Lexicographers keep voluminous databases on new words so they can decide which ones to put into updated versions of their dictionaries. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published in 2000, contained thousands of words that weren’t in the third edition, just eight years earlier. The American Dialectic Society, which knows a thing or two about English, last year voted tweet the word of the year and google the word of the decade. Who ever heard of those two just a few years ago? Could we live without them today?
Speaking of dictionaries, get used to the fact that the printed dictionary is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. When you read or hear a new word, you don’t have to wait to get your hands on a printed dictionary to look it up. Your hand-held devices provide you with instant dictionaries. One of the greatest dictionaries ever published, the Oxford English Dictionary, came in 20 volumes and cost almost $1000. Want a set? Got the money? Sorry. It’s out of print. Replaced by an app.
The English language is in a constant state of evolvement. It would be stagnant, even dead, if it didn’t continue to grow. The word she didn’t arrive until about the year 1000, and Ms. didn’t appear until around 1972. Both words reflected the emerging role of women in society. Which points to the fact that language doesn’t change society. Society changes language, always to suit its own needs. And you can’t buck society.
Most other major languages are leaner and purer than English (100+ different languages feed into English), but it is English that dominates. More people speak Chinese, but only in China. For hundreds of millions of people around the world, English is a first or second language. When a pilot from Asia lands a jumbo jet in South America, s/he speaks to the air traffic controller in English.
And don’t talk to me about English spelling. Correct English spelling is often irrational and infuriating. I wrote a spelling dictionary with a section called “The Misspeller’s Dictionary.” If you look a word up with the wrong spelling, you’ll be shown the right spelling. The trouble is that the wrong spelling always makes more sense. Fezint is a much more reasonable spelling for pheasant than pheasant. I agree with our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, who said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”
And you can’t rely on your spell check because it can’t distinguish between homonyms/homophones. It won’t recognize the seventeen mistakes in a little poem like this:
They’re is a gneiss gnu spell cheque,
Its rite inn my pea sea.
It marques miss stakes eye mite halve mist,
And makes them write four me.
As for the language used in texting, tweeting, and e-mailing: abbreviations, lack of capitals, and selective punctuation seem natural, even essential, when typing on minuscule keys or glass, or when you have to hit the 7 key four times to get an s. Besides, who has time to make capital letters and fit in punctuation marks when you’re getting off the bus at the next stop?
Eighteenth century people had time to sit down in the evenings (with no TVs, computers, game boxes, etc.) and write long, flowery, prolix letters that sound somewhat pompous today. (Using prolix for wordy sounds pompous. See what I mean?) People liked getting those six-page missives in cramped penmanship (paper was expensive). It was the basic means of communication then. No time for it now.
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French physicist, philosopher, inventor, writer, and mathematician (sounds like a smart guy to me) once said to a friend, “I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one.” Thinking about what you’re writing, and proofreading it, and editing and condensing it, takes time. There’s precious little of that today. The most important kind of proofreading you must do is to ensure that you don’t hit the send button without thinking and cause an e-scandal.
Polonius famously said in Hamlet that brevity is the soul of wit. Today I say, “Brevity is the soul of tweet.” Millions of people don’t seem to have much trouble writing a message in 140 characters or fewer (sorry, M. Pascal). It’s the wittiest form of communication since Polonius.
Does all of this sound inconsistent for me, an old-time English teacher who accepts the radical changes in early twenty-first century language—most borne of rapidly expanding technology—that make the blood of linguistic purists boil? I don’t think so. I’m not giving in. I’m moving on. Do I still use the most proper English possible? Sure. But it depends on who asks “Who’s there?” when I knock on a door. Usually I answer, “It’s me.” If there’s a strict grammarian on the other side, “It is I.”
Look up the derivation of a word in a good dictionary, and you’ll discover that it could have come from OE (Old English), ME (Middle English,) LME (Late Middle English), or EmodE (Early Modern English). I wouldn’t be surprised if future generations call what’s being spoken and written today E21cE (Early twenty-first century English). And because there will continue to be ever-more-rapid changes in English, you can bet that before this century is over there’ll be EM21cE, M21cE, LM21cE, and L21cE. Maybe even VL21cE.