RANT: Lamenting the Evolution of Our Language

Posted: March 16, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , ,

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Look, I’m aware that I’m approaching “elderly” status. I’m 52, and my favorite music is 1940’s big band swing. I get it it; I’m not the most modern of fellows.

Despite this glaring fact, I still feel I am pretty liberal with regards to my writing style. I start sentences – nay, paragraphs – with “and.” I use slang. I just finished a novel written from the POV of a 12-year-old, complete with contemporary girl-speak and everything. I’m by no means a stodgy grammarian who blanches every time someone forgets an Oxford comma.

But I do have a limit.

I hate how much our language – both spoken and written – has degraded to the lowest common denominator. There was a time when people wrote letters and cultivated a mastery of the English language. You see glimpses of it in historical dramas like Downton Abbey. Schools taught children to write well. This is no longer the case.

I read a rant today from a fellow writer, complaining how she had been reprimanded by her writing professor for offering respectful critiques of two of her peer’s work – the kind of friendly constructive criticism every serious writer embraces in order to grow as a writer. According to the professor’s methods, critiquing is prohibited and nobody is allowed to point out issues in a fellow student’s work to let them know what they should polish. Only positive feedback is permitted: “I like this because…” or “this flows nicely…” No feedback of any substance, nothing a writer could use to improve.

The professor is teaching that if you show your writing to others you’ll be rewarded with compliments. This is the same ethic that removes competition and “winning” from team sports, because losing will crush children’s fragile egos. That way they will be totally prepared when they go out into the real world and everything goes their way, like it does.

What do you get when you don’t teach the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or even speaking? Former Major League Baseball player Oscar Gamble is famous for dropping this gem during an interview a few years ago: “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

Then there’s texting. I still like to write in complete sentences when I compose an e-mail or even a text. I realize I’m wildly out of fashion. I’m old, remember? But I truly believe the shortcuts people use in texts have completely overtaken writing and speech.

See, simply substituting letters for whole words (“CU” for “see you” or “LOL” for “laughing out loud”) wasn’t enough. Someone had to invent a whole group of little symbols (they’re called emojis); hearts and smily faces and hand gestures. So rather than take the enormous amount of time out of your day to actually spell out “I love you,” people can now show their devotion by texting just three characters: I (heart symbol) U. Because finding the little heart is so much quicker and more efficient than typing in four letters.  And it really shows you care.

The other day somebody whom I respect as a writer posted a comment in a writing forum which set my teeth on edge: “I heart you.”

There isn’t an emoji for a heart available on this forum (or in most e-mails, etc.), so people are now spelling out “heart” as a substitute for the symbol.

What?  So now a five-letter word is being used as an abbreviation for a four-letter word?

I get that this person was being cute and stylistic, but this is not the first time I’ve seen this, and every time I do it makes me think the writer is just ignorant. So I asked, is this a thing, now?

Yes. Apparently this is a thing, now. Because reasons. Language evolves and I should just roll with it, even embrace it. But this wasn’t explained to me in English, precisely. The exact response was:

I heart linguistic evolution, and find this particular trend to be totes adorbs.

.

Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him?

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Comments
  1. Q says:

    Honestly, this blog post just makes me want to avoid any kid books you’ve written, since you seems to have deemed the communication styles of those younger than you inferior.

    Look, I wrote a completely sentence for you! Really? Especially considering that some of the examples you cited are using the slang entirely intentionally to make a point–but what does the point matter when grammar is on the line?

    (In case you couldn’t tell, that was the heaviest of sarcasm).

    Also, you may not have texted a young person recently, but using “C” for “see” and such like fell hugely out of fashion once full keyboards on phones became the standard and hitting a button seven times in a row was made obsolete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have a dry sense of humor. You may have missed it. That final comment by my forum friend was written sarcastically, and I knew that. But it made a fine punchline for my piece. Also, if you read carefully you’ll see that I stated that I use slang myself, and that I am not a grammarian. See, they don’t teach good reading skills, either. Thank you for making my point for me.

      Please feel free to avoid my children’s books; it should be quite easy — I have only written one and it is unpublished. But if you find me dismissive, perhaps you yourself will not be and you’ll actually judge my writing by the writing itself and not by a rant written tounge-in-cheek, with the word “Rant” right there in the title. You can read a sample of my book right here, in the link above.

      I text with my children all the time. They use complete sentences, too, because they like to be understood. It is actually possible for someone (me) to find fault with the decline of the English language (a real thing) and the poor state of American education without judging people. I have a 6-year-old nephew who, according to his teacher, reads at a 4th grade level yet cannot actually identify plainly-printed words on his toys. 100 years ago, he would have been more fluent than I am, and know Latin and probably French to boot. It makes me sad. And when the lady standing next to me at the Walmart McDonalds exclaims, “Why my Dr. Pepper didn’t fizz?” I silently weep for the future.

      Don’t you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Q says:

        No, I do not weep for the future. I have full faith in teenagers and children to create a better society than the one in which we are living.

        [And, believe it or not, I have read some of your book, and I thought it sounded immensely not like a twelve-year-old, or a girl].

        Being a grammarian and using slang does not mean you understand a younger generation’s communication style. Vocabulary isn’t the only thing changing, and if you cannot see the benefit of expressing yourself with an emoji, perhaps you’ve never heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

        I’m sorry, but you said, “I heart you,” set your teeth on edge: if that’s your sense of humor, you’re right, I missed it.

        But thanks for assuming I have no reading comprehension instead of considering your point didn’t come across!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Your welcome.

        See what I did, there? 🙂

        The original Chinese proverb translates to: “A Picture’s Meaning Can Express Ten Thousand Words.” I’m fairly certain the Chinese meant “art” and not an emoticon of a smiling pile of poop. I don’t know; I wasn’t there.

        If my children are any indication, then, indeed, children will create a better society than our current one. Just like ours is better than our parents’, with their clean air and their safe streets and their people being nice to one another.

        Wait….

        No, you’re right. I embrace technology and social advances and globalization — I truly do. And the young people of today are the key to a bright(er) future. Problem is, the old people of today are responsible for their education, and we’re not doing a great job.

        Peace.

        Like

  2. Theresa says:

    I agree with John on this one – I think slang is used, and sadly common, in modern society, and it has it’s place, as Q states. (in the schoolyard/playground, or maybe hanging with friends) However, in communication it’s essential to expand beyond the simple modes and rely upon a higher level of vocabulary rather than just jargon and slang in many situations.
    As one who was taught that reading was essentially unnecessary, and that if you can even formulate a sentence (spelling, diction, grammar and syntax not included) you’re good to go, I have had to come a long way in my English path in order to stand on the same level as most of my peers in the professional world.
    This is not a struggle I want my children to face. I think children should be taught and held to a high standard of formal communication in school/other formal situations, though their personal choices and personal lives are their own. If they were, I think it would solve issues we don’t currently associate with the degradation of language. (Personally I believe the degradation of language is merely a symptom of a bigger problem – but that’s my own blog to post).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve says:

    Hi John,

    Been reading your blog and enjoying it very much. I’m a novice writer and also on CC where I met Karen, saw your posts and link to the blog and here I am.

    Your rant is intriguing. I’m about your age so we have that in common, but I disagree with your premise. I don’t find it offensive at all, though. Totally get the humor.

    I have to ask, though: if the english language is being “degraded”, then degraded in comparison to what? You mentioned Downton Abbey (a show that I love) as showing “glimpses” of a time when “…people wrote letters and cultivated a mastery of the English language.” Of course the characters on Downton where that applies are a very select group, noble British landowners. The folks downstairs? Not so much. Even looking at that select group in the 1600’s, their literacy (especially for women) was far below that of the average middle-class American today.

    Looking at US statistics, it’s undeniable that literacy has improved tremendously since the 1860’s. I’m linking to a blog post I came across that makes some interesting points. (Disclaimer:Just the result of a google search. I don’t follow the person, but thought the graphs were interesting.)http://www.jefflewis.net/blog/2015/03/a_critical_examination_of_ben_8.html

    Anyway, I’m one who will agree with the rock group The Who that, “The Kids are Alright.” Yes that’s the way they spelled it. 😉

    All the best,
    Steve

    Liked by 1 person

    • Theresa says:

      Just a question on this – not trying to be argumentative – but are you suggesting that matching the average speaker today with a 1600’s non-landowner is a good comparison?
      I think there’s a lot to be said for striving for the best possible outcome even in a ‘slum’ situation. To think that I should feel okay about my English skills because, well, it’s as good as an uneducated person from the 1600 just seems oddly strange to me.
      Would I not want to compare our children – educated as they are with our current school systems – to someone of equal education from the 1600’s or another time period? Would that not be the landowners or comparable people?
      No, I’m not suggesting that we all start throwing out an accent, or that using the phrase “Oi!” isn’t okay now and again, but specifically in professional communications (and also in private ones in my personal opinion) should we not strive to speak with the highest level of capability we have thus far achieved?
      I mean, we don’t tell a three year old that they can stop learning how to speak once they can get their message across, so why would I suddenly say that my teenager, or young adult, or even adult was okay just because they’ve got the bare minimum down?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Steve says:

        Fair enough, Theresa. I love a good argument, BTW. (See what I did there! 😉 )

        The point of the blog post was that John hated seeing the English language degraded. He used Downton as an example of a time when it wasn’t. I pointed out that the people on the show with a mastery of the English language were a privileged few. I should have pointed out that it was actually the writers living today who used such beautiful english, but no matter. My reference to the 1600’s and the link to the blogpost, graphs etc, was simply to show how in the “big picture”, literacy is improving.

        I can also give personal examples and point out that I am far more literate and have a better grasp of english, both written and spoken than my grandparents (both grandmothers were teachers), and my children are far beyond where I was at their age as well. Much of that is undoubtably due to improved socio-economic circumstances and the schools attended. (One room school-house vs public schools vs private school)

        You make a good point, though, about expectations. Are the standards in professional communications more lax than in the past? I don’t know. I suspect not. There may be a public downplaying of “proper” use of english, but in areas where it matters, I suspect that it makes a huge difference.Then again, if I’m interviewing a mathematician for my university (hypothetically) with impeccable credentials and publications who is from a foreign country and speaks with broken english, I would likely let that slide. Context is everything.

        Using “proper” english carries a lot of baggage with it in certain communities. Ask an inner-city black kid. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

        All the best,

        Steve

        Like

      • Theresa says:

        I can agree with you on the growth and improvement over time. I guess my sticking point is that if our children are going to need professional language development when they grow up, why aren’t we emphasizing it outside of the classroom. A student who learns an idea in class won’t retain the information if he/she is never asked to use it again outside of that forum (and is, in fact, encouraged by society to drop it). In fact, I would argue that it undermines the authority of the classroom setting in the child’s mind – not that ALL knowledge must be constantly used.
        (I guess I’m not really advocating “proper” English so much as reduction of slang/Freudian mistakes that I often see in written or spoken communication.) I feel like the number of people who use phrases and terms incorrectly expands exponentially, and slang, or shortcut speaking, appears to heighten this. If I see someone who writes “I heart you” I have to just shake me head and grit my teeth.

        Like

    • Thanks, Steve. And welcome to CC.

      You’re right about the disparity of education 100 years ago. That has been true throughout history. But there is a point in time about halfway between then and now that always sticks in my mind. In the 1940’s there was a radio quiz show called “Quiz Kids” (https://www.otrcat.com/p/quiz-kids). Here is a brief audio clip (about half is about the sponsor): https://youtu.be/CNWrhb1-Wbs

      These kids — I believe — were middle class, ordinary kids. Their prize was $100 toward their further education. They could effortlessly answer questions that most people today could not — and not just obscure things from their time, but things about the classics: opera, literature, art, music, etc. Astounding. And they ranged from 6 years old to about 10 or 12, on average.

      In modern times, until very recently we had a show called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader,” which invited adults to answer standard questions from first though fifth grade curriculum, and if they couldn’t they could call on an actual fifth-grader to help them out. Most people couldn’t answer the majority of these questions.

      Quite a contrast, wouldn’t you say?

      Like

  4. Steve says:

    That’s interesting, John. Needless to say, neither of your examples nor mine in the post to Theresa regarding my family is of any statistical significance.

    Perhaps the question implicate in this post is, “do we not value proper written and spoke english as it was valued in the past?” And THAT’S a difficult question.

    There are, undeniably, class and social implications in the way people speak and use english. It’s a label like skin color, clothes, car model etc which tells others something about us. The association of proper english with their oppressors by certain groups is completely understandable. As these groups have gained influence and some degree of a voice, it’s not surprising that their views of language are at least valued and considered.

    I’m blathering on too much so I’ll stop now.

    Steve

    Like

  5. Bobbie says:

    John, there’s always a place for the well-spoken word. It definitely thrives in the business world. Look how popular Downton Abbey has been. It’s garnered a broad audience, just as any well-presented story, essay, television show or movie will always capture people’s attention. I will never forget the sight of a farmer sitting at the bar watching Baryshnikov’s ‘Nutcraker’ ballet the first time it aired on TV. He watched the whole three hours. Everyone in the working class bar where I worked was spellbound. That was a long time ago, but quality still prevails.

    And Oscar Gamble will never become a network sports commentator unless he cleans up his vocabulary skills, so it does count. If he ever gets the offer, you can bet he’ll make the necessary changes.

    Consider the size of the YA section in your local Barnes and Noble, and consider how much texting young people do. Writing, in some format, is not a dead art for them. It may be abbreviated, and it may bend to convenience and fun, but they’re still involved.

    BTW 🙂 Fifty-two is not elderly. Sixty-four is not elderly. It’s all in how you feel and how you view change. Don’t despair. Change is fascinating. Enjoy the show and stay young.

    And “I heart you” is just stupid, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lucia says:

    You know, Jonathan Swift lamented the degradation of English in his day, too. He and some of his contemporaries tried to find a way to keep English nice and pure–in other words, modern to their nostalgic era–and they failed spectacularly. Language evolves.

    But no one says you have to like it, of course. Wave a stick at emojis if you wamt (that term, by the way, is an amalgamation of English–emotion–and Japanese–“ji” or “letter/character.” The Japanese borrowed the “emo” part of “emotion,” used their own language on it to turn it into a character that expresses emotion, and then English took the term back for its own use. Isn’t that interesting?). But emojis were inevitable, anyway. Ever since writing became an instantaneous way of communicating–emails, IMs–we’ve tried to use punctuation marks to make up the faces that the text can’t express. Of course they eventually turned into real faces. And then of course creativity expanded beyond faces into hearts and, yes, smiling piles of poop.

    Language is one of the universal ways people express their creativity, whether they have a little or a lot. Coining new terms, beautiful or hilarious turns of phrase, purposefully gutting grammar, it’s all how people express their creativity. Even if they’re not artists. Even if they don’t write their own stories. Even if they turn their nose up at every creative profession under the sun–they still use their own words creatively. And because EVERYONE is being creative with language at once, and plagiarizing the things we like and repeating them, then abandoning the ones that aren’t as memorable in favor of new and shiny trends, language evolves.

    I heart language evolution. ^^ (See what I did there?)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Steve says:

    I almost forgot to mention what made this post so interesting to me in regards to degraded english. One of my favorite novels, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, is a 1st person PoV post-apocalyptic novel taking place thousands of years after nuclear disaster in a pseudo-iron age England. The language, or “Riddley-speak”, is just wonderful. Hoban starts with a bastardized cockney english and adds technical computer terms etc that have new meanings after the knowledge of what they originally meant is lost. Its fun to work out the meaning in the language(at least for me). It’s an under appreciated masterpiece, in my opinion. And, yes, this is the same Russell Hoban who wrote kids books like Bedtime for Frances (the badger) that you may be familiar with.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on Off the Rails – Track 451 and commented:
    I’m of an age, too, and I couldn’t agree more!

    Like

  9. A distinction needs to me made between culture and the craft of writing. Culturally, language is fluid and ever-changing and this would include the writing of social media. In craft, I would hope more fluent language would be used unless it is character dialogue, again, cultural interactions with fluid expression. I regularly create words that aren’t technically words in the English language but express what my character is trying to say in a typical way for that “person.” Likewise, as a writer, I get to choose how to write and whether fluency in the absolute OED, Strunk and White way is absolutely the way I want to write. Editorial comments notwithstanding, this has been a successful writing approach for me. Does this mean publishing is contributing to the degradation of the English language? Perhaps they should be held to a higher standard if it is leading to the demise of culture? (Sarcasm.)

    Like

  10. hellerj says:

    Dear John Berkowitz,

    Every language on earth constantly evolves and changes. Every language also has many different and valid dialects. For example, American English includes Chicano English, African-American English, Southern English, etc. Some of the examples of “bad English” that you cite are in a dialect that differs from “Standard English.” For example, Oscar Gamble’s remark fits the patterns of African-American English. For very effective use of this dialect in literature, see the fiction of Toni Cade Bambara.

    As a linguist & professor of English, I know that “Standard American English” or “Standard British English” are artificial constructions: no one speaks “Standard English” all of the time. We speak differently at a job interview than we do when we speak with our friends or with children.

    I recommend that all of us writers and speakers of English try to treat one another with respect for different dialects and approaches to language..

    Sincerely,
    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is http://www.janetruthheller.com

    Like

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