Translator's Blog

Is the English language declining or simply evolving?

by OFER TIROSH 2019-08-21 07:45:07
Is the English language declining or simply evolving?

Do you weep for the decline of the English language? Do people’s grammatical aberrations on social media fill you with horror?

When we think about the future of language – in this case, the English language – we have a tendency to bemoan its demise. The casual language used daily on social networks and in newspaper comment sections delivers a host of typos and misused words. 

Even capital letters and full stops are left by the wayside by some of those sharing their opinions, something that I personally find almost painful to witness. 

But is this evidence of the terrible linguistic decline that we are facing or is it simply the next phase of the evolution of the English language?


Is it time to stop worrying about English?

British newspaper The Guardian recently published an interesting article on why we should stop worrying about the decline of English. It trotted out all the usual fears about how our language is ‘declining’ and the impact that this will have – ultimately the loss of our ability to communicate, and therefore to achieve, as effectively. 

However, the Guardian article then looked at this theory in more detail. Why are we so convinced that our language is declining when in fact it is simply adapting to keep pace with the way that we live, including our interaction with technology? 

Let me put you on the spot: name three problems that have resulted from the decline of the English language. If you’re struggling to respond, you’re not alone. In fact, if we take a look back at history, the idea that the ‘decline’ of English will result in all things terrible is, in the words of journalist David Shariatmadari, “unscientific nonsense.”

Shariatmadari points out that, over the past 65 years, the English-speaking world has prospered significantly. Our achievements – intellectual, technological, medical – have intensified. We have better educational standards, better healthcare and (largely) efficient and democratic governance. (Ok, so that last point is a matter of some debate, so let’s stick a pin in that point for now.)

Generally, though, our society has improved in countless ways as it has grown, all against the backdrop of the lamentable ‘decline’ of the English language. Could it be, then, that our language is merely flexing and growing with us? 


The case for the preservation of the English language

None of this is to say that it’s wrong to want to preserve the English language. Language – any language – is a beautiful and fascinating representation of society. Wanting to maintain its essential purity (i.e. its grammatical integrity) is no bad thing. 

Understandably, those who work in the professional translation field, along with writers, journalists, editors and others who work with language on a daily basis as part of their craft, fear that linguistic standards are slipping. Perhaps they are, when we compare the language used today to that which we learned in school, but perhaps every generation feels this as they age. 

Certainly, the ability to change and shape our language seems to sit with the younger generations. From new words to new uses of old words, young people bend language to their will and use it to define their generational experiences. This has been the case for time immemorial but widespread social media use has given these changes a platform like never before. 


Are we just more aware of linguistic change?

Is it then, simply a case of us becoming more aware of linguistic change and so focusing on it more? Do we witness poor grammar more because it’s used more or because there are now more fora for its display? 

(That’s right autocorrect, I meant ‘fora’ not ‘forums,’ thank you very much, although even the Oxford English Dictionary has come to accept the more prevalent usage of the latter now.)

Seeing our language change can be a difficult experience for those of us who pride ourselves on using in ‘correctly’ but perhaps it is our collective attitude that needs to change. 

Living languages are always flexing and changing. They incorporate new words and new meanings thousands of times per year. The June 2019 quarterly update from the Oxford English Dictionary saw the addition of over 1,400 new words, senses, and subentries. 

Should we, then, be embracing these changes?


Considered use of language

Well, yes and no. There’s certainly a time and a place for a chatty, informative style of writing. The internet would be a far duller place if every blog post sounded like a formally written thesis packed full of archaic terms! 

At the same time, there are certain linguistic elements that deserve to be preserved. Basic rules of grammar are pretty near the top of the list (in my humble opinion). 

Grammatical rules are the building blocks upon which all languages are built. There are universal rules of grammar that can be found in every language on Earth – bar those made up specifically to break those rules (Klingon being the leading example, which defies our intrinsic understanding of grammar in order to sound like an alien tongue). 

Maintaining the purity of our grammar doesn’t mean that English can’t change significantly, as the Oxford English Dictionary’s regular updates demonstrate. It just means that we have a solid base on which to build. 


So how should our attitudes evolve to match the evolution of the English language?

Next time someone does something that doesn’t sit well with you linguistically (starting a subheading with the word ‘so,’ for example), why not stop and consider what the actual harm is? 

Yes, the way that a certain word or phrase is used may irritate you, but is it a sign that our society is declining along with its language or just that the way we communicate is keeping pace with the advances that we are collectively making? 

If it’s the latter, perhaps it’s time to update your own linguistic repertoire and go with the flow. 

Just be sure that doing so still involves the use of capital letters and full stops. After all, dropping those really could being about the end of civilization as we know it. 

 

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