Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Language and its needless but inevitable watchdogs

Love of language, like love of country, is most often expressed by bashing those perceived not to have enough of it. You practically can't go anywhere without meeting someone who thinks the language is "going to the dogs" because people no longer write or speak it correctly. The fact that critics have been voicing this complaint for hundreds of years, yet the language hasn't withered away into dust, does nothing to quell their belief that something is seriously wrong today.

There's no way to reason with these critics, who will probably always be with us. So I just leave well enough alone. But I take satisfaction in being among the few who know the truth. Here is my favorite quote from Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English, a book by linguist John McWhorter:

"What we must that during these changes, because renewal always complements erosion, all languages are eternally self-sustaining, just as while our present mountains are slowly eroding, new ones are gradually being thrown up by the movement of geological plates. Thus at any given time, a language is coherent and complex, suitable for the expression of all human needs, thoughts, and emotions. Just as linguists have encountered no languages that do not change, they have also not encountered any languages whose changes compromised their basic coherency and complexity. We have encountered no society hampered by a dialect that was slowly simply wearing out like an old car. Anthropologists report no society in which communication is impossible in the dark because the local dialect has become so mush-mouthed and senseless that it can only be spoken with help from hand gestures. In other words, there is no such thing as a language 'going to the dogs'--never in the history of the world has there existed a language that has reached, or even gotten anywhere near, said dogs." (pp. 17-18)

No comments: