Preservation vs. progress, the age-old argument. Before Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention, there were hardly any linguistic standards; language was in a state of fragmentation somewhere between Pangaea and the Tower of Babel. And this was probably a beautiful thing, different waves of invasion and miscegenation giving rise to diverse words and expressions, often within the same modern-day language.
In the case of English, for example, there was the transformation from the fascinatingly diverse regional Anglo-Saxon dialects, to its present form as a Germanic language that has incorporated Latin through Norman French upon William the Conqueror’s seminal victory in 1066 A.D. at the Battle of Hastings. Half a millennium on, Shakespeare, one of the world’s most prolific wordsmiths, took poetic license to create what is a veritable handbook of nifty English words and phrases.
The amorphous and haphazard nature of English has made it arguably the most adaptable language in the world, which is the global lingua franca not just because of the vast reach of the British Empire, but also because, as expressed in the infinite pith of George Bernad Shaw, it isthe easiest language to speak badly. Non-native speakers can slap words together without verbs or prepositions, and effectively (if not efficiently) communicate.
But mine is a case for preservation over progress.
Supporters of the laissez-faire approach to allowing for the continuous reshaping of the English language. But like most things brought about by the exponentially faster and easier communication of the information age, standards and regulation lag ever further behind transformation. Because of the new emphasis on brevity and impact over content, the patience for prose is fast disappearing. This phenomenon has been called the “Post-literate Age.”
There is currently an alarming degeneration going on in ostensibly all languages in the world. Youth in the Far East can read Chinese characters, but have difficulty producing them by hand. Spelling in most countries is done via auto-correct. And sadly but predictably, many American schools no longer teach cursive script.
Another example of the collapse of linguistic integrity is thedisappearance of the adverb in colloquial communication. “Drive safely” has become drive safe, “eat healthily” is now eat healthy, and “don’t take it personally” has been crushed into don’t take it personal.
The inconsistent and downright nutty nature of English spelling and grammar frustrate to no end learners of English as a second language, and there is a certain beauty in this. It is fascinating to take a look at the similar spelling yet disparate pronunciation of everyday words liketough, though, thought, through, and thorough, which display like carbon dating that that these words once had a more phonetic pronunciation. One can imagine the slippery slope to ensue were the English spelling be further simplified and condensed according to modern pronunciation.
While critics of institutions like l’Académie française the Real Academia Española maintain that they stifle linguistic growth and adaptability, there is something to be said for stricter emphasis on consistency to stem the ever more rapid hemorrhaging of proper grammar and keeping our language intact. I decidedly side with Jonathan Swift, who asserted that “some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever…it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing.” Absent a decisive linguistic counter-offensive, the global language will be reduced to all function, no form.