There is a little known war going on. At times brutal, at times nasty, it is a war that has lasted decades and may very well continue forever. What, you may be wondering, is this war about?
Land? Power? Politics? People?
It is a war being fought over the state and survival of the English language. A war over language? You may think it a tad ridiculous. And perhaps the best response to that: “I know, riiight?”
On one side of this battle are the “prescriptivists,” those who believe that there is basically one standard of proper English, and any variance from that standard should be avoided and ridiculed. One the other side are the “descriptivists,” who believe that English is inherently malleable, and that new conventions in spoken and written language should be accepted, not scorned.
And the 21st century has provided a fertile battleground for both sides of this language war. In a world of e-mail and text messaging and technical jargon and acronyms, the English language is in a strange new land.
Consider this conversation:
“Omg…did u c Katie 2day? She was, like, so late 4 skool?”
“Lol, I know, right?”
A “prescriptivist” might consider suicide, and then loudly bemoan the death of the English language. A “descriptivist” would smile, and see it as a valid form of English language communication, where a message was clearly sent, received, and understood.
In fact, people of all shapes and sizes have been asserting that English is dead — or at least dying — for decades now. But it is still here, doing its thing. And there is a not-so-subtle irony to the fact that those most adamant about protecting the high “standard” of the English language appear the most ignorant of its history.
First, the English language is stew, an accidental mishmash of other languages: German, Saxon, French, Angle, to name just a few. In 1000 CE, for example, the “English” word for “have” was “habbao.” By 1380, it had become “han.” By 1530, it had become “haue.” In fact, the word “have” is only a couple of hundred years old. And then we have Shakespeare (our greatest writer) and all his “thees” and “thous” and “haths”. Like everything else, our language evolved.
So all of this history begs two simple, but equally important questions: “Where is the standard?” And “do we really need one?”
Consider the various types of communication an average, normally functioning human being might engage in during the course of a single day: e-mails, text messages, phone calls to mom, work-related speaking and writing, conversations with friends. From the casual to the formal, from spoken to written, we communicate on so many different levels and in so many different ways, that the term “standard English” starts to sound increasingly ambiguous and outdated.
Perhaps the acronym-laden world of technology, with its SEO’s and CRM’s and ISP’s, does not represent an erosion of our language.
John McWhorter is a renowned linguist, author, and Columbia University professor, and is firmly on the descriptivist side of the language war. McWhorter firmly believes that the rumours of the demise of the English language are greatly exaggerated, and that “standard English” is nothing more than a historical accident.
“We don’t need a standard language,” he asserts, “If you could wave a magic wand and everybody could write the way they speak and talk the way they talk in normal situations, there would be no serious problems with communication. The idea that we all have to agree on one standard is false.”
We live in a different world today — a digital age — and this has affected how we live, how we think, and how we communicate. It’s a busier, faster world. So perhaps the shortened forms of words we use in text messages and e-mails does not represent laziness or falling standards. Perhaps the acronym-laden world of technology, with its SEO’s and CRM’s and ISP’s, does not represent an erosion of our language. Perhaps they are merely a natural reflection of our faster world, where time has become an increasingly valuable commodity. Perhaps our language is once again adapting and evolving, as we are, as we always have.
So we should not mourn the death of the English language. We should not cry over every “u” and “lol.” Instead, we should celebrate the growth and evolution of our beloved language. Because, in the end, the ultimate role of any language is to convey a message. If the message is received and understood, then the form should matter little.
Maybe it is time to end the language war, and appreciate the endless possibilities of the English language. And for those who still feel that English is being eroded by the passage of time: our greatest writer would have celebrated his 362nd birthday this year. So there’s that.