The Rise and Fall of Language
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If you're an English major - I warn you to stop now or you're going to have a real fit. Or read on - if you go into convulsions because of this, have someone take pictures and send them to me.

Ever know an English major? The kind of person who takes great glee in correcting your grammar, spelling and usage? I know a few. And after being scolded a few times out of the blue for my perceived abuses of the language, I undertook a brief study of things and came to what I believe are some startling conclusions. I now take great glee in driving the vernacular forward and infuriating the English majors of the world. If I were French, they'd probably revoke my citizenship for stuff like this. :-)

 

Looking back - not forward

The study of any language is primarily a historical affair, not a predictive one. You can only say what was done, not what ought to be done in the future. Listen to anyone who has studied language correct someone on their usage of the language and they will say things like "it's should not have an apostrophe" in the same tone and attitude that a judge uses while passing sentence on an unrepentant child molester. To this, I simply say "*Bzzzzzttt* So sorry, but thanks for playing!"

 

The only constant is change

All languages have rules. Some are strict (French, Latin) some are a complete free-for-all (US English). No matter where they fall on that spectrum, they language will change and evolve over time -  this is called the vernacular. The problem comes when the arrogance of those who study the history of language blinds them to the point that they feel they are the anointed judge, jury, and custodian of the language. This leads to the aforementioned tone and attitude when dealing with transgressions of the Anointed Book of Language Rules. These people really need to get over themselves...

Language changes and evolves over time. For a dramatic example of this, reference an early and original "Old English" version of the King James Version of the Bible. Compare to a modern printing of the KJV - the language of the more "modern" KJV may feel old and stuffy, but the original will make you do a real double-take if you try and read it.  People add new words, invent new spellings, put punctuation in new places, and generally adapt their language to their world over time. In the electronic age, this has accelerated with the vast increase in written material on the web and in email. People are generally lazy, and if a previously known convention of the language confuses them, they will simply ignore it. Since there is strength in numbers, this "ignorance" re-shapes the language so that the rule is bent, and finally destroyed. The previously intolerable usage has become common, and eventually may be preferred. It can even go so far as to make the original usage intolerable or "old fashioned" after more time has passed.

 

Deal with it

Let me state this clearly - the language never has and never will belong to those who study it. it always has and always will belong to those who use it. If the collective body of people who use the language decide to change it, the people who study it have no choice but to merely take note of that change. Resisting that change is futile, arrogant, and makes them generally fun people to annoy. For those unfamiliar with Tina the Tech Writer in Dilbert, this is the "brittle people need to be tweaked" theory.

As a result of this outlook I have had a nearly countless amount fun with my English teachers back in school as well as the many people I have known who are a little too up-tight about language usage. I have not had any serious trouble communicating with people for work or for fun. My conclusion of this life-long empirical study is simply that the language studying people of the world need to either deal with it - or become an endless source of amusement for myself and others of like mind.

 

Favorites

Some of my more prized examples of this lately involve the use of the apostrophe. "it's" is a possessive form of the word as well as a contraction for "it is" for anyone who's reading this. Other examples include using the apostrophe for plural situations instead of strictly possessive situations - in this case this is an example of an Old English tradition rising from the beaten down ashes left after The Linguists passes through. My favorite example of this has got to be The Apostrophe Protection Society - their tone is less formal than some, but the message on their web site is very clear and quite amusing. Their section 3 is exactly what I'm referring to - it's common usage, so they need to just deal with it. Their site was good for a few laughs, though.

Another example is for spacing - double spaces after a period went out with the manual typewriter, but it's amazing how many people still do this. (For the more technically inclined among you, the double space after a REM in Basic or DOS command scripts is in the same boat...) This has gone from rigidly enforced, to acceptable, to not preferred electronically, to simply unacceptable. If I see a document written in this style, it's usually a good sign that an old-school typist was at work. If you ever had to "unstick the keys" on the typewriter, you probably once had (or maybe still have) this annoying typing habit. Fortunately, it's been a long time since anyone has scolded me on my use of single spaces - a clear example of common usage beating back The Linguists. They'll never admit it, though. :-)

There are tons more that many of you can remember from your grammar school days - stuff the teacher used to scold you on constantly, and now you freely write (and say) without any loss in clarity, ability to do your job, or have fun, In short - this does not affect your ability to communicate unless you are communicating with a Linguist and they are so obsessed with your usage that they fail to understand your communication. But, that is primarily their loss, and mostly your gain. In amusement value, that is.


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Page last updated 01/02/2009 01:51:39 PM