Is the language dying? A recent column in The Economist (Johnson: A long decline) asks the question from the perspective of a steadfast native British English speaker, looking around themselves and finding that the language they think they speak is, in fact, no longer spoken by those around them. Or rather, as this is The Economist we’re talking about, it probably is spoken by those immediately around them but not in wider society.
Johnson cites examples throughout history; Ranulph Higden in 1387, Richard Stanihurst in 1577, John Dryden in 1672, Arthur Hugh Clough in 1852 all the way through to Lynne Truss in 2003 – all of whom have decried the degradation and decline of their English. They would all no doubt (apart from Lynne Truss) have some difficulty in following a modern conversation like those in this 2010 pre-election series of vox pops:
There is an obvious conclusion and it is one that Johnson reaches: “language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too.” Pull an English teaching coursebook off the shelf and it will tell you that state verbs cannot be used in the continuous aspect. Walk round the corner to the local McDonald’s and they will tell you they are loving it. This doesn’t necessarily represent a decline in the language, perhaps it rather represents a change in society – where love was once thought to be constant, permanent and immutable, it is now seen as temporary and transitory. You may love something briefly and for a short time and therefore you may need to say “I’m loving these new shoes.” Or “I’m not liking this new phone”. There is acknowledgement that states change.
Change also comes from the input into the language from many new users. We all use the language as we think best, words, to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, mean what we want them to mean and this meaning is co-curated by all of us who use these words. New words arise to shape new ideas, or are co-opted for new purposes. Grammar rules are bent, broken and discarded as the need arises. We teach our students a snapshot of what the language was like at a fixed point in the past and they take it and run out into the world with their fossilised errors, misunderstandings and perceptions of irrelevance (e.g. dropped articles or missing prepositions) and they still create meaning and a greater or lesser degree of comprehension.
This does lead to some infelicity of expression, some of which is being charted on the Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape (MULL) facebook group as below:
But these infelicities and the language systems that our learners and all native speakers generate for themselves then feedback into the wider linguistic system. Things that work, forms and expressions that are generated, no matter by whom or in what context, will be adopted and shared and copied and disseminated throughout the larger system. Things that don’t work will lead only to mutual incomprehension and the (eventual) discovery of a way that does work. Back in 1387, Ranulph Higden complained that “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.”
Things have evolved a lot since then.
Image credit: George Chilton and Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape (facebook), reproduced here under a Creative Commons attribution 2.0 generic licence.