Linguistic myth no. 5: Terminal decline

Like morality, and young people’s manners the English language is in a terminal state of decline. If it isn’t textspeak killing language it’s imprecise and improper use of words. Every week brings a gloomy new article about the state of this once mighty tongue. And if it isn’t young people ruining our pristine language it’s management types with all their weird jargon.  Everyone has an opinion on good language use and what’s more, they’re all definitely 100% correct. And one thing that’s not in question is that things used to be better, back in the ‘olden days‘.  

The ‘olden days’ are a magical place which hold a special place in people’s hearts.
We all instinctively know that things were better in the ‘olden days’; life was simpler, people were kinder, children were better behaved and most importantly, everyone knew how to use language properly. The problem with this magical era is that it never existed. In sceptical circles this is known as ‘the golden age fallacy.’

And how do we know it never existed? If you try to pinpoint this glorious period of pristine shiny English, you’ll quickly run into problems. We know it’s not now, or even ten years ago, so when exactly was it? 

Obviously old English is too far back:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
Middle English doesn’t fair much better. 

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to

It’s not until much later (16C) that we get something that starts to resemble the language we use today.
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come

But even this English isn’t our English. For starters, no one uses words like ‘thy’ (second person possessive, -now ‘your) or ‘art’. So we’re still not sure when the ‘best’ version of english existed but what we can see is that language has a habit of changing. 

If English hadn’t changed, we’d still be speaking the language of Beowulf. Or, if you like we could go back to proto-germanic, or right back to proto-European. This may seem silly but why not? if we think language is ‘getting worse’ then surely ‘original’ version is the one we want to go for, but oddly no one is advocating that. 

In fact, language can only be said to be getting ‘worse’, if there is some objective measurable value we can hold it up to but this isn’t the case. Dropped aitches may seem lazy to us, but they’re all the rage in French. ‘you was great’ may seem sloppy, but Chinese verbs never conjugate at (I am, you am, he am, they am etc) so are the Chinese just very lazy people? Without objective value we’re left with ‘subjective’ ideas of what makes a particular language at a particular time ‘good’. 

And so if you pushed people to say when they think English was at its peak many would, I imagine, point to a time around the 18 or 19th century. We may conjure up ideas of the English used by well dressed, educated ladies and gents making witty pleasant conversation, not the, far more commonly heard English of the masses. In short we imagine Mr. Darcy, not Bill Sikes. So are people getting ‘lazy’ now or is it just one idealised variety of English we’re thinking of? 

The irony is that during this ‘golden era’ people were complaining about exactly the same thing. Henry Hitchings (2011:80) notes that “the sense of slippage” was widespread” in the 18th century which explains why “ideas of correctness became an obsession”. But complaining about the normal and natural change of language is as pointless as complaining about new fashions. They’re not worse or better than before, they’re just different, and you can guarantee the person complaining is wearing something that was once considered just as awful.

This period was not only a supposed linguistic high-point but also the height of the British empire. Children were seen and not heard, everyone knew their place and for every social activity and occasion there were prescriptive books of rules listing dos and don’ts in exquisite detail:

In crossing the street, a lady raises her dress a little above the ankle, holding together the folds of her gown and drawing them toward the right. Raising the dress with both hands exposes too much ankle, and is most vulgar.(source)

It’s interesting that while social rules like the one above are now considered laughable, linguistic pronouncements made at the same time are still taken very seriously by many. 

When we really get down to it, these aren’t really complaints about language at all but about morals. People don’t speak properly anymore and this is not because language has changed but because they are feckless and lazy. They drop aitches and swear, not because everyone in their peer group does and they want to fit in or because their parents do, but because they just can’t be bothered to put any effort into it. They no doubt do it on purpose! If only they’d get a job.