Is English Changing?

It is a natural tendency to think that our language is changing and changing for the worse. If it is changing it is certainly changing for the worse, since the whole tendency of modern prose, as opposed to that, say, of a hundred years ago is toward the sloppy, hasty, sloganised expression of the " mass-media".

The spoken word has, among educated people, become a blunter and less elegant medium of expression than perhaps it has ever been before - to the point where ideas that cannot be expressed by cheap, pre-packaged catchphrases are rarely expressed at all, and when expressed not understood by those who have virtually lost the art of listening to a whole sentence of real English. In pronunciation, the tendency to adopt the ugly vowels of the lowest and least educated classes is gradually eating away at the speech of all other classes, so that, all other things being equal, one may say that the younger a speaker is, the worse his diction will be.

The position of affairs has been admirably described by Mr. Eric Partridge, one of the foremost authorities on modern English, in a 1965 addendum to his classic Usage and Abusage commenting upon what he calls "the aggrandisement of mediocrity" in the language :

....the speech of an illiterate is preferable to that of an educated, cultured person. Subtlety and suppleness, distinction and variety, eloquence and ease, clarity of phrasing and perspicuity of sentence, all these are suspect, for they imply superiority of mind and spirit....No wonder mediocrity flourishes in literature and, indeed, at all levels of writing, for its only vehicle, language, has been slowed down by the slow-minded and the sluggish-hearted, by the dull and the indifferent. Anyone who believes in civilisation must find it difficult to approve, and impossible to abet, one of the surest means of destroying it. To degrade language is finally to destroy civilisation.

Mr. Partridge is well aware that such devastation of language is not an isolated phenomenon, but one which proceeds, as he points out, from a society for which "....bedlam is as musical as Bach or Beethoven; a daub indicates genius; a dead level of uninspired and almost formless monotony and the I.Q. of an idiot are superior to a controlled imagination and a high intelligence."

There is a strong inclination to believe that changes which are taking place and becoming very widespread are permanent shifts in the form of the language. This is particularly so, since everyone who writes these days about the history of language (or indeed the history of anything else) does so from the point of view that change or evolution is its most salient characteristic. The obsession with change and evolution is part of the modernist ideology. Indeed it is its cardinal characteristic. The modern world thinks as it does and is what it is because it believes that nothing is absolute and eternal, that everything is in a continual state of flux (in Platonic terms, it believes that the world of becoming is all in all and does not understand that becoming has its roots in the transcendent world of Being). Everything that is characteristically modern - in music, art. politics, clothes, speech, or anything else in life, is based on the statement that there is no ultimate truth - equality and democracy, for example, are based on the belief that no person or class of people is nobler, finer, better - nearer to the ultimate - than any other. Modern music and art are the worship of the chaotic and centreless void. All things are changing. Nothing is real and ultimate and true.

In fact as an historical statement, this is very far from being the case. Like all heresies, it has an element of truth in it. Things do change. However, it is a perverse misreading of history to believe that things are in a constant state of flux or evolution. The major changes of history are variations upon ancient and eternal themes. The philosophies of the great schools and nations are restatements in different cultural "languages" of the same primordial truths. Even the phenomenon of the civilisation which breaks away from the primordial theme and plunges itself into primitive chaos is not new. It has happened before and it will happen again. The decadence of Rome was very similar to that of the modern world. The decadent civilisation is a recurring hiccough in the course of history. Some would say that it is a phase in the life of every civilisation - its senility, as it were - but that all but the most powerful civilisations tend to be killed off by external forces before they reach that stage.

The minor changes that take place all the time are like changes of weather: impermanent and of no particular significance. They no more prove that there is no underlying and definite form to things than the changes in the English weather prove that England has no definite climate. England has a very definite climate, quite different from that of Egypt or Spain or Iceland. The changes are part of that climate. All these notions are reflected in the study of the English language. The modernist dogma is that: "there is no such thing as a pure, definitive English language". So-called 'Standard English' is just one dialect among others, no better than, say, Cockney or the pidgin of some Caribbean island. It is, in any case, constantly changing, so it is impossible to say what is good or correct English and what is not."

It may seem rather remarkable that this is said and (presumably) believed by the modern equivalent of intelligent people, but it is. Any one who thinks that Caribbean pidgin or Cockney are not sub-standard compared to the English of Jane Austen or Matthew Arnold is, of course, simply not worth the trouble or boredom of talking to (they may not be sub-standard compared with the sub-journalese cant of a television "chat show" or a modern middle class dinner party, but that is another matter). The assertion that English is constantly changing is, perhaps, worthy of more serious consideration. English does change, but it changes very slowly and in accordance with certain laws which govern its inner being. The notion that it is "in a constant state of flux" and that "we cannot tell what is real, correct English" is as absurd as saying that the changes which take place in John Smith over the years show that "we cannot tell who is the real John Smith". All things change, but the changes take place around a central core of identity. Only the most perverse eye can see them as indicating a chaotic flux in which there is no permanence and no truth.

At the moment, of course, since the doctrine of flux is dominant in all areas of life, English appears to be changing more than ever. Every absurd coinage, be it political cant ("racism", "sexism"), journalese ("ongoing", "lifestyle") or whatever it may be, is eagerly taken up by what are called the "chattering classes", used as if it were a genuine word, and introduced into the speech of the undiscriminating masses through their talking machines. The degeneration is encouraged by schools which refuse to teach standard English because it is no "better" (dreadful word!) than the argot of the slums of Kingston, Jamaica or the Gorbals. No one can read a newspaper or talk to a native of any class without receiving proof that modern English is degenerating, which, in turn, the proponent of the "perpetual flux" theory would take as proof of his thesis.

Yet we would cast doubt on the entire statement that English is changing. Changes are taking place, certainly, but what reason have we to suppose that they will be permanent? English is a very robust language. Much is made of the fact that it has absorbed many changes, but the truth is that it has rejected many more. It is particularly prone to reject the floods of changes that are foisted upon it in times of modish silliness. In evidence let us call an essay written by Jonathan Swift in 1710 entitled "The Continual Corruption of our English Tongue". In it he reproduces a letter received by him that year which is as full of the cant of the time as is the conversation of a modern polytechnic lecturer. Swift italicises the usages he considers cant.

Sir, I cou'dn't get the Things you sent for all about Town - I thot to ha' come down myself and then I'd ha brot 'um; but I ha'n't don't and I believe I can't do't that's Pozz - Tom begins to gi'mself airs because he's going with the Plenipo's - 'tis said the French King will bamboozl'us agen which causes many speculations. The Jacks and others of that kidney are very uppish and alert upon't as you may see by their Phizz's - Will Hazard has got the Hipps, having lost to the tune of Five Hundred Pound, tho he understands Play very well, no body better. He has promis't me upon Rep to leave off Play; but you know 'tis a Weakness he's too apt to give into, tho he has as much wit as any man, no body more. He has lain incog ever since - the Mobb's very quiet with us now - I believe you thot that I banter'd you in my last like a Country Put - I sha'n't leave Town this Month, &c.

Swift comments on this as follows:

This Letter is in every Point an admirable Pattern of the present polite Way of Writing, nor is it of less Authority for being an Epistle: You may gather every flower in it, with a thousand more of equal sweetness, from the Books, Pamphlets and single Papers offered us every day in the Coffee Houses: And these are the Beauties introduced to supply the Want of Wit, Sense, Humour and Learning, which formerly were looked upon as Qualifications for a Writer.

Two things impress about these passages. The first is the striking parallel to the present day - the puerile slang and worthless neologisms used without the least embarrassment by intelligent writers and speakers "to supply the want" as Swift so neatly put it "of wit, sense, humour and learning".

The second thing to strike us is the transience of the phenomenon. Swift was afraid that it represented a radical degeneration of the language, but almost all the cant in the letter is vanished today, while the English of his comments upon it is very little different from that used by you and me. Mobb, now Mob, (short for mobile vulgas: "the shifting or fickle crowd") is still with us, perhaps because pejorative words do not require the dignity of ordinary words. We still have bamboozle, but it is still only humorous; it has not attained the status of a "proper" word. Banter has passed into real English, but even this is a very "light" word. To the tune of remains slang to this day, despite its serious usage in 1710. Give in is now proper, though informal, English, but this expression was not made up by the coffee-house slickers who used it; it is an Irishism. Hipps, pozz, rep, phizz, Plenipo, Jacks and the rest are long forgotten (rep - for reputation - was used in vulgar American a few decades ago, but this was not a survival of 18th century usage but a separate occurrence of a rather obvious shortening). The ubiquitous elisions ( I'd, can't and the rest) have been with us in speech since long before the eighteenth century, with different degrees of acceptance in polite speech at different times. Swift's complaint is, presumably, about their use in writing and here again, the craze was short-lived. After a short while the status quo ante was resumed, in which such elisions were only used in dialogue. No writer would address them directly to his reader and, indeed, even those elisions which Swift does accept, such as 'tis and promis't became inadmissible in formal writing, perhaps in reaction to the informality of Swift's time. One is strongly reminded of similar reactions of present-day Secessionists, who often, for example, use Christian names less freely than their great-grandparents in reaction against the modern Americanised over-use of them. It is true, of course, that shan't, I'd etc. have recently returned to modern "formal" writing, and very ungainly they look too. Miss P.D.James in the midst of an eloquent defence in a newspaper article of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer against the flat modern language of the new versions, paraphrases a Biblical passage thus: "we read that God wasn't in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire.....". That the elision wasn't is used in such a context, where it sounds so inappropriately casual and even irreverent, by a writer who is very far, in general, from being insensitive to language or to reverence, shows what a deeply ingrained habit this "writing down" has become among modern professional writers. Nevertheless there is no reason to suppose that this fad, expressive today of much the same attitudes that it expressed in the eighteenth century, will be of any greater duration than it was the last time.

It is a curious circumstance that more than one of the supporters of the "perpetual flux" theory of language has cited Swift's unsuccessful opposition to the word mob as an example of the inevitable triumph of change despite all reactionary resistance, while failing to note that the vast majority of the words which he opposed are long since dead and buried. The highly selective use of evidence - often entirely unconscious, because his passively ingrained prejudices lead the modernist to see only what he expects to see - is an important element in most modernist arguments.

Change in the English language is, in fact, slow, cautious and always preserves the fundamental root intact, The success of any given change is very much the exception rather than the rule. The current neologisms seem to be of two kinds - those whose raison d'ĂȘtre is their characteristically modern style or manner of expression and those which express some new concept or shade of meaning. The two are not wholly separable because a new shade of meaning, or indeed a new concept, may be no more than a passing mannerism. The word macho, for example, is a word which expresses an essentially Latin phenomenon and which has been adopted into English cant via American cant as a largely derogatory term only loosely connected with the Mexican-Spanish original but closely connected with the current craze for disapproval of all sexual differentiation

Terms like lifestyle, the bottom line, hike (meaning raise) all express things for which English has perfectly adequate words. The claim that they have greater brevity or convenience does not explain their use; lifestyle may be briefer than its English equivalents such as mode of life, but the bottom line is much less concise than the more normal gist or conclusion, while the hordes of redundant prepositions which have invaded the language serve only to make it more wordy and cumbersome - miss out on instead of miss ; lose out instead of lose etc. They are used because they impart a particular tone of transatlantic slickness to what is being said. It might be contended that this tone will be lost as the words pass into normal English, but I very much doubt it. To the tune of was a slangy expression nearly three hundred years age and still (being in the unusual position of having survived) has the same tone of slanginess today. We suspect that few such neologisms will be remembered fifty years from now, except, perhaps, as quaint period pieces.

Another example of the way in which modern expressions make the language more rather than less wordy and inefficient is in the countless pseudo-technical puff-words with which the petty intelligentsia inflate their discourse, - so that it is not uncommon to hear dreadful people speak of children being in a playground situation (or sitcheewation as they pronounce it) when they mean simply in a playground; or of something being done on a daily basis when they mean merely that it is done daily.

Words which describe new technical processes will probably survive if the processes do, but words introduced to express current prejudices are unlikely to last beyond the prejudices themselves. Racist and sexist, for example, are thought-police words which make certain dogmatic assumptions about human life and are used to stigmatise all who transgress against the dogmas concerned. We cannot imagine either the dogmas or the words having any great duration and would expect them, in far less than a century, to sound as obscure as the Protestant thought-police word Romaniser does today.

A more serious concern about permanent change in the language is occasioned by the increasing sloppiness and inaccuracy of its use and the fact that teachers, lexicographers, the B.B.C. and others who have, in the past, been guardians of correctness are now infected with the modernist doctrine that anything is as "right" as anything else and refuse to make a stand for proper usage. We cannot entirely discount this fear, but we would point out that, when one reads a book like Usage and Abusage, one finds numerous errors and abuses which were current in the 1930s and '40s and notes with interest that very few of them are still current today. No one today says something of that extent to mean something of that sort, or uses flaunt for flout* ; though both these errors and a great many others that have since disappeared were common before the last great war.

Standard English is much more robust than we are apt to give it credit for. Weeds sprout abundantly and die within a generation: the real language continues with very little change. In pronunciation, changes which are seen as tendencies which allow prediction of the future shape of the language are frequently nothing of the sort. For example, in 1938, writing in The World of Words, Mr. Partridge noted a tendency to convert the u sound, as in tune or duty to a simple oo - a form common in America and rapidly gaining ground among the lower classes in England. He suggested that this pronunciation was likely to become universal in years to come. Today, however, very few English speakers of any class say dooty. The corrupt or slovenly pronunciation is now jeuty or even jeety (curiously, this new corruption - the thinning oo of loose-mouthed sub-cockney - is causing movement in precisely the opposite direction to that which seemed to be the prevailing trend in the '30s, with many partially-corrupt speakers saying tyoo or teeoo for too ). This is at least as ugly and ignorant-sounding and affects a wider range of words, since the corruption of oo toward ee affects all oo words; but it indicates that entrenched tendencies can rapidly vanish rather than grow, and shows that however much ground is being gained for yeeth and byeety today, the whole nasty corruption is likely to be forgotten tomorrow.

I do not contend that English is in no danger. If our national life and culture continue to degenerate as they have done over the past half-century, then the language will doubtless continue to degenerate with them, but I rather doubt that this will happen, even though the forces of darkness still occupy every position of power and influence. If there should be, as I feel there must be, a return to the norms of civilised life, then I think we will find that the English language will reassert herself with a vigour and an innate conservatism which may well give rise to a renaissance of English letters. English cannot be other than mediocre when it is given no task to do which is not mediocre. In the hands of a generation of vulgarians it can be made to appear vulgar; but the petty "changes" which have been wrought upon recent English are less than skin-deep. Give her writers and speakers worthy to wield her and a people with ears to hear and she will shrug off the decades of slogans and proletarianisms, the pseudo-technicalia and the transatlantic cackle, as easily as Gulliver shrugged off the Lilliputian ropes.

* I first read about this error in Usage and Abusage where it was stated to be widespread. I later discovered that it was so widespread that even so literate and sophisticated a writer as Mr. Noel Coward could perpetrate it not merely in casual speech but in a published song lyric. In The Stately Homes of England we find the lines:

And though we sometimes flaunt our family conventions
Our good intentions
Mustn't be misconstrued

Things like this make contemporaries feel that the correct usage is on the way to oblivion, but in this case, as in most others, it was not.


Read a letter in response to this essay