Rather A Shame: How The English Language Is Changing
Language is always changing, even though we may not notice it. UK English has always been fundamentally different from US English. In any lexicon of English there’s always a list of cockney rhyming slang, 95% of which has not been heard outside of ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’. I was reminded of this when a Chinese friend whose English is not very developed accepted a cup of tea from me with the word ‘Lovely’, the standard response to accepting tea. It made me wonder how much of our learned vocabulary is down to peer pressure.
And so it proves, with the sudden departure of gradable adverbs. A new study analysing language trends has found that there’s a steep decline in words used by the English to reduce the force of a phrase. ‘Quite’, ‘fairly’, ‘rather’, ‘terribly’, ‘awfully’ and ‘absolutely’ and other downtoners have been dumped as English Americanises itself due to the influence of social networks, TV and films. American language drives quickly to the point and is much blunter. English adverbs soften, delay and reduce. Traditional English language is also packed with class signifiers, and the UK young don’t want to suggest that they may be middle-class.
Prof. Paul Baker, the linguistics expert who produced the study, says that American English, which is more truncated, is driving the changes. You only have to watch ‘Brief Encounter’ to realise how much of the dialogue is packed with words that will become obsolete in our lifetimes.
The cultural appropriation of language on the internet is profoundly changing the way we use words. Every time I open a new document I have to keep changing the language from US to UK, but it switches back to US at every available opportunity. Predictive text opts for US words over UK ones; after a while you give up trying to keep your own spellings and default to Americanisms. ‘Mom’, ‘train station’, ‘can I get’ over ‘may I have’ and a thousand other alterations are forcing out our own language. I am proud of my linguistic abilities and do not want to lose them to lowest-common-demoninator communication.
Everyday English is peppered with words and phrases like ‘nice’, ‘lovely’, ‘sweet’ and the universal ‘All right?’ These can have so many nuances of meaning that you never quite know what someone is telling you. Humour forms a powerful backbone through the language, as does accent, although these are vanishing fast. Pronunciation obsessed the Victorians. David Crystal’s book ‘We Are Not Amused’ explores this preoccupation, especially on the use of the letter H between the classes, where it was dropped or added to the confusion of all.
It will be interesting to see how long double negatives remain in our conversation, as these also grade and slow conversation;
TEACHER: ‘It is possible to use two negatives in a sentence to create a positive, but there are no instances in the English language wherein two positives in one sentence make a negative.’
PUPIL: ‘Yeah, right.’
My father favoured American scientific papers over English ones because they were more direct and used simplified language. A book by Randall Munroe called ‘Thing Explainer’ uses just one thousand carefully selected words to explain, say, how a computer works or what an oil rig does, so that a suspension bridge becomes ‘road hanging from sticks.’ It’s a salutary exercise in communication, and often very funny.
Does it matter if language is simplified? Given the longer history of UK English, it would be rather a shame to lose words that make communication richer. Then again, the British have always been obsessed with language. While Hollywood was making westerns and gladiator epics in the early 20th century we were filming Oscar Wilde plays. I give Mr Arthur Brant the kind of language I love. His sentences are abstruse, fractured, obscure and peppered with forgotten words.
Many of Stephen King’s books turned on powerful ideas but he was careful to communicate them with simplified everyday language comprehensible to all. Opening Dickens at any given page and placing a finger on a single line, I get;
‘Mr Quilp accompanied this admission with such an awful wink, indicative of old rovings and backsliding, that Mrs Jiniwin was indignant and could not forbear from remarking under her breath that he might at least put off his confessions until his wife was absent; for which act of boldness and insubordination Mr Quilp first stared her out of countenance and then drank her health ceremoniously.’
A lovely sentence in itself, but not easy to unpack as one reads it. For this reason, I suspect that Dickens is ultimately doomed to academic reading (which would be a terrible shame) and Mr King will survive.