the deterioration of language

“The english of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was,” writes Guy Deutscher in The Unfolding of Language. In Chapter 3, he includes a fascination chronology on a few hundred years of so-called decline:

  • In comparing the English language to that of two generations ago, a reviewer in the Times Literary Suppliment reminisced that then “a mistake was a mistake not a sign of free expression.”
  • 1946 George Orwell wrote “the English language is in a bad way” compared to the language of previous generations
  • 1848 linguist August Schleicher dismissed the English of is day as “ground-down,” noting “how rapidly the language of a nation…can sink” and that it was likely to further “sink into mono-syllabicity”
  • 1780 Thomas Sheridan reported a recent decline of the English language “during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-14]… it is probably that English was… spoken in its highest state of perfection”
  • 1712 Jonathan Swift wrote “our Language is extremely imperfect… its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions”

English speakers are not unusual in feeling this way about their language.

Take modern German, for instance, which by common consent is a mere shadow of its former glory two centuries ago, in the Golden Age of Goethe and Schiller. That may well be, but during Goethe’s lifetime those in the know were of a rather different opinion. In 1819, the fairy-tale compiler and linguist Jacob Grimm compared the langauge of his day to that of previous centuries, and lamented that “six hundred years ago, every common peasant knew –that is to say practised daily — perfections and niceties of the German language of which the best language-teachers nowadays can no longer even dream.

The thesis of the book is that this it is precisely this destruction of language where the mystery of language creation lies — “all languages change, all the time — the only static languages are dead ones.” (p.55)

We don’t have to wait generations to hear the how languages change. It can be witnessed by traveling to different parts of a country or, more dramatically, by listening for differences in dialects of a single language across multiple countries.

I highly recommend the book which is a little academic at times, but full of fascinating historical and modern references that illustrate how languages evolve.

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