Language that Was

When George Orwell penned his novel 1984, and created the character of Si; the man who, tells the reader about the Inner Party’s plan to reduce language further and further, issuing reduced dictionaries, eliminating words until there are only the absolute minimum of words remaining with which to communicate, I doubt even Orwell could have imagined how true that would be.

Putting aside the technology of flat screens, CCTV and webcams, all of which can be found within this wonderful work of fiction (?), it is the clear prediction of the destruction of language that strikes me as being the most accurate.

I may be biased because of my nationality, but I think that the English language is the best in the world. It is expressive and can be used to conjure images and scenes far more romantic that even the most dashing of Frenchmen could conceive, and whose poetic nature could rival the most romantic of Arabic phrases.

It can bring laughter and sorrow within the same sentence, humor and horror so close together, yet so separate. I will hold off from going into my love of language any deeper than this, for while I am a big fan of tangents, and we have been known to enjoy many a wandering together, I am keen to keep this post as succinct as possible.

Jump forward almost 65 years (for 1984 was written in 1948) and take a look around. We have mobiles, text message, whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook: all manner of non-verbal communication which actively encourages us to use simplified words and broken sentences, all for the sake of turning messages into anorexic shells of real communication saving characters, and quickening all forms of interaction to make room for the rest of the crap we pack into our lives.

I lose track of the comments I see on Facebook – not posted by my friends, but rather around and about on various links and what have you – which are written in such a faint and corrupted shadow of the English language that they border on the illegible. Yet, these are messages written by people who are literate; people who, if you look at their profiles, have the capabilities of writing in real sentences, but choose to write in this bastardized Twenty-First century language – perhaps we should call it “English-lite”.

I can accept the removing of vowels from some words, to meet Twitter standards, just about. Please do not confuse my acceptance with any form of approval. What really gets me is misspelling words for no reason, or spelling them phonetically. What is the point; we are hobbling our ability to communicate. A powerful vocabulary is a wonderful tool, and can at times be our greatest weapon. We should not be looking to reduce the words, but rather find more of them; words that can truly deliver nuance and emotion The greater our vocabulary, the better we will be at expressing ourselves – even in these short, succinct online statements.

There is never any reason (or excuse) for abusing the English language. Facebook and Blog comments / conversations are not limited enough to warrant this sort of slovenly writing. I would not write something in such a manner and would not expect people to comment with it either. If you don’t have the time to write in proper English, then why have you wasted what precious seconds you have with any response at all? Sure, I may have grammatical errors in my posts, but that is because I do not have the luxury of a large amount of free time. I write my posts early in the morning, more often than not surrounded by children. However, I do make an effort not to sacrifice vocabulary in the ever-increasing need for speed.

(I know, grammar is just as important, but I am not on that soapbox today)

As we move from 2012 and into another new year, let us all make a resolution, to keep language alive. It serves us well in all walks of life, and deserves to have the chance to not merely exist… but to shine. It should not just be used to communicate but to uplift us and hold us in rapture with its lyrical magic.

Many people are talking about the Mayan calendar, but to my mind – rather like the Death card in the Tarot deck – it does not predict an ending, but rather a change, a change for the better, and what could be a more fitting way to start than ceasing the mindless destruction of words.

For all the great things he has provided us, let us not allow Orwell to be right about this, I implore you.

29 thoughts on “Language that Was

  1. I blame Prince aka the Artist Formerly Known as Prince aka Stupid Symbol that no one gives a shit about. He was the one that I first saw using 2 in place of ‘to’; eye in place of ‘I’ and U in place of ‘you’. After that America just got dumber and dumber. Great post. Eye relaly laked it.

    1. Not to defend Prince but he was trying to get around an abusive major label contract that wouldn’t allow him to do any music under any name without them taking the lion’s share of the profits. I’ve seen bands have to release a comic book with a free music CD inside. I was myself locked in a contract for many years – that the manager had first rights for renewing every 2 years despite doing nothing.

  2. Even as a non-native speaker of English I find it rather unnecessary using these mutated word forms. You go to school and try hard to get your vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation right, and suddenly you’re facing this weird web lingo. In German it’s common, too, using short forms, especially in the web. Luckily enough, the phenomenon is not as widespread as in English. There were times when one of the big advantages of web publishing was, that there were practically no limitations. Nowadays, we’re voluntarily limiting ourselves… I think, in this case, the language is just a symptom of the underlying fast moving lifestyle.
    Anywho, your post is much appreci8ed!

  3. Thank you for sharing this! I really do hate this happening. I was thinking along similar lines together day. In my opinion, the very worst example is “sry”-someone actually said that (and just that) to me the other day, as a poor excuse for an expression of sympathy after a friend died suddenly. Regardless of whether it’s used as an apology or in sympathy, if you can’t take the few seconds to spell out “sorry,” then you obviously are not sorry at all.

    1. I couldn’t agree with your more Krystle, It does not convey anything even close to compassion. We are our own worst enemy at times because we accept it, and write it off as change, but never question if it a) really it change, and b) is it for the better. If not, then it should not be touched.

  4. English, in any of its many dialects, is in no danger of dying. As has always been true, it is evolving and growing. Perhaps we are not all always happy with the direction of that evolution, but we will no more stop it than generations before us have.

    Older users of the language will, as expected, lament the passing of forms and usage that they struggled to master when they were younger; younger speakers and writers will propel the language to an uncertain future by their indifference or enthusiasm. Neither can predict what it will look or sound like fifty years hence; no one knows what are the harbingers of permanent change and what mere passing fads that will be seen as quaint or crude by a later generation.

    I write with full awareness that I employ and embrace a style of prose that is already on the wane. Too bad. But is this the death of a language? Hardly.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson, author of the newly published novel, Chipset:

  5. I was brought up in the country which Orwell described in his novel. It was a privilege to speak and communicate in intelligent Russian, as media and popular literature and even art practiced Soviet symbols of ideology and propaganda. Speech in good Russian with vocabulary of the Russian classic literature was a prerogative of very few places – science, literary circles and some theatres which were granted a special permission from the authorities to do that.
    To speak literary Russian we used to travelled to Estonia…
    Studying foreign languages and literature – for those who had an access to them – played the role of great educator as opened the window for conceiving and operating by literary categories, images and values and transforming them into the native language.
    One of the visual linguistic masterpieces, which the Soviet dictatorship approved for public, was ‘My Fair Lady’. This movie produced a striking effect and made many people to think over the power of language. Students reiterated Henry Higgins lessons and Lisa Doolittle songs. For us it was an epoch! Since then I have been keeping in heart respect to ‘Her Majesty the English Language’.
    Marina Kalashnikova

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment Marina, it is a pleasure to meet you. Russian is a language (and history) that has long since fascinated me, and it is a place I long to visit. I actually had a very interesting conversation on Linked-In as a result of this post about the Russian language and the way double negatives are not only used but necessary in many cases.

      1. Alex,
        Thank you for your reply. I am glad that my short piece stirred thoughts and even talks. If there is an interest on LinkedIn, I can tell more stories about languages and literature and their affecting people’s lives in Soviet times. Could you imagine society where newspapers had practically a status of ‘secret cities’ with the same discipline, regime and control? Restricted areas! Really, ‘Iron curtain’ was an awful destroying personality thing. Who knows that people got into prison for keeping print or copy machine? We had reduced access to the Russian classic literature books and stayed long queue at night to buy Dostoevskiy. Foreign newspapers were available either in a couple of libraries on special request letter from University, organization or profiled institutions like mine – Institute of the USA and Canada Studies.
        Another cultural phenomena: that ‘closed’ society for some reasons produced much more talented films and theatre plays compared with reformist times. Probably fight for values made people more creative. Also, in general we managed to get better education than Russian people get now. They speak many foreign languages, there are no cultural borders, the whole world is open for them, but what they do is tears or cry – i.e. no one talented film or novel! How could that be?
        Marina Kalashnikova

  6. I too have noticed the new language that is forming via social media. My own brother and my cousins’ children are a constant source of confusion. I can never understand what they say in ‘text speak!’ I admit to shortening words on text messages sometimes, but I am nipping it in the bud. I do not like shortening words for Twitter, so will always edit down to fit the word limit. Great post as always Alex, thanks!

    1. Thank you Catherine, I am glad you enjoyed the post. As I mentioned to Andrew, there is a very split level of meaning between evolution and destruction. I can see and understand both sides, but refuse to see this as evolution. Change should be for the better.

  7. BTW, FYE, (etc.- sorry I couldn’t resist) movies have been getting progressively dumber, too. All the ones with any intelligent writing (esp. in the horror genre) seem to be coming from other countries lately. Eventually, everything will just be told in symbols and acronyms. who needs words when we are a bunch of mindless jellyfish anyway, following whatever the talking head tells us is reality. People don’t use thier brains anymore. I guilty, too!

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Movie scripts these days, especially horror tend to be blander than boiled chicken. Horror seems to survive in great part thanks to breast implants, crash fad diets and gore… often far too much gore. That is a separate irk of mine. What happened to suspense, intelligent dialogue and god forbid… story!

  8. Do you know what gives me hope in all this? The surge in acceptance of ebooks! No, I’m serious. I know that the most popular ones aren’t that well written or thought out or any of those things but…they are making people read again. Good, bad or indifferent, reading is the single most powerful weapon in our fight to keep language, our language, alive and well. Technology takes and away, and then, every so often, it gives. 😀

    1. That is true Meeks, but if the people writing the books adopt this new found approach, even if it is just in their dialogue, then it could all still be adding to what I view as a problem. This post has resulted in rather mixed views across all social media platforms, The split is quite even between evolution and worthless destruction and the result of a lazy, overly speed conscious age.

      1. I’m kind of conflicted as well because, on the one hand language is constantly evolving, while on the other, I’d hate to see it devolve into ‘4 y m8’. 😦

  9. English is evolving; that’s a given that’s not going to disappear. Of course, not all the changes that occur are going to please everyone. For instance, I abhor, for the most part, the trend of shortening words, namely longer words, in spoken English. I believe this trend started before texting came along. On the other hand we have the trend of making up words, such as “concepting,” and stringing together sentences that sound, on the surface, quite impressive. However, when you really analyze them, you come up with total nonsense. We can thank the Internet for spreading these trends. I don’t know whether to call such trends as pandering to ignorance or being creative. Is there a difference?

  10. Yes, English in the U.S. is being destroyed, perhaps by popular culture, but also by an increasingly inept education system. I was at a store a while back when I overheard one woman approach another. They were friends, and one said, ‘It’s been so long since I sawed you.’ ‘Sawed?’ How about ‘seen?’
    I also hate to hear people say things like, ‘Where you living at?’ or, ‘Where’s he at?’
    A few years ago some urban school district decided to use a book of “poetry” by the late Tupac Shakur in an English class as a way to keep the kids interested. This batch of so-called “poetry” actually read like a collection of cell phone text messages. But, that’s what it takes to keep kids interested in English? The rants of a rap star with a criminal record?
    And finally, I often hear ‘you’ pronounced as ‘choo.’ I feel like saying ‘Bless you,’ afterwards and offering advice about Echinacea.

  11. I am in total agreement. The purpose of language is to be understood. Why make the reader guess what you are trying to say. We are not in a war, why do we have to code everything?

    1. Alliance and full understanding between author and reader develops in two ways: decoding the language and decoding the logic. The former is easies – you agree on words meaning or use the words without dubious sense. The latter – logic – cannot be explained. It depends upon how much the two sides coincide in views, perceptions, intuition, education, fantasy, expectations, etc. The biggest problem of modern communication – you may know all the words, read the substance but get no guarantees on the author’s logic and get many surprises on each next step.

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