Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A gripefest about language use

People have always complained about others’ use of the English language, and have looked back to previous generations as golden ages of English while bemoaning the language of the youth of today. Julie Blake covered the history and background to such complaints about language change in her Bilious Pigeon lecture at the last SFX Language Conference, and it’s now an article in the February emag (in the LRC).

A recent discussion in class about the conversion of the noun text to the verb to text and younger people’s use of the past tense form “I text you yesterday” rather than what I thought was the “right” past tense form “I texted you yesterday”, is maybe a case in point. To me, as a 30-something English teacher, it seems normal to say “text” in the present tense and then add the –ed inflection in the past tense. But for (I think) everyone in the two A2 classes that was strange, abnormal, weird, just…extra. Even Gbemi’s dad thinks it’s weird and he’s probably older than me. So, who’s right? Well, we all are to some extent, but if the usage of text as a past tense continues to spread, then you’ll be standard in your use and I’ll be just a bit old-fashioned and non-standard in mine. Then I'll start to moan about the youth of today having no respect.

Likewise, the trend towards missing out prepositions like “to” in utterances like “I’m going Peckham”, or “You going library” seems to growing beyond casual, colloquial use into more formal settings. Maybe that too will spread to become the standard form among a whole generation. There’s probably someone researching it now.

But in wider society (i.e. away from SFX and Sarf LDN) many, many people have their own linguistic bugbears, and two websites have called for their readers to add their own.The response has been huge. According to
The Language Log blog, “at the New York Times, Dick Cavett's inaugural blog post "It's only language" now has 761 comments. And across the Atlantic, on the Telegraph's web site, readers have devoted more than 1,270 comments”

Old favourites like like being “over-used” in speech (“And I was like “yeah?” and she was like “whatever”) and doubling-up of prepositions (“He’s Damon out of Blur” or “She’s inside of the house”) all appear, but there are many others too, like complaints about the verb to rob being used to describe thefts from houses as well as people. “The house was robbed” is seen as wrong by some of the contributors; they argue it should be “The house was burgled” as only people can be robbed. Have a look for yourselves.

But, as The Language Log points out, lots of these so-called wrong usages have actually been around for hundreds of years and the more recent ones are just matters of personal taste. Like so many prescriptive attitudes to language change, there are deeper social factors at work, and these are not just complaints about language but about a changing society.

Underneath it all, lies something a bit more psychological too: the need for people to get together into communities – either real or virtual – and hold gripefests about language. As
this article discusses, the unease that the gripers feel about abuses of their language, is probably more to do with social and psychological issues than it is to do with language itself. And the article goes on to ask where this will lead us.

The recent Lynne Truss and John Humphrys phenomenon - and David Crystal’s excellent response to both of them
here and in his book The Fight For English - show us that many people feel insecure about “correct” usage and how they will be judged by others if they speak incorrectly, while others are quick to correct us on our errors. But, equally, there are many people who go around blissfully unaware that they are being judged, looked down upon and condescended towards, by “correct” speakers. What the study of language at GCSE, A Level and beyond should be able to do is make all speakers of language aware that one person’s “incorrect” usage is another’s code-switching, and that so long as we all have some grasp of Standard English, we shouldn’t write off others’ language as inferior.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Attitudes to Language Change

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