Language wars

Ilona has an ongoing, good-natured conflict with a friend, Bob. Bob thinks the best English is English as it was spoken in the past. This messy business of language evolving with the passing generations doesn’t sit well with him.

Ilona is not above a little mockery:

So when in time would you draw the line and say “Ha! The language was PERFECT then, and that’s how we should speak it henceforth forevermore”? Mid-thirteeth century? Elizabethan (that would be Shakespeare’s era)? 18th-century? When was the language entirely perfect, and everything since then has been downhill?

Language is a great example of tradition and transformation in action. Re tradition:  think about etymology for a moment. For example, here’s Webster’s etymology of the word “gist”:

ME giste < OFr, abode, point at issue < from gesir, to lie < L jacere, to lie; sense infl. by Anglo-Fr legal phrase l’action gist, lit., the action lies.

This is a word with a long tradition behind it:  derived from a Middle English word, which was derived from the Old French, which was derived from the Latin, under the influence of an Anglo-French legal phrase. Word usage is traditional.

Re transformation:  language does evolve as the decades succeed one another. And in the past century, as technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human society, language has changed rapidly to keep pace.

As language changes, there is a risk that we will cease to understand one another. Consider this classic scene from Airplane!:  the flight attendant doesn’t speak jive, but Beaver Cleaver’s mother offers to interpret.


The adaptability of English is one of its strengths. Even so, Bob is hardly alone in his perception that the language is degenerating all around him. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post, explains how Tim Horton’s (a donut shop which is iconic in Canada) lost its apostrophe:

Early on, his coffee shops used an apostrophe in their name; dedicated punctuation fans claim that even now, in Hamilton, you can find original Horton’s with the apostrophe still proudly in place. These deserve designation as national heritage sites, remnants of a finer, more thoughtful and better punctuated Canada.

Like many traditions, the Horton apostrophe was a victim (so goes the accepted story) of Quebec nationalism. When Quebec decided that commercial signs should eliminate their possessive apostrophes, in the French manner, most companies hurried to comply.

[…] For the sake of efficiency and consistency [Tim Horton’s] decided to have all their outlets carry precisely the same logo, the one required in Quebec. Sea to sea, most Tim outlets meekly surrendered their apostrophes. The tragic result is that young English-speaking Canadians eat their Timbits and sip their double-double beneath signage that defies ancient tradition.

It was Fulford’s use of the word “tradition” that inspired this post.

I agree with Fulford:  careful attention to punctuation, including the use of apostrophes, is falling into disuse. As Fulford writes,

This is a defeat for clear expression. The purpose of punctuation is to clarify the written word. Without it, we are less able to understand each other.

Similarly, I can be a stickler for the precise use of words.

Still — on the whole, I agree with Ilona. English would be impoverished if we were to confine ourselves to words from the 16th century. Consider words like introvert and extrovert:  they enable us to think about ourselves in ways that otherwise, we could not. Or a word like black hole:  not only does it describe a fascinating phenomenon of the physical word, it has also developed a metaphorical usage. For example, depression as a psychic black hole.

Language evolves. That’s a good thing:  ye language curmudgeons of the world, deal with it!

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Stones Cry Out - If they keep silent… » Things Heard: e87v3

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