Language in Decline

Posted: March 28, 2011 in Grammar, Literacy, Nomenclature, Writing

A never-ending debate rages between two camps: language mavens who are dedicated to preserving standards and language modifiers who embrace change of any sort. The characterization of one group by the other is less charitable. Mavens are called school marms, Nazis, and keepers of pointless detail. Modifiers are called philistines and ignoramuses. Can you guess which camp I’m in?

Undoubtedly, language is fluid and undergoes change as particular usages dominate or decay with time. Further, some details matter more (or less) than others. A raging debate was sparked by a recent change to the Associate Press style sheet. Many publishing organs compile style sheets to bring consistency out of chaos with respect to how certain terms are used. For example, which is correct, Web-site or website (or some further variation)? The current debate is over e-mail vs. email. Although this is not a detail worth arguing at length, it is probably worth deciding for the sake of consistency. Whereas I prefer e-mail, the Associated Press decided to change to email. Neither determination is borne out of ignorance as to how compound words are formed, but loud, vehement cries of “Who cares?” no doubt are. Those are the ignoramuses who can’t believe such detail warrants the slightest bit of attention. The keepers charge that if we don’t care about this, then why care about spelling or punctuation at all?

Even more unsettling, perhaps, is the decision of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the self-proclaimed definitive record of the English language, to include initialisms, namely, LOL, FYI, and OMG. (I was a little surprised by the word initialism, but it apparently has a long period of use.) If the OED is trying to be all inclusive, then sure, throw everything in. But if it’s trying to be definitive, admitting new words to the lexicon needs to be quite conservative. No doubt its editorial board has conditions for inclusion that lie beyond my scrutiny.

Changes in usage do not necessitate decline, but the preponderance of changes now occurring stems not from any need to express ideas better but from liberalization of expression. Shortcuts taken to accommodate texting efficiency or to meet Twitter character limits do not enhance language, though their ubiquity cannot be challenged. And as we transition from a reading public to a viewing public (as I’ve argued here, among other places), the loss of ability to decode subtle usage and indeed think sophisticated thoughts is guaranteed when our lexicon is littered with thoughtless though hip and efficient nonwords.

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