We are seeing an increasing lack of precision in our language that narrows not just the words we use in speech and writing, but the thoughts we have. Bad grammar and imprecise diction both betokens and breeds stupid thoughts. There isn’t one cause. The semi-related forces of text message and social media language, email shorthand, poop-culture, vapid but ostensibly serious TV pundits, advertising, and the moribund Western Canon all accelerate our language’s decline.
I’d like to look at the relationship between language and thought. Then I will explain how it’s not change per se that bothers me, but the loss and near hatred of proficient English. I’ll end with why this constitutes a serious threat, to say nothing of humiliation, to our species.
In correspondence once with an old professor, I noted how the grammar of his emails met the standard of senior-level essays. He didn’t laboriously edit this email to oh-so-insignificant me. I expect his mind became more lucid after years of high-level literary hair splitting, and the flawless grammar was just the natural by-product of this increased mental clarity. He now thinks in hyphens, full and semi colons, italics. He taught a course that, alas, I didn’t take called Why Orwell Matters, and I’m reminded of Orwell’s famous, must-read essay “Politics and the English Language,” wherein he denounces clichéd speech and writing, and urges desperately for clarity over wordy humbug.
I’m not saying professors or literary types have a monopoly on intelligence. Not at all! “One has to admit that even among intellectuals there are sometimes highly intelligent people.” The quality I’m after isn’t even raw intelligence, but lucidity. There’s a relationship between how you communicate to other people and how you communicate in your own inner-dialogue. Clarity and quality of inner-thought perpetuate each other, combine, and move outside together. But perhaps even the aesthetic qualities of the spoken and thought-in language affects one’s thought and behaviour.
There’s a phenomenon multi-linguists describe where they have somewhat different personalities when using different languages to speak to others or to think to themselves in. Perhaps language, the actual sonic quality of the words, accounts somewhat for the differences in national characters. They say fiery love and passion communicates itself best in the romantic languages of Italian, Spanish and French. But this rounded, mellifluous and sexy language isn’t just pleasant to hear, it apparently impacts the temperament and behaviour of French, Spanish and Italian people. God only knows what the mind harbours when it talks to itself in German! Achtung.
Yet I think thought originates at a pre-language level. We have gut feelings that exist before they’re given new life and meaning in words. Therefore, even when speaking in your native tongue, translation converts the loose intangible ghost form of thought into the hard uncompromising shell of a word. Perhaps this is why sometimes a glance says more than words. This translation—from gut, to mind, to word—is more accurate with more words at one’s disposal, but is always liable to be imprecise. More words are more shades of colour to a landscape painter who imagines in his mind’s eye not just a “blue” sky, but a particular azure. Some find it difficult to express their opinions exactly, even if they’re strongly held. Their explanation usually contains a generalization expressed in cliché, and getting to the root is impossible without the necessary tool, precise language and thought.
Today, proper grammar almost constitutes showboating. Grammatical concern isn’t just for horrible pedants tediously following useless rules because they’re bureaucratically-minded monsters. The intonations we use naturally in speech require grammar to live in print. Grammar distinguishes your voice. If good diction leads to precision, grammar leads to a pulse. Any sentence without a pulse is dead.
Are these radical ideas? I am not a linguistic conservative. I trample conventional English whenever doing so is fun or funny. I have my own private esoteric jokes I make public to everybody’s confusion. But trampling the rules should be a chosen preference, not the inevitable result of communication. It’s believed that high-brow elitists are for cookie-cutter writing based on the rules. Nonsense! It was modernists like Joyce and Nabokov who were supremely experimental, idiosyncratic and good-humoured with their language(s).
I don’t object because English is changing, I object to the disintegration. I am also frightened by the hostility people commonly show when they encounter a new word, as if the usage of something they’re unfamiliarity with (potentially obscure, but not always) is such an insult to their intelligence that it ought to be barred from everyone’s usage, however perfect and precise it is in the sentence. Viva le bon mot!
So language ought to be safeguarded. Yet English is broken and neglected at precisely the time education overtly stresses “critical thinking.” This accounts for the degenerate dumpster language of the internet teachers claim is bleeding, or hemorrhaging, into student essays. The problem is bigger than wayward commas in the classroom: students, pundits, and writers can now talk and write at length without actually expressing a single thought, and people hear and read it without perceiving this lack.
There’s no end to this in sight because advertisers, poop-culture people, other illiterati and politicians desperately want to ingratiate themselves with the youth, so they relentlessly echo this broken English back to the young, creating a sealed world where nobody talks properly yet the talking never ceases. The volume and frequency of the abuse is increasing. In this reverberating world, those who properly lament the broken language are called out of touch elitists and snobs. Many contemporary “educators” think students need more gadgets than books. Group learning replaces serious solo reading. Are we screwed, or does the philistine echo chamber have an escape hatch?
Critical thinking, a term often used but little understood, presupposes the command of at least one language. The disintegration of English isn’t widely considered a big threat, yet it’s taken for granted that democracy requires an informed population. The erosion of English threatens our ability to read well, understand the news, ask good questions, and it enables politicians to avoid and create scandals by simply uttering certain platitudes. Centuries ago, power became less centralized when the masses finally became literate, and it’ll change again when we revert back to illiteracy. I’m not sure how to solve it, but all I know is I’m concerned for the future of this language and what it means for us.