- “Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Any More” James Milroy
40% of brides and bride-grooms couldn’t write their own names – Children are now taught to read and write from a very early age and have basic linguistic abilities that many adults didn’t have in the 19th Century.
Difficult words like supersede and dilapidate – Most people struggle with spellings regardless of how literate they are, so children not being able to spell difficult words that aren’t used in everyday language doesn’t reflect their literacy level
She come to my house – The use of present tense come is grammatically incorrect for this clause, but when spoken it isn’t a big enough mistake to alter the meaning
I threw it out the window – Although the Standard English form of this would include the word of, it is still very obvious what the speaker means
The government think they can do what they like – This is an example of a Standard English clause which prescriptivists still take issue with when used by young people due to discrepancies between whether government is singular or plural
We was… – In the past this was commonly used by the upper-middle class so it was deemed as grammatically correct but now it is unacceptable in writing
2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill
All English speakers used to pronounce the k in ‘knee’ but they don’t anymore
Language changes all the time inc grammar, pronunciation and spellings, language change cannot be halted but languages themselves are self-regulating systems as their speakers want to be understood and be able to understand others.
The gradual changing of the meaning of ‘nice’ over the past 6,000 years in the order ‘not cutting,’ ‘shy,’ ‘modest,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘considerate,’ ‘pleasant,’ and now ‘agreeable.’
Trudgill argues that how can we say language change shouldn’t happen yet people don’t go about arguing that ‘real’ meaning of ‘nice’ is ‘not cutting.’
Emotive words tend to change more rapidly by using some of their force e.g. ‘awful’ used to mean ‘inspiring awe,‘ yet now means ‘very bad.’ Or in expressions like ‘awfully good’ it just means ‘very.’
In both cases the semantic shift has caused all connections with ‘awe’ to be lost, yet no one argues using these words in those ways is wrong because the speech community is used to it.
Misuse of the words ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’ has led to them now being both used in very similar ways. ‘Disinterested’ used to be equivalent to ‘neutral/ impartial’ and ‘uninterested’ was equivalent to ‘bored, feeling no curiosity.’
Because the English prefix dis- is commonly employed to turn positive adjectives into negative ones, it is unsurprising that speakers started following this pattern of using dis- to make a negative for ‘interested.’
Instead of ‘lack of interest’ we now have the possibility of using single-word nouns such as ‘uninterestedness’ or ‘disinterest.’
This possibility is highly useful, giving a wider language choice without causing confusion (linked to last example).
There is a number of pairs of words that dictionaries distinguish between e.g ‘imply’ and ‘infer.’ ‘Imply’ being that someone has suggested something themselves and ‘infer’ meaning that the listener has deduced something from the speakers words.
Not everyone knows these converse terms have different meanings so use them in the same way, yet it is unlikely there will be any actual confusion of meaning. Therefore it cannot be argued by prescriptivists that this could be potentially confusing so shouldn’t be permitted, because even if situational context doesn’t make it clear, grammatical context will.
2. The Meanings of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill
Peter Trudgill is a sociolinguist and well-known authority on dialects.
What is the central contention of the essay?
Trudgill argues that it is perfectly natural and potentially beneficial for the meanings of words to change over time, and that the efforts of those wishing to ‘protect’ their original meanings are both fruitless and unnecessary.
‘All languages change all the time…it is a universal characteristic of human languages.’
‘Language change cannot be halted.’
‘The English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries.’
- It is impossible to stop language change
- Language change is a natural and necessary part its development
‘there do not seem to be any problems of comprehension’
- Mutual intelligibility is not (at all) infringed on when ‘precious’ distinctions are lost
‘The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means’
‘Words do not mean what we as individuals would like them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean.’
- ‘Meanings of words are shared between people’
- The purpose of language is communication
- We all must agree to the same ‘social contract’ of language for effective communication
- That means accepting words whose meanings have changed if everyone else does
‘[Some people – purists] believe that change in language is inherently undesirable’
‘If, in 200 years’ time, all English speakers use disinterested in the new way … the language will perhaps have lost something, but it will also have gained something’
‘Nor should worriers feel obliged to try to halt [language change].’
- Aspects of every language feature can be interpreted as advantages and disadvantages
- Embracing change does not mean the loss of all valuable language features
What examples does the author use to support his argument?
History of ‘nice’
- Meaning has changed from ‘ignorant’, to ‘silly’, to ‘foolish, shy’, to ‘modest’, to ‘delicate’, to ‘considerate’, to ‘pleasant’
‘Uninterested’ vs. ‘disinterested’
- Increasing use of ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’ disliked by purists
- No problem with distinction between two meanings of ‘interested’
- 1) More linguistic potential (single-word corresponding noun) with change
- 2) Useful distinction (to determine level of antipathy) gained with change
Verbs such as German ‘liehen’ (when discussing the distinction between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’)
- Means both ‘to borrow’ and ‘to lend’
- The distinctions which English makes are not essential for good communication
- There is no inherently valuable language feature which ought to be preserved at all costs
3. Some Languages are Just Not Good Enough – Ray Harlow
“Latin was restricted to certain uses within the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the conduct of services and formal communication internationally. Now it is even more restricted and it is really only now used by a few people to read the literature originally written in the language.”
“English is the language of international air traffic, business communication, scientific publication and lingua franca of tourism.”
“English is the first language of some 95 percent if the New Zealand population and the only language of around 90 percent.”
“People who identify as Maori make up around 12 percent of the population.”
“Although the Maori language is seen as very important for national identity only around 30000 speak it fluently.”
“Social changes in New Zealand within the past decades , Maori has seen its uses restricted till in many places it is now only used at formal institutionalized events.”
“In the last twenty years there has been a number of initiatives in politics, education and broadcasting to try and reverse the change.”
“It is possible to notice… Maori is not good enough to be an official language beyond basic education.”
Cicero – Roman orator, politician, philosopher in first century BC
“Composed works in Latin partly to make Greek philosophy available to a Latin speakers , but to show it could be done. This is because some of his Greek contemporaries were skeptical about the possibility of Latin being able to express the ideas and trains of thought of the Greeks.”
“Latin was just not good enough! However, this was the language that went on to be the language of scholarship, science and literature for well over a millennium!”
“At this time languages like French, English and Italian were too unpolished, immature and lacking resources to be able to convey abstract thought and breadth of knowledge usually expressed in ancient languages such as Greek and Latin.”
Switzerland & Romansh
“A language descended from Latin.”
“It is still an everyday language in a number of villages and regions, though German has been making inroads in the area for centuries.”
“Push in recent decades to increase the areas in which Romansh is used.”
“German is able to construct clearly defined single words for technical ideas, Romansh is not. This ignore that French and Italian are in exactly the same boat as Romansh.”
“A language of Alpine agriculture.”
“It is the argument that X is not good enough because you can’t discuss nuclear physics in it.”
Old English and Modern English
“This argument cannot be maintained. Computers were not discussed in Old English ; Modern English is the same language, only later; it should follow that Modern English cannot be used to discuss computers.”
“What has happened to English is that through time English has developed the resources necessary to the discussion of computers.”
“Not all languages have the same vocabulary though. It is true that some languages have developed vocabularies to deal with topics which are just not discussed in other languages. And developed is the crucial word.”
“All languages do this to some extent, though English is perhaps the language which has the highest level of borrowed vocabulary.”
4. Jean Aitchison: “The media are ruining English”?
Jean Aitchison – Professor of Language and Communication in the faculty of English language and literature at the University of Oxford. Main areas of interest include socio-historical linguistics, and language and the media.
Central point – “the media did not initiate [language change]; they were reflecting current usage.” Whilst the media (namely radio, television and news press) have been increasingly held accountable for the “sickening” of the English language, Aitchison puts this to a “delusion”. She stresses that the media simply picks up on new words early on and spreads their usage.
Complaints about the supposed effect of the press on English go back almost 150 years. “Among writers, those who do the most mischief are… the men generally who write for the newspapers” (from Popular errors in language 1880).
The emergence of TV and radio in the late 20th century as the main outlets of media over newspapers gives rise to concerns about the effect on spoken language as well as written.
David Crystal 1982 cited. ‘Top twenty’ complaints about broadcast language. 9 relate to grammar, 6 to pronunciation and 5 to vocabulary.
Example cited from Crystal’s ‘top twenty’ – “you and I” after a preposition versus “you and me” (the ‘correct’ version). The supposedly ‘incorrect’ version used as far back as Shakespeare in ‘the Merchant of Venice’ and, more recently, by Thatcher in the 1980s, demonstrating that it cannot have been caused by the media.
Dirty Fingernails fallacy
The idea that journalists use language sloppily.
‘Tadpole-to-frog’ analogy has been replaced by William Labov’s ‘young cuckoo’ analogy. ‘Young cuckoo’ takeovers (new words replacing older ones with the same meaning). Begin slowly then have a sudden upsurge, often nurtured by the media.
Example – “wimp”, long used to mean “feeble male” in California becomes quickly widespread, gradually ousting other terms such as “nebbish” and “nerd”.
Example – mini- prefix. Vogue magazine first noted the “mini-skirt” in 1965, assisting the explosion of the prefix which came in the 1960s.
“The media are therefore linguistic mirrors: they reflect current language usage and extend it.”
Coexistence of different pronunciations for the same word (e.g. CONtroversy and conTROVersy) worries some prescriptivists, although meaning is not obscured and the use of each variation is well-balanced (44% and 56%, respectively).
Garbage Heap fallacy
“False belief that ‘journalism is junk language’”
Aitchison asserts that “writing for the press is a demanding skill.” Newspapers need to be written in a way which “attracts attention and sustains it”. Journalists therefore have a need to avoid perhaps outdated or overly-florid language to remain concise and to-the-point.
This ‘hard news formula’ must remain clear and informative. Aitchison cites George Orwell, who points out the importance of keeping one’s meaning clear:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Avoid foreign or technical words.
- Break any of these to avoid saying anything outlandish.
4. Jean Aitcheson – The Media is Ruining Language
Findings: Media is not ruining language, it is based upon prescriptivists attitudes on language change. It is merely the media picked up on new words/ forms and spreads such usage.
Dirty Fingernail Fallacy:
This is where journalists are ‘sloppy’ and do not pay attention to the details of language; they don’t bother to scrub their linguistic fingernails clean. Yet this isn’t true, the fallacy is because of the ignorance of language change. Such change only becoming clear over 30 years ago.
In the 1950s change occurred when speakers drifted away from the true meaning of a word, therefore, one word turned into another over time- reflecting a tadpole transforming into a frog.
This view replaced the fallacy, pioneering from sociolinguistic William Labov that competition rather than metamorphosis is the root of language change. This was demonstrated and so that newer forms expand and gradually outburst the others and this is like a young cuckoo pushing a previous occupant out of the nest. This is usually a slow beginning and the a sudden upsurge.
Is the ‘false’ belief that ‘journalism is junk writing’ although writing for the press/ newsagents is a demanding skill needed. This is due to the text attracting attention and sustains such attention from the viewers. Six guidelines that journalists are taught to follow are:
1. If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out
2. Never use a long word where a short will do
3. Never use passive if you can use an active
4. Avoid foreign and technical words
5. Never use a metaphor you’ve seen in print
6. Break these rules to avoid something outlandish