English as she is spoke
COLIN D. ROBERTSON says sloppy speaking means sloppy thinking
When I took up computer programming, I realised how important it is for the language to be as simple and clear as possible. Any syntactical rule that doesn’t yield a definite benefit is annoying. As technology has progressed, using it has become ever simpler; in the 70s you needed to think like a machine in order to control one, but nowadays virtually everyone can do it because computers have been made ‘user-friendly’. While this means that a vastly greater number of people can ‘take part’, it also makes redundant the skill and study that used to be required. This means that a bad programmer will not even realise that he is inferior to an excellent programmer, since the latter’s skills are no longer necessary or championed.
A similar thing is happening with language, at least in the Anglosphere, and certainly within Britain, and especially within Scotland. Complications that used to denote advanced mastery of English – like might/may – are now virtually forgotten. In fact, complications that denote basic mastery of English – fewer/less and simpler/more simply – are increasingly forgotten, and the pedant who bemoans this cast as a Luddite, elitist, arrogant, and so forth.
When simplifying a programming language, the goal is to make it clearer and easier to use. Indeed there are things about English that I think should be simplified – receive and believe, etc. – because they are pointless and only confuse people. But that is something which would be done, if at all, by conscious orchestration.
The simplification of English that we see in real life is not increasing clarity, and it is certainly not enriching or deepening the scope of the language. This is because it is wholly unconscious and un-orchestrated. For the most part it is a result of laziness. People are speaking in degraded forms of English because they can’t be bothered to learn the rules. Those who have learned the rules often can’t be bothered to remember them.
Obviously there is an exacerbating factor. While people are getting lazier, those who used to curb it – teachers, employers, parents, etc. – are now choosing not to, or are not allowed to, or are not able to, since their own education was sub-standard. We’ll come back to that later. The next section comprises predictions as to how the degradation of English will progress.
The first prediction is obvious because it is nearly complete: the extinction of the word whom. The rules for when to use who and whom are quite fiddly, and the words are so similar that it is little wonder one of them is being absorbed into the other. This is a shame because whom is a useful word. You couldn’t really say: “For who is the film intended?”
Certain words will be given easier pronunciations. For example, bottle will become bottuww, as we’re seeing among television journalists and, for myself, in the people of daily life. As part of this, usage of the glottal stop will increase, as it has been for years. Eventually the spellings will be updated to reflect how the words are pronounced.
Syllable-merging will be a general thing. One example of it we’re already seeing is suppose becoming spose. A more ornate example is the replacing of there’re with there’s, because it’s easier to say. The unabbreviated versions are being duly merged, so that we see statements like there is three cars. The same is happening with the past tense - there was five people.
Consonants will be universally swapped for ones that are easier to pronounce. The hard TH (as in that) is being replaced with D, so that you hear dis and dat, especially in London since it fits very well with the “Jafaican accent”. In Scotland, young people are increasingly saying F instead of the soft TH, so that you get free wise men and frough fick and fin.
In terms of punctuation, life will be extremely simple: there won’t be any, except for the comma. Already, the comma is seen as an all-purpose solution and has replaced the colon, semi-colon and dash, and is quickly replacing the full stop.
The disappearance of the full stop is very revealing psychologically. A full stop splits text up into several sentences, and thus is the beginning of bestowing structure upon the text – organising one’s ideas so that they are clear and digestible. This process demands consideration, planning and revision. It demands, in other words, that the writer considers everyone else, not just himself. People can’t be bothered doing that, so they forego structure altogether: no full stops, no sentences, no structure. They just use commas to separate ideas. The result is one long sentence, a shallow splurge, a stream of consciousness that has simply been written as each idea occurred to the writer:
We went to the shops, it was pretty boring, Jim got some shoe’s but i cudn’t be bothered, we had an argument the day before and he was still acting funny, we had lunch and he was saying stupid thing’s just to wind me up, i shud of went home, i guess i was hopping we could work it out…
I’ve packed a few other things into that example….
Spelling is being simplified. The correct spelling of could is not consistent with good etc. so it’s being simplified to cud, and presumably good will eventually become gud. Unnecessarily complex spellings (love) and irregular spellings (penguin and location) will surely be nixed by a populace requiring as few rules, and exceptions to them, as possible. So we can expect luv, pengwin and lokaeshin. How people will then know that luv is pronounced differently from gud is anyone’s guess – presumably, it simply won’t be pronounced differently: we will lose a vowel.
Words that have multiple spellings will be merged, with the shortest spelling winning out. Again, we’re seeing this with you’re becoming your and too becoming to.
Past and past-perfect verbs are being merged. For example, went instead of gone, done instead of did, seen instead of saw, wrote instead of written. Among Scottish people under the age of 30, I almost never hear the correct word used. This is true even of 20 year-olds fresh out of top Edinburgh private schools. Some time ago I spoke to one such young man, the son of an accountant. He described a Rolling Stones concert:
I seen them last year. They done Ruby Tuesday, they done She’s So Cold, they done Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they done all my favourites, they done Angie… It was awesome, man
Though this young man is intelligent and very enthusiastic, were I an employer I would find it difficult to take him on because of the appearance he would give to the company, and how his diction would undoubtedly affect that of other employees.
Another feature of the speech of young Scottish people is the word yous, a plural of you. (“Are yous following this?”) Just ten years ago this trait was confined to the working-class. Now it is virtually ubiquitous among people under 40. Returning to the Anglosphere in general…
Unusual plurals, like stadia, cacti and wolves, are simply being forgotten.
Have is being replaced by of. We see I would of and she could of. I think this is happening because in that context we will, in our less uptight moments, pronounce have without the H sound – now the spelling is being altered to suit. As a bonus, of is a shorter word than have and doesn’t have the confusing E at the end of it.
Any words that end with an S are increasingly being written with an apostrophe. At first this was done with plurals (many school’s, three play’s, etc.) where at least there was a historical explanation: we had been incorrectly writing CDs as CD’s and the 1940s as the 1940′s for many years. But it is now being done with non-plurals: it become’s green, she learn’s faster etc. There is no rhyme or reason to when people do this. I think it may become ubiquitous because people don’t want to have to think “should I use an apostrophe here?”. It’s simpler just to do it every time. But eventually, since it will have come to denote nothing, people will wonder what the point of it is and will completely stop using it.
Whatever happens in the future, the current use of the apostrophe reflects widespread uncertainty. One can see this in all sorts of things, such as the haphazard use of capital letters (“We went into Town 2day”). Many simply don’t know the rules anymore; everyone is guessing.
It is quite interesting to see people doing something correctly and incorrectly within the same sentence, meaning that, when they get it right, it is just by accident. For example, people cover their bases by using multiple spellings of a word, thinking that one of them will be right. Here is a genuine example from Facebook:
To you, there animals. To me, their family.
The person must have known they were using the same word twice. It’s just bad luck that neither of the spellings they tried was correct. Tragically, we can see that the person is perfectly capable of handling different spellings but has either been let down by illiterate teachers, or picked up bad habits from friends, or both. It’s becoming a free-for-all. Who’s to say in 20 years’ time that something is incorrect when everyone is doing it?
It is worth speculating what effects the degradation of English will have. The most obvious effect is that people’s thinking will become shallower. This happens on two levels.
The first can be illustrated with a story. There was a forum I used to frequent. In 2003 it had a rule that people should endeavour to use correct English. Posts tended to be thoughtful and well-considered; inevitable if you are reading over your work for spelling, punctuation, etc. In 2008 the forum changed ownership and the new owner scrapped the rule about correct English, and moreover implemented a new rule: people were not allowed to comment on other people’s literacy. I returned to the forum two years later and was shocked at the decline in not only spelling and grammar, but quality of debate. People no longer seemed to put care into what they wrote, so their posts had become trivial and ignorant. I believe this was a direct result of the change in the forum’s literacy policy.
But if bad literacy makes for bad writing, bad writing makes for bad thinking. This is the second, and more insidious, way in which degraded English will degrade people.
While I don’t agree with Orwell that all thought is verbal, I do believe that available language extends the range and depth of thought. Without language to fix and sharpen ideas, ideas will remain unfixed and blunt. Without a language capable of expressing complex ideas, only simple ones will be expressed and, eventually, formed in the first place.
Degraded English condemns the speaker (and thinker) to a kind of cultural purgatory from which they can never escape. Take the case of Emma West, the tram-bound, toddler-toting racist of dubious education. Her inarticulacy meant that she made her complaints about mass immigration in the most clumsy, simplistic, repetitious and unenlightening way. She had not the language to do otherwise. Her remarks were basic because her thought was basic because her literacy was basic. As such, she has been easily written off as a ruffian whose views on multicultural Britain must be the product of ignorance. This ‘writing off’ has been unspoken, for nobody wants to appear snobbish, but we all know what will have been said about Emma West in the bars around Westminster, Islington and BBC Television Centre. To put it in perspective: Emma West’s inarticulacy was so damaging that it neutered an issue which is of intense concern to 95% of her countrymen; because of the inarticulacy, the issue went unaddressed. Dictators dream of having that kind of control over public discourse.
But degraded English has worse effects still. It makes people aliens to themselves and to each other by making analysis and evocation impossible. Let us review the fictitious account of a shopping trip by a couple in a turbulent relationship:
We went to the shops, it was pretty boring, Jim got some shoe’s but i cudn’t be bothered, we had an argument the day before and he was still acting funny, we had lunch and he was saying stupid thing’s just to wind me up, i shud of went home, i guess i was hopping we could work it out…
Few would say this is a sophisticated analysis, or even an analysis. We can tell the girl is annoyed with her boyfriend but nothing more. Her language cannot sustain nuance or hidden meanings so her account is entirely factual. As such, it is useless for anyone trying to understand the girl or her relationship. Both the narrator and the subject disappear amidst the fuzz of a low-quality transmission. Nothing, in the end, is achieved, for the girl writes only what she already knows: the facts. No self-study or other-study is even possible. We end where we started, except that our memory has been blunted by being consigned to paper with a blunt instrument. Any missed nuances will be forgotten as the badly-written account becomes ‘the truth’.
There are also geographical implications of the degradation of English. In the absence of an ‘official’ language (standard English), I think we may see English diverging into local dialects. Of course these have always existed but, for centuries, anyone who went to school has had standard English as a common language that they can use to communicate with people from anywhere else. I suspect that standard English will survive, in a slightly simplified form, for centuries, much as Latin survived for centuries after it was a ‘dead’ language, but like Latin it will be a tool of the intelligentsia. People ‘on the ground’ will be speaking wildly different versions of English. We’ll have Glaswegian English, Edinburgh English, Manchester English, Newcastle English and, dare I say it, Asian English and Brixton English. The more that the official version becomes irrelevant, the more people will leave it for a dialect which allows easy communication within one’s neighbourhood (and, in so doing, bestows identity).
Now, you may say that the Internet will counter this, being a platform where one can communicate with people in any other country. It is reasonable to assume that people will want to retain that capability, and therefore will retain a grasp of standard English. But I dispute this. People only talk online to people they want to talk to; one’s Facebook friends list largely reflects one’s real life social milieu. I see friends of mine on Facebook writing in broad Scots – how many English people or Australians or Americans can understand what they write? Here is a genuine sample:
Hes no an addict. He went 3 weeks wioot it in the hoose
The websites one visits reflect the range of one’s curiosity, regardless of the vast number of websites available. In the same way, there is no reason to assume that, just because everyone is available on the Internet, your average badly-educated Briton will want to converse with them. On the contrary, I think that, just as they stick to X-Factor and Daily Sport websites, they’ll stick to the social milieu of their real-world life, and this insularity will intensify as their language gets ever more ‘local’. This would be a case of the Internet reinforcing real-life boundaries – something I have never seen discussed, yet which seems very possible to me.
Of course, given the low cultural tastes now abounding, this may not be such a problem; you don’t actually need verbal language in order to partake of the trivial nonsense that now constitutes much of Internet ‘culture’. People can share this Monday’s web fad without using any words at all. When it comes to expressing their opinion of it, they can simply use a smiley face, 0-5 asterisks, or the Like button.
It may transpire, in fact, that the degradation of verbal language is just a step on the path towards wholly symbolic/visual communication, a universal dialect of thumb-ups and thumb-downs expressing the considered critique of trifles by humanity from all corners of the Earth.
It is easy to overstate the importance of grammar, spelling and punctuation. At least, it is easy for someone to accuse you of doing so. Pedantry is always annoying. Ultimately, if we look at people as functioning organisms, all that is important is that they understand each other’s signals. When someone emails me saying “I could of ate five apple’s buy now”, I know that they mean “I could have eaten five apples by now”. That’s what they wanted to get across, and they’ve managed it. Yet, I am more than a functioning organism, and I can’t help but feel insulted when someone communicates with me in bad English. It also seems ridiculous that, in Britain, we look upon the transmitting of extremely simple ideas as a challenge so big that just to manage it is an achievement. But that is the situation.
To me, using bad English suggests several things about the person, any of which could be true:
- they are unintelligent
- they have low linguistic ability
- they simply can’t be bothered to speak/write properly
- they were badly educated and are not embarrassed about it
- they were perfectly well-educated, but have since succumbed to some kind of nihilism
- they consider themselves so interesting, and their thoughts so inherently beguiling, that they see no need to ‘dress them up’ for other people’s convenience. Indeed, to do so could even be perceived as a lack of self-confidence since one would be humbly considering other people.
Of these possibilities, I would never hold it against somebody that they were badly educated, but I would hope they’d be embarrassed about it. I wouldn’t want them to feel inferior, but I’d want them to quietly be aware that education was a good in itself and people who had it were very lucky. This is where culture is vital. Only an elitist culture which believes in good and bad and its own right to make such pronouncements will consider education a good in itself. What we’ve had since Anthony Crosland in the 1960s is an anti-elitist culture which disparages ‘the finer things’ and sees education as a mere means to an end. That end was initially ‘make kids employable’ but soon morphed into ‘use kids as putty for social engineering’. Neither of these mindsets values cultivation, and language is the core of cultivation. As such, it was inevitably going to suffer
But the education establishment is probably not the ‘root cause’ of the decline. I think they accelerated it, and one should not underestimate their power (or desire) to do so, but ultimately I think they were just opportunists, seizing the chance to indulge a beloved utopian idea fifty years after it had been discredited by events.
What really caused the decline, and what is really being represented whenever a British person uses bad grammar, is a catastrophic collapse in self-confidence by Western civilisation.
For whatever reason, we have lost faith in a particular idea of what our culture represents. The manufacturing/design mentality is thriving in our technology sector where we are making ingenious tools that do wonderful things. I think it would be a mistake to overlook that because it shows that we still believe in progress. But it is a generic kind of progress, which could easily be taken up by another culture (say, China) that totally lacks the history and character of the West. That history and character is what we no longer believe in, and no longer teach to children.
Since we no longer believe in it, nobody wants to appear to be it. Here, cultural Marxism attacks twice at once. It’s against Western culture, but it’s also against hierarchy. Thus, its perfect target is the individual at the top of Western culture and primed in its traditions: the educated gentleman.
To be ‘educated’ indicates faith in one’s culture. You have been nurtured and cultivated to represent the higher ideals that your culture stands for, to possess the more expensive skills it can afford, to be, in short, the best your culture can achieve within the arena of a single human being. Therefore, if people want to appear anti-establishment, the best way is to appear uneducated. And the best way to appear uneducated is to appear ineloquent.
Watching our language degrade, we see a faithful rendering of our civilisation’s fall. That we tolerate, actually endorse by inaction, the degradation of our language means that we would endorse the degradation of our culture, perhaps even to its extinction.
When liberals claim that they welcome other cultures to Britain, what they are really saying is that they welcome the dilution of British culture. When they sanctify ‘alternative’ forms of English, they are really hoping for the destruction of standard English. When educationalists say that children are as wise as adults and their ideas just as valuable, they are really saying that they have no faith in the culture those adults should be imparting, and are secretly pleading for someone – anyone, even a child – to relieve them of the burden of tradition.
We are in some kind of cultural death spiral, and our intelligentsia is, perhaps unknowingly, equipped only to lock us into that spiral ever more tightly. By this I mean that each generation of academics train the next to be even more liberal than they were. The only thing they really believe is that they, and their forebears, are not worthy. With such a belief, the only logical path is liberalisation; the gradual and systematic dismantling of our civilisation; the vain hope that, with enough change, we will no longer feel the heavy breath of our ancestors on the backs of our necks.
The low, the high and the rule
With the government suddenly aware of the decline in English that must have started about fifty years ago, the designers of the forthcoming new National Curriculum are considering making grammar lessons compulsory. Now, for all I know, it may work. We should not mindlessly scoff at the idea. But I am not optimistic about it.
Who is going to teach grammar? Even if special teachers are trained up, their lessons will be undone by all the other teachers to whom the children are exposed.
A perfect example of this is given by an acquaintance of mine, now in her sixties and very much operating against the tide of educational orthodoxy. She teaches seven year-olds at a local school. Throughout the year, she drums it into her class that there is no such word as “yous”. This has to be repeated often because they hear the word all the time. By the end of the school year her pupils generally speak good, proper English. But when she meets children she taught the year before, their English has sunk back to degraded levels. Why? Because they are now taught by younger teachers who speak badly. (“How are yous doing with that poster?” etc.) The headmaster does nothing about this because that would be snobbery. This makes my friend’s efforts to teach the children proper English completely futile.
She also teaches them that “thir’y” and “for’y” and “finking” are not words, and that they should say “please” and “thank you”. These lessons, too, are immediately undone the next year by young teachers who see no need for good diction or politeness in children who are, after all, only expressing themselves. I am glad my friend is about to retire, but it saddens me to imagine the young teacher who will inevitably replace her.
In Scotland, the teacher training colleges have made a big thing in the last ten years of taking on working-class students. This would be commendable, but only if these students were being trained to become culturally, and linguistically, middle-class. On the contrary, political correctness dictates that the colleges must not correct their grammar. Furthermore, political correctness (and general anti-elitism) means that middle-class students adopt the diction of their working-class colleagues so as not to appear snobbish. As a result, many new teachers now emerge from training inarticulate and uncouth, before beginning the career in which he or she will teach hundreds or even thousands of children.
Already, we have teachers and even heads of department who admit to their retirement-age colleagues that they can’t give lessons in punctuation or grammar because they don’t know the rules themselves. This is happening at both primary and secondary level. At a primary school in my town, a recent wall display had this heading: “P4 have wrote these stories.”
It would have been bad enough if the children had typed that up and not been corrected by their teacher. It would have been even worse if the teacher herself had done it. But, through the grapevine, I know that it was typed up by the deputy headteacher of the school. What chance does a literate teacher at that school have of insisting that her colleagues use correct grammar so as not to undermine her lessons, when their mutual superior is herself illiterate? Illiteracy has jumped from the uneducated to the educator, and now filters down to all those whom she educates.
A well-spoken child attending that school began using incorrect grammar – “I done it”, “we seen it before yous did”, etc. When his mother admonished him, he said that it must be correct because it is how his teacher spoke. While this boy is the only case I know of personally, I think it is bound to be very commonplace. In fact I expect that every middle-class parent now has to contend with this; it is guaranteed that every child will have at least one badly-spoken teacher, and, when that happens, he will emulate their lazy diction, and then any subsequent teachers will be afraid to correct his English for fear of being snobbish.
Defenders of political correctness say that this really doesn’t matter very much. In an online argument, one person told me that every teacher should use a variety of dialects, rather like a human jukebox, in order to “include” all of her “students” and acknowledge local “culture”. I find that idea utterly ludicrous. First, it advocates deliberately teaching incorrect grammar to children. Second, it would create a situation where an adult frequently switched into different linguistic “modes” which would be surreal and very confusing for the children. And third, it ignores the blatant feature of human life that bad habits breed other bad habits.
Last year, the younger teachers at a local school (those aged between 22 and 40) decided to celebrate the end of the school year. Whether teachers devoted to their profession would “celebrate” the end of the school year is open to question – but the nature of their celebration is very telling: a pub crawl around the small town in which they teach, their drunken shenanigans visible to everyone who entrusts their infant children to them. When I mentioned this to a friend who had recently started teaching, he said there was nothing wrong with it whatsoever. He said, “it’ll be at night. The kids won’t see them” – totally ignoring that pub crawling does not befit pillars of the community, which teachers used to be. After all, they were the representatives of civilisation, educating the children of all social classes to be competent in the First World. But try telling that to one of the teachers on that pub crawl, who, on the matter of school inspections, remarked: “yiv go’ae woatch yer grrrammur”.
On the one hand, such a decline as this is inevitable when you pour a working-class cohort into a previously middle-class profession and do not insist that they “up their game”. But it also rests on the middle-class cohort. This is a general phenomenon, not confined to the education sector, if especially egregious within it. Simply: the middle classes have given up their authority.
An experienced teacher once told me that children from ‘rough’ families are often, at five years old, pleasant and amiable and willing to please, but that by the age of eight, most of them have become rough: unpleasant, impolite, unfriendly, uncooperative, deceitful and aggressive. This is a survival tactic; the child realises that being ‘nice’ is dangerous when there are ruffians about and the prevailing culture doesn’t keep them at bay. No matter the ratio, civilised people need law to protect them from ruffians, otherwise those ruffians will dominate proceedings. I see that as an exact parallel of the situation with literacy. If 75% of people are well-spoken and 25% are badly-spoken, eventually the well-spoken ones will degrade their diction so as to ‘synchronise’ with the minority, unless the prevailing culture makes the opposite happen. That is what’s happening on a national scale across the whole of Scottish society, and it is happening because the prevailing rule of cultural law, so to speak, no longer defends the civilised, or even recognises them as being more civilised. The result? The rough naturally takes control, for power is all it knows.
Let us imagine the very likely scenario that, within twenty years, all teachers in Scotland will speak and write bad English. The effect this will have on us as a nation can hardly be over-stated. Our literacy (already dismal) will degrade rapidly and dramatically. Our culture (already unimpressive) will plummet to suit the language that is available to express it. Soon, broad Scots, or some web-savvy 21st century variant, will be the language of Scotland. There will be no-one, absolutely no-one, speaking proper English. We are already well on the way to that; indeed, I know nobody else of my generation who speaks proper English by nature, and those just ten years younger are very noticeably worse. The same processes are at work in England. Although thirty year-olds can speak properly when forced to, twenty year-olds cannot. The decline has been astonishingly fast – and this while the teachers are well-spoken. God only knows what it is going to be like when today’s infants, taught by illiterates, are fully grown.
We will be like creatures from a sci-fi dystopia: surrounded by the decaying remnants of a great civilisation, bewildered by its majesty. Correct grammar, diction and spelling is not mere pedantry, nor one-upmanship. There is a much, much bigger game being played, and lost – and it is nothing less than civilisation versus barbarism.
COLIN D. ROBERTSON describes himself as an art school graduate, web programmer, aspiring author and recovering liberal