English language an ever-changing river
“What’s happening to the English language?”
I hear that question often — from readers, friends, relatives, colleagues, even my plumber.
Their queries, of course, reflect different concerns. Some complain about grammatical errors (“Me and him are going to the store”), some about jargon and gobbledygook (“the synergistic parameters empower our core values”), some about cliches (“lots of moving parts”) and still others about errors in usage (“this will exasperate [exacerbate] the situation”).
So should we all just accept the fact that our language is changing?
Surprisingly, yes, because it’s changing for the better.
Many people want the English language to be as predictable as a heated, indoor swimming pool — chemically, thermally and physically controlled to provide a safe, immutable source of comfort and refreshment.
In reality, the English language is a powerful river that’s continuously flowing, carving new channels, acquiring new tributaries. No matter how much you try to divert, dam or dredge the river, it will always have its way. To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “No English speaker steps into the same river twice.”
If enough people, for instance, find it simpler to use “their” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“Everyone should bring their laptop”), this usage will drown out the clumsy “his-or-her” construction deemed standard today.
Consider the plight of “ye.” Until the 1700s, “ye” was the second-person plural personal pronoun. But then English speakers decided it was simply easier to use “you” for both the singular and plural forms. Done.
As for improving, while we all revere and cherish the eloquence of Shakespeare, Keats and Austen, we forget that much of literature before 1900 was belabored, fustian and ornate. Today’s writing is, on the whole, crisper and sharper.
Consider Kate Christensen’s recent account of a childhood camping trip: “The Tetons meant waking up to my parents drinking cowboy coffee from tin camping mugs, shadows of pine boughs on the canvas tent wall, the fresh breeze blowing through the screen mesh window.”
And here is Woody Allen’s recent take on Hollywood during the 1930s: “Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch … kept the nation’s motion picture industry solvent. Many a Beverly Hills swimming pool was dependent on popcorn sold in the Bible Belt.”
If English is envisioned as a swimming pool, it needs more popcorn like this.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254