The Decline and Fall of the English Language

I was going to blog last month about how a BBC2 documentary found that 80% of Britons cannot recite a single verse of poetry. This is not helped by the fact 58% pupils never study poetry in school. Not a line. The ones who do read Carol Ann Duffy, the Scottish lesbian who was just named the new Poet Laureate. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with Miss Duffy’s poetry, but reading a single living poet does not constitute a sufficient literary education.

Like I said, I was going to blog about it, but I’d just be whinging once again about the state of education in this country. Then yesterday I was having a conversation with a couple of 14-year-olds. It start with me telling off one of them for using a participle that is an inappropriate term derived from an innocuous noun. He had no idea what a participle is. Okay, that’s not a big surprise. I probably didn’t learn about participles until at least the 9th grade, maybe even the 10th.

The disturbing thing is that neither he nor his friend knew what a noun is. This is something I learned well before the 5th grade, because by then we were parsing sentences. Now with the average 14-year-old, I have trouble getting them to write in sentences. I had a 16-year-old who handed in an entire 1500-word coursework without using a single mark of punctuation. I’m not exaggerating. But back to the boys in Year 9. . .

They had heard the term “noun” before. They just couldn’t agree on what it was. One of them thought it was a “doing” word. The other thought it was a “describing” word. He contended it couldn’t be a “doing” word, because that was an adverb.  These were not pupils in the bottom English set. They were not pupils with special educational needs. Because I was teaching a mixed-ability group, there was a top-set girl who actually knew that a noun was a “naming” word.

No poetry, no grammar. Is it the end of the English language or the end of civilisation?

One thinks of Eliot. . .

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends

No, wait. That would be trite  to anyone who has seen this over-used reference to Eliot.  And on the other hand, clearly it would be lost upon anyone with a secondary education in Britain in the last decade. I believe the general response would be, “T. S. who?”

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Necessary Intention

Following on my previous post, I have had further thoughts on the use of language.

Without intention, language has no meaning.

In my teaching I often refer to the Shahadah – the statement of faith that is the first pillar of Islam. Saying it publicly is a requirement for becoming a Muslim. I say it publicly all the time, but that does not make me a Muslim, because I have no intention of becoming a Muslim.

I can read the Liturgy aloud and this does not transform any bread and wine present, even if it is on the Holy Table, into the Most Precious Body and Most Precious Blood. Even if I was a priest, this would still be the case. Nothing would happen. There is no intent.

Likewise, I can use unacceptable language and if I do not have an unacceptable intention, it is not evil. I do not punish my children if they say a swear word that they did not know was a swear word. When they said it, it was nothing more than an association of sounds. Once they know the meaning and that it is unacceptable, then they are liable.

Thus we arrive back at the things we call people. Further to my discussion in the previous post about the historic inoffensive use of the word “nigger”, the very extensive Wikipedia article about the word is quite useful.  Nomi, a commenter on the previous post, has a very interesting article of her own how to refer those who are bi-racial. I won’t go into the historic terminology and whether it would solve her quandry, but as a bi-racial person, she doesn’t include it amongst modern options.

I don’t know if it unique to matters of race and ethnicity, but it seems strange that perception overrules intention, even when a term is used outside the vocative case. I’m not sure how a group of people with common genetic characteristics decide that certain terms can or cannot be used, and particularly how they change they can the value of a term from acceptable to unacceptable in a matter of a few years.

Because intentional language has meaning, I will usually not use the term “African-American”, unless I’m referring to Barack Obama. As I’ve said before, most black people I know are American Americans. Their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and almost certainly as far back as their great-great-great-great-grandparents were born in the United States. They are not ethnically African. There have been attempts by some to re-Africanise with the adoption of faux-African clothing, African language names, and made up holidays like Kwanzaa (the celebration of communist principles made up by convicted violent felon Ron Everett) notwithstanding, their culture is entirely unrelated to and does not measurably derive from anywhere in Africa.

If people want to use it to refer to continent of ancestral origin, then I’m happy to use African-American if I am also using European-American to refer to people who ancestry can be principally traced to Europe. I wouldn’t use it for myself, because almost all of my ancestors for at least seven generations have been in the United States. I have the odd English ancestor who immigrated in the 1820s or so, but by and large my ancestors were in the US (or what became the US) for at least a couple of generations prior. I could refer to my children as European-Americans, because they are dual citizens of a European country and the US.

I think language should be accurate and avoid intentional offense. I also think it is important not to try to find offense.

Keeping History in Context

At the same time as the election of Barak Obama, in GCSE history we are covering race relations in the United States 1929-90. I’ve never taught this in an American school, but imagine the approach of the syllabus would be roughly the same. We look at the KKK, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, the effect of the Depression on blacks, segregation in the Second World War, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Ole Miss, Rosa Parks, MLK, and the key events of the Civil Rights Movement. The key idea is that white people, especially but exclusively Southern white people, hated black people (though we aren’t authorised to cover that they were only called “black” for a brief moment in time in the shifting language from Colored to Negro to black to Africa-American). Whites were mean and evil to them, but somehow the black people passively resisted all the white people and eventually Barak Obama was elected.  That last bit falls outside the time period, but it is too good to not mention.

I was commenting on another blog about the relationship between Obama and the legacy of slavery, an institution which the blog owner referred to as an atrocity, saying the same thing I told my students when introducing the background of slavery in the US: we have to be careful in imposing the values of the present day upon the past. People in the mid-19th century lived within a completely different frame of reference. It is very possible that people living 130 years from now will be tempted to condemn aspects of the present day which we cannot imagine would be any other way.

C.S. Lewis says as much in his well-known introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.

Thus I think about my cousin Melba. Melba was my dad’s first cousin, born in Kentucky in 1915. I got to know her before she died and I don’t think there was an unkind bone in her body. I don’t think I ever heard her speak an unkind word.

Melba and her husband were tobacco farmers. Her husband had died not long before I met her as an adult (we had visited in their home when I was a very young child) and she was winding down the farming. Being the family genealogist that I am, you can imagine that I took in every story I could about living through the 20th century as a tobacco farming family. Tobacco farming is very labour-intensive. Melba spoke with affection about the niggers that worked for them, especially one man who worked for them for many years.

My late 20th century ears were a bit shocked at first. After all, this was a word for which I received corporal punishment from the school principal when I was in the second grade back in 1972. (In my defense, even then, I didn’t habour any ill feelings for the black pupil. I was only saying it because my friend Scott was saying it, but it was a offense of strict liability.) Then she referred frequently to a nigger woman that had been her domestic help until recently.

I don’t for a minute think that she thought of any of these people as equals. But neither did she habour any ill will. It was just the society in which she was raised. She probably supported segregation as long as it lasted in the Bluegrass State. I don’t remember her speaking about it in any negative way. That was just the way it was. On the other hand, I never heard her complain about integration. Maybe she did at the time, but by the time we talked, that was just the way it was.

At the same time we can be glad that everyone in the United States has the same civil rights and participation in the political process, and appreciate that common attitudes have changed, we need to be careful how we characterise the nature of those developments and the broad strokes with which we tend to paint history.

Fancy Words

The state of the English language in England is now so poor that local councils have started banning Latin phrases and abbreviations. Staff are not allowed to use them in written or verbal communication. As reported in The Sunday Telegraph:

Bournemouth Council, which has the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas, meaning beauty and health, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable for use.

This includes bona fide, eg (exempli gratia), prima facie, ad lib or ad libitum, etc or et cetera, ie or id est, inter alia, NB or nota bene, per, per se, pro rata, quid pro quo, vis-a-vis, vice versa and even via.

Sadly, I can understand that they might have to contact some people who might not be unfamiliar with quid pro quo, but e.g., i.e., and etc.? Will motorists in Bournemouth not understand that they are being diverted via St Paul’s Road? Or that the speed limit is 30 miles per hour? With so many council jobs not full-time, how will they explain that the salary quoted in newspaper ads is pro rata?

Such fancy words and abbreviations are now considered elitist.

Language Barrier

“Sir, can I work with someone else?”

“With whom?”

“Huh?”

“With whom would you like to work?”

“Huh?”

With whom would you like to work?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“What do you mean, ‘Whaddya mean?’ You asked if you could work with someone else.”

“Yeah. Can I?”

“It depends. With whom would you like to work?”

“Huh?”

“What’s the problem? I’m not going to let you work with just anyone.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So with whom would you like to work?”

“Whaddya mean ‘whom’?”

“I mean, with whom would you like to work?”

“What’s ‘whom’? I don’t know that word.”

“Ah, I see. ‘Whom’ is the objective case of ‘who’.” The declension of pronouns is clearly beyond his grasp. The despair of the inevitability of having to end a sentence with a preposition begins to weigh upon me. “Who do you want to work with?”

“Sam.”

“Fine.”

A fourteen-year-old boy, very intelligent for his year group according to standards of the day, looks back at me like I’m some kind of idiot. He mutters sarcastically to whomever will notice as he walks away, “What’s he on about? Whom. Why doesn’t he just speak English?”