09 September 2006

People that don't talk good

"Just between you and I, even if I would of knew that, I could care less. So their."

Is our language deteriorating? The claim is commonly made. We seem to be awash in bad grammar and worse spelling. The schools, it is said, are not doing their job. Compared to the elegant and correct style of English used in earlier times, of which so many examples survive in writing, ours must surely be the most inept generation ever in the use of language.

I'm not so sure. Compared with the very recent past (a few decades ago), this may be true, although I have my doubts even there -- older people complaining that things have declined since their youth goes back at least as far as ancient Athens, and probably back to a time when old guys sat around in front of the cave grousing that the younger generation of mammoth hunters just didn't have the same style as in their day. People tend to recall the past with rosy hues. Still, I'd be the last to dispute the view that many of our schools are, indeed, not teaching well. So I'll concede it's possible that the average standard of English usage in, say, the 1950s might have been slightly better than today, although frankly I see no hard evidence of it.

Overall, though, I would bet that on the whole people today use language better than in almost any previous era. Here's why.

In the first place, people are always more careless in speech than in writing. Most bad grammar occurs in speech. The same person who gets his syntax tangled up in conversation would probably hold himself to a higher standard if he were writing anything down. Here's an experiment. Get yourself a recording of some people you know to be well-educated when they are in lively conversation -- a bunch of political pundits in animated discussion on TV, say. Transcribe the conversation in writing exactly, word for word. You'll be startled at what the result looks like.

We can hear the conversational speech of our own time, but not that of earlier decades and centuries. All we have from the latter is their writing. It's comparing apples and oranges.

Second, even if we compare only modern and earlier written English, remember that universal literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until a century or two ago, only a minority of the population -- usually a very small minority -- could write. The samples of written English which we have from those times are the product of this small, well-educated, non-typical subgroup. Today, even what we consider the uneducated -- even the barely-educatable -- can write. So they do.

This is not an excuse. It is possible to educate virtually a whole national population to a high standard of literacy. Japan does (with a writing system much more difficult than ours). But until a century or two ago, the people who today write gibberish like the opening sentence of this posting wouldn't have been writing bad English. They wouldn't have been able to write at all.

Third, the mass production and distribution of writing was far more difficult in earlier times than today. Before printing, the production of multiple copies of a text could be done only by laborious hand-copying. Even with early printing technology, books had to be typeset, printed, and distributed in a much more labor-intensive fashion than in modern publishing. Numbers of copies were small by modern standards. Today, a few minutes after I type these words, I will use a single mouse-click to post them on the internet, where they will be available to any of the hundreds of millions of people who have access. I will require no active human assistance to do this, only some free software whose use is so easy that it could literally be mastered by a child in an hour or so. When mass production and distribution of writing required such an investment of effort, people naturally took a lot more trouble with the writing in which that investment was made; writing which failed to meet high standards was not published. Today, the effort involved is negligible, in many cases no one except the author himself need be involved at all, and the care taken with the content is correspondingly reduced.

Over the last century, the amount of bad writing has increased from almost zero to some large amount. The amount of good writing has probably also increased from a large amount to an even larger one. It's just that the former phenomenon, being more of a novelty, is more noticeable.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

the younger generation of mammoth hunters just didn't have the same style as in their day

Darn right they didn't!

More seriously, Infidel, I recently listened to a radio interview with several illiterate American women (all relatively young and I think all black), who talked about their challenges in raising school-age children.

It was heartbreaking -- and unthinkable to me that, in the 21st century America, you still have people who've never learned to read and write. How is this possible? (A rhetorical question -- I can well imagine how: it's called poverty and systemic neglect.)

Disturbing, to say the least.

28 August, 2009 12:15  

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