An Unfinished Treatise on… Something…

NPR reported a story recently on the evolution of the English language. I didn’t catch the story but it apparently focused on whether we should resist changes that come about from wrong usage. I suspect this has been an argument since the first person said “Hello” in response to the grunt of another. And the argument shall surely never cease.

While I failed to catch the original story, I heard the follow-up where they read listeners’ responses on the misuse that bothers them the most. Judging by the responses, the focus was on word misuse more than grammar mistakes (its/it’s, there/their/they’re, etc.). I agreed with some and rolled my eyes at others and was dismayed that no one mentioned the literally wrong use of “literally” by nearly everyone. As in, “I literally threw UP when I saw what dress she was wearing!” The speaker almost certainly meant that she figuratively threw up. She merely wanted to express what great distress the dress gave her. But if someone did actually throw up in response to something for which vomiting is not an expected response, how can they convey that? Saying they “literally threw up” will no longer work.

C.S. Lewis made a similar argument in his book The Four Loves with regard, first, to the word gentleman, and later, to Christian. The word gentleman originally referred to someone who owned land. Gentlemen tended to be refined, honorable, and polite, so over time, people began to use the word to refer to people who exhibited those traits instead of for those who own land. Before long, it no longer meant a land owner and we were left without a tidy word for that status.

He then went on to discuss the problem with calling a good person a Christian, as in, “That was very Christian of him”. Christian specifically doesn’t mean “good person”. It means “person who believes in Jesus Christ”. That person may very well be a good person and most Christians indeed strive to be good people (hence, likely, the use of the word as a synonym of sorts), but the two are not equivalent. And if we get in the habit of using Christian to mean good person, then we’ve lost the most natural word to use in describing a believer in Christ.

The guiding principle to many people with relaxed attitudes toward the English language is this: As long as the people you are addressing can understand what you are saying, it is fine.

While I will loosely agree with that, I have two objections and a comment. The comment is that it’s a shame when we lose some of the richness of our language out of linguistic laziness. We don’t need a bunch of words that all mean the same thing. It’s better if words keep their nuanced distinctions.

The first objection is that if you do not have a solid grasp on proper usage, then how can you judge whether or not what you are saying is clear? How do you know that you have been understood? The second is that whether you are understood or not, the listeners/readers are drawing conclusions about you based, in part, on how you communicated your information. If you spoke or wrote with many mistakes, the conclusion is likely not positive.

In the NPR story, they quoted a teacher who tells his class something along these lines: “You do not have to speak properly. You only have to speak in a way that allows others to understand what you say. That is communication. However, people from high socioeconomic backgrounds tend to speak more precisely and if you want to fit in with them, you will need to be able to do so as well.”

And now that I’ve spent over 600 words rambling about English, we get to the point I wanted to ponder. That teacher was right. If you want to fit in with any group, you need to be able to speak as they speak. In a foreign country, that means speaking their language. If you can’t do that, you may be treated politely but you won’t be fully embraced.

If you want to fit in with educated, moneyed people, you need to be able to use proper English. Otherwise, you’ll likely be dismissed as lower class, possibly of reduced intellect.

I wonder sometimes if this is part of why poor people have trouble climbing the ladder to success and why minorities, who may have telltale accents or idioms, have the same struggle.

I heard yet another NPR story about…

So… this draft was written on June 5, 2014.  I have no idea what the other NPR story was.  I was just looking through my untitled drafts to see if there was something I could polish up for this week.  I was impressed with how seemingly finished this “draft” was.  Until I got to that last line.

I’m not even sure whether I had gotten to the “point” yet.  Be that as it may, I like the earlier arguments for preciseness in speech, so we’ll just run with it.  If you’ve got any ideas what you think that other story might have been about, please share.  Maybe you’ll trigger my memory.  🙂

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3 thoughts on “An Unfinished Treatise on… Something…

  1. I wonder sometimes if this is part of why poor people have trouble climbing the ladder to success and why minorities, who may have telltale accents or idioms, have the same struggle.

    On this…I have seen a lot of people in very successful careers using incorrect grammar…ahem…George Bush!

    • Yes, that’s very true. Obviously, grammar/accent/idiom is not a one-point telltale indicator. But people like W have a number of more important factors working for them, namely, money, class, and name. He received a lot of grief for his poor language use but it didn’t stop his rise because… well, he had money/class/name. And while he did have poor language skills, he still didn’t sound quite as uneducated as the average low-income high school drop-out. So if Daddy can’t help you get your foot in the door, then I think your language skills will quickly come into play.

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