By Shawn StJean
Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic. Perhaps. It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English. The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear. But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.
This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.
I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer. With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”
Need this be a bad thing? After all, what’s more efficient than “K”? Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity? Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.
Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):
“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.” As in “I don’t do Christmas.”
“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”
“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic. “I’m a huge fan.” In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it. We all speak in metaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.) One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.
“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”) This one in particular disturbs me because it demonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here. “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers. It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.
“You’re all set.”
“It’s all good.”
“it’s all about”
“comes into play”
“back in the day”
Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time. I must be overracting. Aren’t these replacing archaic usages? We’ve got “tweet.” And “text.” “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?
“[ ] is a thing.” Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week. We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions. At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?
Okay. Let’s say I’m right. So the language is imploding. What’s at stake here?
Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine. Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had. What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words? Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge? Will they read it? Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it? Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearian solilioquies do to us? And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great. One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example. For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.
George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s. He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others. Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort? Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it? Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it? My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information). And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them. Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.
A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here. Raise your hand if you like music.
That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics. In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error. Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found. Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine. Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning. Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error. Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth. Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs. Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s. Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers. Umm. Except. . .
One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media. And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English. Don’t think so? Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse. Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t. Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm. As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British. But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule. As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object. A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”
Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)
I doubt the sustainability of that argument. Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less). Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore. Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”? Can’t we just dispense with one of these? Well, we could. Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts. That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.” NOT “less people.” Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic. There’s less forest, which means fewer trees. There may be “less opportunity.” There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.” But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them. And reevaluating the value we place on human life.
I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:
Where R U
It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer. And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most. Why? It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”). In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself. Here’s how that might go, in response:
“None of your damn business.”
“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”
“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”
“I’m at Main Street and Vine”
“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”
“I left an hour ago.”
Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list. Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply. Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness. Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.” Sure. But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check? Did you answer them? If you did, you, as are we all, are complicit in the process of collapse. Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:
 Dear Professor: I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died. I misplaced my copy of the syllabus. Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work? Thanks, Kayla
 I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed
Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter. In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.
I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization. But I don’t fancy it helping. It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)
As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history. Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.
The solution? Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ. Read anything. Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits. Some are better than others, obviously. Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.