The myth of language decay: Do youths really not know how to speak?

Hi everyone!

My name is Sabina, I’m 28 years old, from rainy Gothenburg, Sweden (unlike Riccardo from sunny Bologna). Why am I here? Well, to talk about linguistics, obviously! Specifically, I’ll be talking about a persistent and prevalent language myth: the myth of language decay.

This is the idea that modern forms of language are somehow steadily getting “worse” in comparison to previous stages of the language. The thought that there was, somewhere, somehow, a “golden age” of the language, after which it became unstructured, uninformative or just plain “bad”. This idea is a form of prescriptivism, as described by Riccardo in last week’s post, and perhaps the most widespread one at that.

You might think that this is not as common a myth as I say, but consider: have you ever heard someone claim that “young people” don’t know how to write? How to talk “properly”? Maybe even how to read? These are, indeed, examples of this myth.

However, is it true? Do young people really not know how to write/speak/read their native tongue? Of course not, they just do it in a different way.

The myth of language decay is intimately connected to the phenomenon known as language change. Now, language change is often described by linguists as a necessary, vital and continuous part of the language’s development and survival. Just imagine if we spoke English the same way as in the Middle Ages, or even as in Shakespeare’s time! English today is certainly different from back then, but it is in no way worse. Think about it, would you really want everyone to speak like Shakespeare did? Or Chaucer? Or perhaps as in Beowulf?

It is interesting to note, however, that the idea of language decay rarely touches the history of the language. Chaucer and Shakespeare lived approximately 200 years apart yet no one really claiming that Chaucer’s English was “bad” in comparison to Shakespeare’s, do they? (As a matter of fact, Chaucer has earned himself the nickname “Father of English literature” so it really can’t be, can it?).

Let’s take a more recent example: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) to George R.R. Martin (1948-). Now, if you sit down and read through the works of these three authors, all of whom have been hailed for their writing skills, you will probably notice a rather distinct difference in not only style, but perhaps also in lexicon and grammar. Yet no one is arguing that Dickens and Tolkien didn’t know how to write, do they?

But guess what? Someone probably did when Tolkien started writing! Someone probably did when Martin started out. Someone probably even said it about Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Brontë, Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc, etc.

In fact, people have been complaining about language “decay” for a long, long time, specifically since the time of Sumerian, a language spoken in the region of Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia. Now, you might be thinking: “Sabina, surely you’re exaggerating things just a bit?”.

I am not.

Sumerian is the first language from which there is surviving written material1 and in 1976, a researcher named Lloyd-Jones2 published a piece of work detailing inscriptions made on clay tablets. Among other things, these contained an agonized complaint made by a senior scribe regarding the junior scribes’ sudden drop in writing ability.

Basically: “Young people can’t write properly!”.

Consider that for a second. People have been complaining about supposed language decay for, literally, as long as we have evidence of written language.

Given this, you can imagine that people tend to have a strong reaction to language “decay”. Consider the case of Jean Aitchison, an Emeritus Professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford. In 1996, Professor Aitchison participated in the BBC Reith Lectures, a series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of a particular field. Professor Aitchison lectured on the naturalness of language change, stating that there was nothing to worry about.

The result of this? Professor Aitchison received hostile letters to her home. Consider that for just a second: people took the trouble of sitting down, writing a threat, posting it, wait for the post to reach her, just to get their sense of accomplishment.3 That’s a pretty good indication of how strongly some people feel about this.

So, why are we reacting that way?

Well, we spend year upon year, in school, in newspapers, even in social media (with its “grammar Nazi” phenomenon), teaching people that there is a “correct” way of using language. We work hard to achieve this standard. Think of it as learning how to ride a bike. All your life, you’ve been told that you should sit on the bike in a certain way. It’s very uncomfortable, but you work and work and work to apply the right technique. When you’ve finally mastered the skill (and are feeling quite proud of yourself), someone comes along and tells you that you can sit on the bike anyway you want. Risk of you lashing out? Probably at least somewhat high.

But see, the thing is that, when it comes to language, there really is no “correct way”. Take the word “irregardless” for example. Many immediately get this kind of stone-faced expression and thunderously proclaim that there is no such word. But actually, there is. It’s a non-standard dialectal variant, used with a specific meaning and in specific contexts (in this particular case, irregardless is a way to shut a conversation down after already having said “regardless” in those varieties4, isn’t that interesting?).

But people think that there is somehow something “wrong” with this word, and those who use it (or other non-standard forms) will often be judged as speaking “bad English”, throwing more fuel on the fire for the myth of language decay. Especially since the older generations, for example, may retain their ideas about what is “correct” usage, while younger generations may have a different idea about what is “correct” and use the language in a different way.

So, what’s my point with all this? Well, my point is that the moment that a word from a non-standard dialect makes its way into the standard language, it’s going to raise some discussion about the “decay” of the language. This is really particularly true of the younger generations today who actually introduced a whole new form of language into their standard vocabulary: internet and/or texting slang!

This is fascinating! We’re introducing a new form of language! But… When young people start using, I don’t know, “brb”, “afk”, “lol”, etc. in their everyday speech, other people may condemn this as “lazy, uneducated, wrong”, etc., etc. and the myth of language decay rejuvenates.

But the thing is that languages change to match the times in which they exist. It may change due to political readjustments that have occurred or to reflect the different attitudes of the people. And sometimes, we can’t point to anything that made the language change – it simply did. Regardless, the language reflects its time, not a glorified past. And that is a good thing.

Unless, of course, you would perhaps prefer to remove most -ed past tense endings, especially on strong verbs, and go back to the good old days of ablaut (that is, vowel gradation carrying grammatical information, e.g. sing, sang, sung)? Or perhaps lower all your vowels again and skip the diphthongs? Or perhaps… yeah, you see where I’m going with this.

No? Didn’t think so. In that case, let’s celebrate the changes, both historical and current, without accusing them to somehow make the language worse.

Because, truly, the only difference between changes that made the language into the “glorious standard” of yesteryear and the changes that are happening now, is time.

Tune in to Rebekah’s post next week where she will explain the different periods of English and make it clear why Shakespeare did not write in Old English!

Bibliography

1 Check out the 5 oldest written languages recorded here.

2 Lloyd-Jones, Richard. 1976. “Is writing worse nowadays?”. University of Iowa Spectator. April 1976.
Quoted by Daniels, Harvey. 1983. Famous last words: The American language crisis revisited. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 33.

3Aitchison, Jean. 1997. The Language Web. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

4Check out Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, explaining “irregardless” here.

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