Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Decline & Fall of the English Language

The Queen Victoria monument-London

   The Decline & Fall of the English Language


Chris Green

The history of the English language has its roots in the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic language. But most of the native Celtic speakers were pushed west and north by the invaders into what is now Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Angles came from "Englaland" [sic] and their language was called "Englisc" - from whence the words "England" and "English" are derived. 

Christ Church -Oxford
 The English language has three distinct historical categories with the latter having two sub-categories: Old English (450-1100 AD), Middle English (1100-1500) and Modern English (1500-1800). The sub-categories are therefore Early Modern English (1500-1800) and Late Modern English (1800-present day). A further sub-category has evolved within the last twenty years which has yet to be given a title, a matter which may be resolved by the end of this column which will draw attention to the steep decline and fall of the standards of both written and spoken English in Great Britain and England in particular, today in 2014.

The flag of St George-Patron Saint of England

To develop the ultimate point, let us look in more detail at the development of Modern English. Towards the end of Middle English, a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation (the Great Vowel Shift) started, with vowels being pronounced shorter and shorter. From the 16th century the British had contact with many peoples from around the world. This, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, meant that many new words and phrases entered the language. The invention of printing also meant that there was now a common language in print. Books became cheaper to buy and more and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English:Spelling and grammar became fixed, and the dialect of London, where most publishing houses were, became the standard. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published. 

An old map of England & Wales
 The main difference between Early Modern English and Late Modern English is vocabulary. Late Modern English has many more words, arising from two principal factors: firstly, the Industrial Revolution and technology created a need for new words; secondly, the British Empire at its height covered one quarter of the earth's surface, and the English language adopted foreign words from many countries. But as with any country in the world, England has myriad local dialects which employ colloquialisms and these have added to the overall richness of the language, however with greater social mobility and the quantum leap in telecommunication, dialects have softened greatly during the course of the last 30 years or so.

From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. Some English pronunciations and words "froze" when they reached America. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English is. Some expressions that the British call "Americanisms" are in fact original British expressions that were preserved in the colonies while lost for a time in Britain (for example trash for rubbish, loan as a verb instead of lend, and fall for autumn; another example, frame-up, was re-imported into Britain through Hollywood gangster movies). Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like canyon, ranch, stampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and so, to an extent, British English).

The historical City of Bath

Today, American English is particularly influential, due to the USA's dominance of cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet). But there are many other varieties of English around the world, including for example Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, South African English, Indian English and Caribbean English.

The English language has evolved as all modern-day languages must evolve but there can be no doubt at all that the standard of English has fallen steeply even during the last ten years although this may have begun earlier still. With the advent and development of mobile telephones and social media based communications, the written word has become badly abbreviated to form what has become known as 'text language' and involves the mixing up of consonants and numerals. For example 'mate' becomes m8; 'see you tomorrow' becomes 'c u tomoz'. And so it goes on to the extent that some schools are no longer correcting their students for adopting 'text-ese' within their written work and it could even be suggested that their teachers use the same awful 'dumbed-down' English that their students have learned.
Durham Cathedral

It is also very clear – if unintelligible – to this columnist at least, that the standard of conversational English has and continues, to steeply decline. One only has to listen to peoples conversations today to understand this point. For example a typical exchange between two people might go like this:

I'm tellin ya like, I was standing there literally and I`m like OH MY GOD and its like, you know what I mean, literally (lit-ra-lee) I dint know what to do!” which is likely to elicit a reply along the lines of “Oh My God (which would be written O mi god) that appened to me, like literally happened to me!” And so the conversation would continue, unintelligibly but nonetheless entirely satisfactorily to the participants thereof. Colloquialisms are one thing, but 'Estuary ' and/or other forms of 'dumbed-down' English today serve to diminish the country as a whole. 

Another noticeable change in the spoken language is that people now have a tendency to employ the use of a rising cadence at the end of sentences which implies a form of 'questioning' within their statement even if they are not actually asking a question, or that by doing so, they give emphasis to whatever it is they are trying to say. This influence is again partly American but also antipodean in origin too. Another pet hate [of the writer] is those who approach a bar or servery counter and order whatever it is they wish with the aphorism "Can I get..." as distinct to the correct manner which is "Please may I have or May I have..." It is absolutely awful and it is NOT correct English either! 

Now we come to the modern day methods of greeting and enquiring as to mutual health. Instead of 'How are you?', 'I`m well thank you' or words to that effect. What do we have now? 'Are you good? yes, I'm really good thanks, are you good?' And so the exchange of 'goodness' flows on ad nausea. 'Touching base' seems to be a popular activity presumably after having 'caught up'! Goodness, its a mighty busy activity having conversations and discussions now as I edit this piece in 2020. 

Foreign immigrants are expected to learn English as part and parcel of their citizenship and rightly so, but one envisions an aspiring citizen who might take their birth and infant nurture from the Far East ending up speaking in a 'like' manner but with peculiarities due to their accents. For example: “Excuse me, could you give me 'rike' directions to 'der' station, please 'rike' (like)” And so it could go on and of course, a degree of exaggeration is being employed here to make the point however far more seriously, in the world of business, a whole new language has evolved which could be described as 'Office-ese' and comprises partly of inane nonsense that is punctuated with acronyms. If you are not conversant with the acronyms employed, you are effectively excluded from the entire process; it has recently become the practice of this writer to bemoan OUA's when he finds himself in such situations. This usually elicits the enquiry “What are OUA's?” To which the blunt reply erupts in a stridently Oxford English accent thus: “ OVER USE of ACRONYMS!” 

Chester Cathedral

One only has to review BBC news bulletins during the past half a century to gain an understanding of how the spoken, let alone written form of English has changed and the American influence is as marked as it is malign in terms of the tendency to lower and diminish the standard thereof. Looking forward, one is filled with much foreboding as to what might unfold during the ensuing years in relation to what the shape of our rich language might in the future take. But the English language has been used to communicate the works of some of the worlds finest minds, writers and poets throughout the whole world from time immemorial. It would indeed be a tragedy for future generations if this language became extinct.

"I have travelled amongst unknown men
In lands beyond the sea.
Nor England! Did'st I know 'till then
What love I bore to thee."

Wm Wordsworth 

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