Wednesday, October 13, 2010

English - Circling the drain

I have been assailed recently by abuse and neglect of what was once quite a language. English grows ugly and lapses into deformity. My email staggers under the weight of misused pronouns and homeless participles, even by allegedly educated people. “Your” and “you’re,” “it’s” and “its” are apparently interchangeable. From somewhere, otherwise intelligent people have developed the idea that “ 's “ forms a simple plural, but are unsure with which words – a college graduate recently specified in an email “toddler's and babys”, both words incorrect, and the two words used in entirely different context. I am undecided if this speaks to her ineptness, or to the fact that she was awarded a graduate degree by one of our formerly respectable universities which educated her beyond her intelligence, or perhaps both.
Many years ago, between real job assignments, I was placed as a repair tech for A/V equipment used in the schools. I still keep a repair tag that was attached to a record player sent for repair, apparently having troubles with audio level. The problem specified was “can't here”. The unit was sent by an English teacher.
Just for the record, “partly” does not mean “partially;” nor historic, historical; nor philosophic, philosophical; nor sensuous, sensual; feminine, effeminate; nor beneficent, benevolent; nor continuous, continual; “It is important that you do not smoke” is not the same as “It is important that you not smoke.”
Are there real writers out there? I mean distinctive writers and fine craftsmen, the Mark Twains and Ambrose Bierces and Hunter Thompsons and Joseph Hellers and Chestertons, C. S. Lewis and Tolkien that once made the United States a font of genuine if eccentric talent. They may exist. If so, they aren’t promoted.
We have allowed the schools to fall into the hands of fools and charlatans, and we pay the price.
Good English (or French, or Spanish, or Chinese) depends on a cultivated elite to preserve it. A pride in language is needed to prevent degradation from seeping upward from the lower classes, and only careful schooling instills the fine distinctions that make the difference between the literate and those who recognize words vaguely, like half-forgotten relatives. In England the aristocracy and its schools, as for example Oxford and Cambridge, maintained linguistic standards; in ancient Rome, the ruling classes who studied under the great rhetoricians. In the United States the tradition survived awhile in a variety of schools. Today, we fill the universities with people who have no business being there. We then accept their values. The country has embraced a radical egalitarianism whose pretenses can be maintained only by dragging all to the level of the lowest.
I occasionally see it written that Ebonics is a language to be respected as much as English. Oh? How in Ebonics does one say, “The entropy of a closed system tends to remain the same or to increase”? A more important question is how do decreasingly literate professors write textbooks of subjects that have to be explained clearly? As the distinctions between words are lost, as the grammar degenerates toward bumperstickerhood, people can no longer express, and perhaps cannot think, things that once they could have.
To appreciate literature requires intimate familiarity with the language. Just as you cannot tell good jitterbugging from bad if you do not know the structure of the dance, so you cannot tell good writing from bad if you don’t know how the language works. Few any longer do.
What we have lost we will be a long while in getting back.

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