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language learning in the digital age

Guarding the gates of English

Posted on April 24, 2014 by

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Photo by Elias Gayles / CC 2.0

Students are anxious to learn it. Dictionaries try to define it. Media outlets develop extensive style guides for it. Governments try to control it.

What sounds like a new crack epidemic is, in fact, just a language: English.

We live in a world surrounded by many different types of English.  You can enjoy the weird and wonderful offerings of Urban Dictionary, smile when an Indian businessman asks you to prepone your meeting, or watch The Wire and realise you need subtitles.

But ‘proper English’ is still a desirable commodity – and big business. So who gets to decide what it is?

 

Dead white males

In 1876, the Prussian Minister of Culture, Aadelbert Falk invited delegates from all the German-speaking territories to Berlin, to attend the fabulously named ‘Conference for the Establishment of Greater Unity in German Orthography’. German was reformed and standardised, a process that continues to this day, with the most recent changes in 1996.

France went one better and established the venerable Académie française in 1635, the final authority on all matters pertaining to the French language. It is still alive and kicking today – naturally, its 40 members are known as ‘Immortals’ – with an official dictionary that blows a big fat raspberry towards English, insisting on courriel instead of email.

So why isn’t there something like this for English?

The history of the English language is not that of ordered change or reform but rather that of a great staggering beast, lurching from continent to continent, shaped by accident, war and chance. Whether you blame geography, cultural difference (or perhaps indifference), or colonial expansion, the fact remains that there is no single institution to which English speakers worldwide can point to and say: this defines correct and proper English.

 

Leather and paper

Dictionaries have always been considered the traditional guardians of established language, and in the case of British English, none more so than the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its remarkably detailed system of quotations, many submitted by a man in a mental asylum, is the linguistic equivalent of fossil bedrock: heavy (over 60kg), tough to dig through, and richly rewarding if you have the tools and the patience.

At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, Noah Webster was setting out to change the way Americans wrote and spoke. He was by all accounts severe, correct, and humourless, which may be why he wrote a dictionary – one that altered the course of American English forever. Maybe one of these days the US might even tacitly acknowledge his impact by making English an official language.

For over a century these dictionaries were unassailable fortresses. But the digital age is steadily eroding their foundations and challenging their authority.

When did you last use a dictionary? Was that before or after the last time you looked at a Microsoft Word document and saw a squiggly red line under a word? You probably used the autocorrect function, or perhaps you went to an online crowd-sourced dictionary like Wiktionary. It’s certainly faster than going to the shelf, but how much do you trust it?

Many meta-lexicographers (an excellent word to throw around at dinner parties) have long believed that users regard dictionaries as repositories of linguistic truth rather than indicators of actual usage. How we should speak, not how we really speak.

But if enough people use it, at what point does it become ‘proper English’?

 

Like, literally

David Foster Wallace claimed in 2001 that American language was in the midst of a Crisis of Authority. Today, English as a whole is in the midst of an ongoing Crisis of Identity.

It is simultaneously the language of a faded colonial superpower and its former colonies, the language of a fading superpower, the language of Hollywood, the lingua franca of business, science and the Internet, the default language of international travel, and probably a source of dread for many millions of young schoolchildren across the globe.

Size matters. The volume and speed of English flowing around the world, through phone lines and cables, at airports and in hotels, is greater and faster than at any previous point in human history. It’s hard to monitor and even harder to control. The grammar police, whose furious letters were once a staple of the Letters to the Editor pages, are being drowned in the flood.

The tech giants are key players in tracking and shaping this flow. Predictive text and spell checkers are already arguably more powerful than any dictionary.

Let’s not ignore another set of traditional gatekeepers, those who teach English, either as a first or a second language, and provide testing and accreditation. They have to be authorities: their business model relies upon a very specific definition of ‘proper English’. When Foster Wallace was teaching in American colleges, he often found it helpful to explain to bemused students that Standard Written English is simply a sub-dialect of English – no more or less correct than any other.

The idea that usage + time = acceptance can be seen as democratic or as a sign that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, depending on your perspective. The ‘rules’ of correct English – and the gatekeepers that guard them – are essentially reactive forces. Can they keep up with the speed at which the language is evolving?

For all its insistence on rules, what feels right in a language is often precisely that. We are constantly told that mastering a foreign language means developing ‘a feel’ for it.

“I know it when I see it”, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography.

Perhaps we could say the same about ‘proper English’.

 

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Comments

How can you possibly call the OED an ‘unassailable fortress’ ? It’s more like a sieve and it is only slightly more selective than Urban Dictionary. It’s also tasked with describing English, not specifically British English as you implied, and had American contributors very early on.

The OED is a creation of the second half of the 19th century, Webster started in the 18th, they weren’t really contemporaries.

Anyways it says something about English that the OED gets called an authority when it sees itself as purely descriptive. It’s basically 19th-century style Wikipedia.

Hi Ian. Point taken about the OED but I think you’re selling it a bit short – no other English-language dictionary had attempted such a comprehensive collection of differing word uses over the years, with original sources. The scale of the project was immense. I don’t think Wikipedia (or rather Wiktionary) would claim to be anything like it, although they are both crowd-sourced endeavours.

Webster published in 1828, the OED was commissioned in 1879 (and they hoped to publish within 10 years!).

Yesterday I subscribed on Facebook but I change my mind. Could you please remove my inscription for the spanish cours. Thank you very much.

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..JapaKongaChingaHinglish..?

sounds delicious and vaguely like the sound of music.. haha

Id disagree that language teachers are defining proper English, though they do have to explain what is natural, where and why. Natural also not being fixed, and debatable among native speakers, the converse UNNATURAL is really what is being discouraged. Specifically, if it seems hard to understand AND unnatural, any native teacher will likely point it out, wherever they are from.

Interesting question is if non natives develop a form of English used more globally, will native speakers have to also learn it and comply with it..? ( long term, this actually seems quite possible, considering the majority are non native speakers, already..) Even now, if 2 people use ” Japlish Konglish, Chinglish or Hinglish, I doubt insisting it become “English” makes any sense…

It does beg the question, doesn’t it? Maybe the sheer weight of numbers, particularly from parts of Asia, will take its toll. Didn’t Blade Runner play with the idea of an English / Hong Kong composite…? Maybe we’ll see words from other major world languages slowly get drawn into English, rather than an entirely new form of ‘non-native’ English.

You’re probably right that language teachers have to explain and justify rather than define what English is. But the whole field of ESL – the publishers, the schools, the testing systems – are pretty important in how upcoming generations think about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Ps sorry for the punctuation errors… ( also not written in stone ) and typos.

I think it was Cauvin ( Of Chauvinistm, a word itself changed to now not mean ” jaundiced nationalism and bigotry..”.) who said “God speaks French” The surprising thing is similar things have been said by various other ” defenders of language and culture” in many languages.. My point is that any notion of ” purity ” or ” proper language ect, inherently carries a bias.

The reality is that languages change, usage changes, and living languages are not in dictionaries. I think the fact that English changes has been one of its strengths, but linguists can tell you all languages change, and authorities probably have little influence on this, and it has far more to do with usage than rules. In the end acceptance defines what is “proper”, not rules. ( IMHO )

In the same way every generation FEELS the next is coming part or ” breaking the rules”, the “degeneration ” of language is more myth than reality.
Is not it? ( seems wrong, right? but the logic allows this if ” Isn’t ” is ok..) Is it not so? may be accurate ” grammar, but sounds so pretentious, these are value judgements, are they not? ( lol)

When was the last time I used a dictionary? This afternoon. I use my Oxford dictionary at least once a day, often more. Online dictionaries are patchy and unreliable. And Microsoft Word’s dictionaries are an absolute disaster.

You seem to think that ‘-ize’ is American and ‘-ise’ is British. That is simply not the case. You might look at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/words/ize-ise-or-yse and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_spelling.

Sure language changes. And dictionaries have to follow suit. But much of what passes for ‘common use’ is simply wrong. Using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’ for example. It was literally raining cats and dogs is often heard. The problem with many common changes in languages is that precision of expression is lost. The use of ‘data’ in the singular is an example.

Thanks Craig – had no idea that OED advocates -ize.

I’d still maintain that -ize is used in America, and it’s interesting to note that Oxford University uses -ise (http://www.ox.ac.uk/public_affairs/services_and_resources/style_guide/word_usage_and.html).

Agree with you that sometimes precision is lost, but isn’t that a consequence of language evolution (and one that’s counterbalanced by the rich influx of new, culturally specific words)?

Thank you for raising this topic. I am disappointed in some of the changes that have occurred since I “learnt” English. English was not just a spoken language but had rules for grammar & tense to ensure “English” was spoken & spelt correct.
Examples, but limited to, are:
* co-operate became cooperate
(it is then pronounced differently by younger people & Americans – and probably loses some of its meaning.
* I learnt to spell words with “z” but now it is “s”. I think that is Americanising English.
* the lost of – hyphens, commers, full stops & more dilutes the written & spoken language.

“English” does need correct rules for grammar and pronunciation.

Hi Diana – thanks for your comment. As you point out, the language is certainly changing. Did you learn a particular type of English, maybe American English, seeing as you learned ‘-ize’ (American) instead of ‘-ise’ (British)?

let us try and face…the language with u

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