Columbus, Ohio USA
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Respect Our Language
By Joel Knepp
September/October 2016 Issue
© Mark Stivers
In the classrooms of my youth, I was taught that the English language is a beautiful thing to be studied, respected, and cherished. I learned further that although our language is flexible, evolving, and constantly incorporating new words and expressions, English is a language ordered and structured by rules. In my school days many of these rules were emphasized to a point just short of beating us over the head. One of these governs the use of the words fewer and less. As we were instructed ad nauseam, less describes stuff that can’t be counted: “After the drought we noticed less water in the pond.” Fewer describes stuff that can be counted: “After the drought we noticed fewer ducks in the pond.” This distinction seems to have gone the way of fountain pens and typewriters, and the word “fewer” is practically on the endangered list.
Granted, the use of less where fewer is called for saves speakers one syllable, a dubious benefit at best, and saves writers one letter. Goodness knows, with the price of ink cartridges these days every little bit helps. However, I still cringe when I see “10 ITEMS OR LESS” above the express lane at the grocery store. I can only imagine the pain this causes Miss Oran, my high school English teacher. Is it really that much of a challenge to include one extra letter? Some would call this phenomenon evolution of the language. I call it dumbing down of the language.
Countless examples of the mutilation of our beloved English appear almost everywhere in the written and spoken word. Don’t even get me started on between and among. And the misuse and general degradation of proper punctuation is a whole topic unto itself, best explored by reading the instructive and hilarious Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Ms. Truss, a Brit, proves that sometimes we have to go back to our roots to get it right. I would be ecstatic if only folks would stop using apostrophes to indicate plural instead of possessive: HAMBURGER’S NOW 2 FOR $5. Sure, we threw off the yoke of British oppression centuries ago, but can’t we Americans still be literate?
Speaking of former British colonies, a fascinating example of English usage comes from India. Indian English-language newspapers, especially those I first read twenty years ago, are marvelous showcases of English used lovingly and skillfully. Granted, these articles feature some terms that seem weird to us, such as schemes used in a non-pejorative manner, and seem a bit flowery by our standards. Nevertheless, they exhibit a command of the language that many American journalists should envy. In another medium, some of the finest modern English writing comes from Indian novelists. And look around; Indo-Americans are increasingly prominent movers and shakers throughout U.S. society. Could this be at least partially attributable to their skillful use of the English language and not just to their vaunted technical skills? Can we not learn a new love of English from our fellow former colonists? Large numbers of Indians, not to mention other Asians, Europeans, and Africans, speak and write several languages. Can’t we in America get at least one right?
We know English speech changes constantly. All one has to do is watch a movie or newsreel from the 1930s to know that the way people talked back then was different from the way folks talk today. At least we can understand what they are saying in these films, unlike me in recent attempts at Shakespeare. However, I think we need to have some continuity in the way words are pronounced. For some time now I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of mispronouncing words spelled with an “st” as if they were spelled with “sht,” for example, Chrishtian, indushtry, OShU, and shtreet. I used to think this was an African-American thing: Michelle Obama constantly used the term “shtruggle” in her speeches on behalf of her husband’s reelection. But whatever the source, now it’s everywhere – even on Nation Public Radio, for heaven’s sake. Stop it! Also on NPR and from other sources I now hear many interviewees liberally using the terms “sort of” and “kind of” for no discernable reason. The irritating overuse of these terms almost never adds meaning or clarity and seems to be an affectation of highly educated persons. I sincerely hope it doesn’t work its way down to us, the hoi polloi, but unfortunately, most of us sort of pick up speech patterns unconsciously from what we hear.
Respect is a concept which, in the last several decades, has risen to the fore in our culture. The term is constantly evoked and taught everywhere: respect for others, respect for different cultures and beliefs, respect for ourselves. Law breakers, even children, explain acts of violence against others by stating simply that they were “disrespected,” as if this were a free pass to commit mayhem. By the way, to disrespect is an example of the widespread and regrettably growing practice of turning nouns into verbs. But back to the point, I submit that respect is a good thing, so how about a little respect for the language that unites our culture and has long surpassed Latin and French as the world’s lingua franca?
Where did things start to go so wrong? How did we stop learning the rules of English? Unfortunately, circumstantial evidence points to our educational institutions. It wasn’t my parents who taught me grammar, punctuation, proper word usage (with which I still struggle), and how to write a coherent paragraph. My mother speaks well and once taught school. However, my father made it through college on a football scholarship but used to say that the only reason his was called a high school was because the building stood on a hill. We learn to talk from our families but mostly we learn to speak and write properly from our schools.
In local elementary schools I have seen gross word misusage and incorrect grammar in large letters on front-hall bulletin boards – scary! With all the attention being focused on schools these days, I hope somebody is considering the importance of language skills along with math, science, and computer programming. I also hope teacher training includes the importance of maintaining our language’s integrity. We have Spanish, French, and probably other language emersion schools. How about some English emersion schools which produce class after class of students who know the meaning of words and how to use them, a school which endeavors to instill in every boy and girl respect and yes, love for our native tongue in its written and spoken forms?
I wasn’t an English major, but I keep trying (see “attempts at Shakespeare” above). When writing, I don’t always get it right, but I keep several dictionaries, Roget’s Thesaurus, The Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style close at hand. One of my first college essays, on the incomprehensible novel Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, drew the following comment from my professor: “You obviously tried very hard, your writing is beautiful, but you have nothing to say.” Well, two out of three ain’t bad – thank you, Miss Oran!
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