English is in Decline, Yada, Yada

Those who think English is in decline fondly imagine that there is something about English in their own lifetime that spells the end of the language as we know it. The Queen’s English Society, for example, speak of ‘the decline in standards in its use’ (and, incidentally, believe they are the people to put things right).

Well, I have news for them. In 1946 George Orwell wrote ‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.’ Almost a century before that we find August Schleicher saying that English only showed ‘how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink’ and it was improbable that from such language-ruins the whole edifice will be raised anew.’ Instead, ‘the whole language is likely to ‘sink into mon-syllabicity’. In 1712 Swift complained ‘that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Imrovements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions . . .’ Similar things have been said over the centuries about French and German. Had these remarks had any truth in them we might have expected these languages to have all but disappeared by now. There is no reason to suppose that the lamentations of contemporary Jeremiahs will prove to be any more reliable.

I am prompted to post this by a reminder in Henry Hitchings’s ‘The Language Wars: A History of Proper English’ that words that we now use without hesitation were once considered unacceptable. Thomas de Quincey was appalled by ‘unreliable’, thinking that ‘unrelyuponable’ would be more correct. Swift detested ‘mob’ and ‘banter’. Benjamin Franklin was offended by the use of ‘progress’ and ‘advocate’ as verbs. Coleridge loathed ‘talented’. Fowler condemned ‘electrocution’ and ‘gullible’. One editor of the ‘New York Evening Post’ would not allow ‘artiste’, ‘pants’ or ‘standpoint’. In the eighteenth century one Edward Phillips, the author of ‘The New World of English Words’ disliked ‘autograph’, ‘ferocious’, ‘misogynist’ and ‘repatriation’. The tradition continues.


4 responses to “English is in Decline, Yada, Yada

  1. I agree English in a spiral downward. We have learned to accept incorrect grammar for so long that it is now accepted as correct. I remember on a trip to Mexico City I happened to turn on the television. There was a program where they was an attempt to teach English. The person doing this had a thick Spanish accent. Therefore the people learning the words were learning them with stress on the wrong syllable. I am afraid that the English language will be bastardized so badly that we will speak in techno talk and not proper English.


    • I hope that if you re-read my post you may want to reconsider that view. English is certainly not in a downward spiral. It remains what is probably the most successful language the world has known. It exists in many different forms, but that is its strength rather than its weakness.


      • You are correct. I reread your work. But I still feel that the world will be forced to learn more Chinese in the future. When I went to school Spanish, French and German were given as electives. Now Chinese is common. In fact my grandson, Michael, is enrolled in a class and he is in the sixth grade.


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