English… Please

There’s a growing, if underground, backlash against bilingualism in the United States, against the proliferation of directions and instructions in languages other than English, against ballots printed in Spanish, against ATMs with foreign language options.  Yet, from what I’ve observed, while I do believe that the legal language of the United States is and should remain English, so many of those who demand action or legislation to reinforce this are missing the linguistic boat.

The United States is indeed a nation of immigrants, and all too many youngsters today seem to have lost some of the skills of their parents.  For example, fewer and fewer of them can write adequately the language written and spoken by their parents.  This wouldn’t be such a loss… except the language I’m talking about is English, American English in particular. And I’m also not talking about those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  I’m referring to the vast majority of white Caucasian high school graduates from “good” urban or suburban high schools.

This linguistically disadvantaged majority – and actual tests of proficiency in English reading, writing, and comprehension show clearly this lack of ability – does not know basic grammar, basic spelling, or the construction and use of their native tongue. This spills over into everything, from essays to business correspondence, from newspaper and magazine articles even to headlines, not to mention blogs and advertisements. The number and percentage of grammatical and spelling errors in publications has increased dramatically.  I’ve gone back and checked older publications, and such lack of skill and care either didn’t exist or was caught by editors and proof-readers.

The same lack of precision in language permeates popular music – assuming one can even decipher the abysmal diction of most singers in order to suffer through grammatical inaccuracies and debasement of a once-proud language.  In point of fact, it’s amazing to realize that the music once considered almost degraded and backwoods-derived – country music, to be exact – is perhaps the only form of current popular vocal music where the majority of the lyrics can actually be understood.

Yes… a small percentage of Americans continue to write well and skillfully, but that proportion is declining every year, paradoxically at a time when recent studies show that the mastery of language equates directly to the mastery of thought and ideas.  Might it just be possible… just possibly… that the decline in the ability of Americans to articulate and understand the complexities of our society lies in the decline of their linguistic abilities?  Mastery of language is not merely the knowledge of vocabulary, but the ability to construct sentences that are clear and logical, and to understand those that are logically complex.  In short, clear thinking requires a good command of language, and there’s definitely a shortage of clear thinking today.

Why are simplistic political or commercial sound-bites so successful?  Is it because the euphony of simplicity appeals so much more readily to those who are linguistically disadvantaged?  Or because those whose language skills have atrophied or were never developed have difficulty in understanding anything more complex?

Whatever the reason, the English-only partisans seem unwilling and unable to understand that they’re well on the way to losing their battle… and they’re losing it from within.

While citing history is usually doomed to failure, because so few understand its parallels, or want to, I will point out that Latin was once the language that ruled the world.  As it became debased, so did Rome… to the point where Latin is a dead language, and Italian bears but a passing resemblance to the language it replaced… and… oh… Italy couldn’t even reunite itself until more than 1,900 years after the death of Julius Caesar.

12 thoughts on “English… Please”

  1. Lailoken says:

    I definitively agree with 95% of the post. However, PLEASE put more of an emphasis on the word “perhaps” when saying “…country music…is perhaps the only form of current popular vocal music where the majority of the lyrics can actually be understood.”

    A full metric assload of popular music makes me respect and fear the POWER of Marketing, but even with that large grain of salt already in the wound, I have to point out that many of the Top 40 Albums (Billboard Aug 11th, 2010.. Which is a VERY GENERIC guide to what’s “popular”) that are vocally based can easily be understood.

    I hate to say it so plainly but… how many of these Albums have you actually actively listened to? As a huge fan of Music (Rap, Alt. Rock, Indie Rock, Electronic, Jazz, and falling back into love with Classical…) I feel that statement does far too much injustice to outstanding, popular artists.

    No doubt, we have the largely hypermarketed debacles such as Ke$ha and whatnot, but where do Arcade Fire, Rick Ross, Lady Gaga (Why do I feel so BAD for including her?!?!), The Black Keys, Sheryl Crow, Usher, Black Eyed Peas, Train, Tom Petty, B.o.B, The Black Keys, Big Boi fit into that statement? I think many decently intelligent people, after actively listening to many of these artists and the works, would find that statement odious.

    I think there is a large difference in saying that one doesn’t understand this music versus the artists themselves are not understandable. Having read Archform: Beauty, I think I understand much of your perspective when it comes to Quality Art, and how it’s measured and perceived, vs Popular Entertainment… But having put together many thought provoking books dealing with artistic integrity… that statement BARELY qualifies.

  2. I’m certain that, if written, many of the popular lyrics could indeed be understood, but diction is also a part of being understood. I have heard “The Star Spangled Banner” so mangled that I could only understand the words because I already knew them. To me, much popular music falls into that category. It’s not just the words; it’s also diction and delivery.

  3. hob says:

    How words are spoken and meant change over time, as any cursory glance at Shakespeare’s plays would demonstrate. In that way Mr Modesitt you are correct, American English is dying/changing.

    Maybe the bigger point your trying to make is that the written word or the basic grammatical laws are also being disregarded because of the evolution of American English and nothing is replacing them. That a uniform system of written language is needed for better understanding between peoples in the same nation/states/societies and miss-communication more often than not leads to fractures/splintering societies.

    Maybe a more flexible system of grammar that can accommodate the different bending of words (something that would naturally and repeatedly arise judging from history) needs to be developed.

    I remember reading once that English was/is a powerful trading language because early in its development it wasn’t afraid to borrow many words from different languages/cultures.

  4. Joshua Blonski says:

    How words are spoken do change over time, but if that evolution is not “replaced” as you mention, that’s not evolution. It’s the degradation of spoken language. If someone doesn’t enunciate properly, that’s (most of the time) laziness, not a valid evolutionary point of language. It’s important to know the right pronunciation of words. Chinese is a great example of this, since even the spoken duration of certain sounds changes the meaning of the surrounding word.

    Language has the very specific purpose of communicating ideas. If those who speak the language do not follow the set protocols, these people are communicating considerably less effectively and efficiently. It makes a difference. Look at it from a foreigner’s standpoint, where someone might speak English less than fluently. The subtle differences in diction make all the difference in the world. As a friend of mine pointed out, “Jeet jet?” is not readily understood as “Did’ja eat yet?” or “Have you eaten yet?” by someone who is not skilled in the language. As a flipped example, a simple slip of diction in German is all the difference between, “This weather is humid,” and, “This weather is gay.”

    I disagree that we need a more flexible system of grammar. I think that just promotes general laziness within the language. Will the language change over time? Absolutely. Does that mean we should be any less strict over precise meaning or pronunciation? I don’t believe so. In order to preserve effective communication, it is important to know specifically what words mean and how they are pronounced.

    As an interesting note about how words are spoken over time, our modern “General” American English is closer than modern Queen’s English with regard to Shakespeare’s spoken English.

  5. hob says:

    Who creates the rules of how a language is written? It does not just appear by fire. Words/language are a tool between people. The written word is more often than not derived from the intellectual/ruling class, and the rules are placed strictly to limit errors in explanation/direction.
    American English is closer to Shakespearean English not because Shakespearean English was how the nobility spoke and wrote–but because it was then, the modern slang. Shakespeare was largely popular to the masses because he wrote English as English was spoken around him. He disregarded many rules of grammar in his time.
    Languages change. Ideas remain. The more effectively people can communicate their respective ideas, the healthier the society. Wanting to fix the method in which English is written is futile because the spoken method (jeet jet?) will change.

  6. hob says:

    Evolutionary Grammar–A grammar system that evolves as the respective language evolves. How one would go about it, I’m not sure. But it surely would give a huge advantage to whatever society develops it. The true potential of computers and the web is being under used in my opinion.

  7. Lailoken says:

    Diction and delivery changes are an integral parts of an artist’s expression. Country music artists deviate from “standard” English ALLLL the time. Reasons vary with the artist (aesthetics and authenticity spring to mind), but more often then not, precision DEMANDS this. Might it be the context, references, vocabulary and/or sheer difference of sound that’s turning you off? How many of the previously mentioned artists albums have you actually listened to?

    Even having sharing in your EXACT identical experience with our nation’s anthem, I still challenge your judgement of modern popular music when Country’s the only genre you can “understand”. I love your books, and the ideas within have changed my life for the better SEVERAL times over. It was invaluable for putting my military experiences into proper context, understanding my character flaws and reevaluating my conclusions on ethics, honesty, & sacrifice. My respect for you and your work remains untarnished… but you have got to give it another shot.

    P.S.—>Am I really saying this to YOU?! (I think I felt my heart hail a cab a leave without settling the check for dinner!)

  8. There’s a fundamental difference between “style” and “diction.” There’s also a difference between grammar and intelligibility. And no, it’s not just “country” music that I understand, but one of the differences that you seem to be overlooking is that somewhere around 40 years ago things began to change. Prior to that the majority of lyrics to almost any form of American music weresung in a way to be intelligible to virtually any American. I’ve asked even young people to tell me what various artists have sung… and even if those artists are their favorites, unless they’ve heard the songs before, usually they can’t. This isn’t limited to popular music, either; I’ve heard young opera singers attempt English operatic pieces, and even when I know the lines, I have trouble reconciling the score to what comes out of the singer’s mouth.

    And yes, I do respond personally. I have no assistants, secretaries, or the like.

  9. Joshua Blonski says:

    Hob, while we’ve both touched upon the same topics and brought up similar points in some regard, overall I still respectfully disagree. A language does evolve, but you cannot simply call any change an evolutionary one. A lack of proper communication and a lack of verbal understanding due to laziness is speech is, in my opinion, degradation and not evolution.

    As a side note, I meant “Shakespeare’s English” as Elizabethan (a mark of the time, not of the man). And I was also tossing that out as a fun fact, not as a point of debate. The grammar rules of his time were considerably less defined than in ours. Writers of early modern English saw a problem with that, actually, and that’s why that particular culture attempted to eventually make their own standard dictionaries, grammar rules, and language code. Prior to that, it was hard to break rules of the time because they weren’t yet established. So I hope that clears up that I was simply talking about a difference between Queen’s English (accent) then and Queen’s English (accent) now when comparing to our own modern American English accent.

  10. Lailoken says:

    Hmmm. After carefully rethinking the issue, I also realized that I was getting style confused with diction. I was up for a lot of last night mulling this over. Then I realized while listening to many song on the radio, I had to revised the lyrics they were singing TWICE on average! Usually only a word or two, but then I went back and listened to 1940’s music and I realized that you were right. It is easier to understand what they are actually saying…. I was mistaken. I got diction mixed up with a artistic merit.

    And I meant that I couldn’t believe I was that I was arguing this point against you… and got it politely slapped down. Thanks for the out, not to mention the laugh, but I’ll take this L squarely on the face… I was very wrong.

    But it got me thinking, what modern music DO you listen to? Diction needs work, but there are a ton of great music out here than deserves some of your time…

  11. These days I tend to listen to classical music. some country, and whatever rock/pop that I can understand while still keeping my eardrums intact.

  12. hob says:

    Joshua–really ironically in the context of this discussion, we both seem to view the term evolution in different terms. I meant it in the sense of change/different from the previous. You feel evolution only occurs in the positive.

    The reason language changes is due to power/class systems. And power/class systems are always going to be fluid because humans compete with each other. Saying that things should be as the always were (which itself is questionable) because it was better is really just saying the lines of power should remain clear.

    You could say that a well defined society runs better in the long term and stagnates in tech and art, but that is not a democracy–A democracy is a constant battle for power/lifestyle and creates a huge incentive for its citizens to create/build tech/art, challenge previous systems, go into new horizons.(Don’t mean to sound cliche)

    American Democracy is lucky in two ways–it is both flexible and rigid. It is rigid in the sense that it will defend at all costs the right to be flexible and flexible in the sense that it can see a need for being rigid. The world keeps playing catch up.

    The problem Mr Modesitt is describing is relevant only when one doesn’t adapt and order the change taking place. In that way America will most likely repeat the mistake of past empires, if the intellectual/ruling class is unwilling to embrace the underlying culture that brought them to power in the first place then the problems will grow to an unmanageable situation.

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