3 Things Predicted to Destroy the English Language
There are an alarming number of people who still feel the need to write to broadsheet newspapers complaining of the destruction of the English language. Texting, television, the Internet and emojis have all attracted the wrath of the linguistic champion in recent years.
However, if transported back even one hundred years, these guardians of grammar would not fare all that well. Just as they shoot piercingly dismissive looks at texters, colonists and Captain Tiberius Kirk, they would earn the ire of pretentious onlookers.
Linguistic condescension isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, it is something that’s been around for almost as long as language itself. Just as certain broadsheet readers sniff at those who split infinitives, Elizabethans and Jacobeans turned their noses at those who cooed at the vulgarity of Shakespearean plays.
While the historic list of offending things is almost endless, we have selected three of the most interesting for some light Friday afternoon reading.
William the Conqueror
Unlike the proliferation of mobile communications and Japanese ideograms, William the Conqueror actually posed a legitimate threat to the existence of the English language.
In 1066, King Harold of England was defeated by the Duke of Normandy and England fell under Norman rule. Along with their occupying force, the Norman army also brought a new language: French.
French was the native language of the conquerors and quickly asserted itself as the preferred tongue of government, commerce and the upper classes. Incidentally, this French-speaking upper echelon is why modern English has multiple words for certain foods. The English-speaking peasantry reared the animals (pig, cow, deer) and the French-speaking upper classes ate them (bacon, beef, venison).
French retained its position as England’s dominant language until English launched a spirited resurgence during the 14th century. If it wasn’t for a number of convenient events, including the Black Death, populist revolt and interlingual marriages, we may well be speaking French right now.
The printing press is one of the single greatest reasons western society is as it is. It provided a simple means for the dissemination of information and ideas on an unprecedented scale. It fundamentally changed Europe and with it the world. The subsequent proliferation of information allowed for huge leaps in science, literature, engineering and life in general.
However, the printing press did not arrive on the shores of England without its fair share of controversy.
William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, garnered criticism from almost every corner of society. Religious leaders were particularly vocal, claiming that the ability to mechanically copy texts threatened their monastic way of life and would allow radical minorities to spread heretical and treasonous ideas to greater portions of the population.
In the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu established the Académie Française, the French Academy. The French Academy is composed of forty internally-elected members, known as immortals, and tasked with directing the development of the French language. The Academy exists to this day and acts as an official authority on the French language. However, its rulings are only advisory and are not technically binding to either citizens or state.
The English language, for better or worse, has always lacked an such a body. The evolution of English is not defined by the decision of a select few, but the average usage across its entire population.
For example, the definition of literal has literally reversed because people insisted on using literally to mean something that did not happen literally. If the fate of the English language were entrusted in a group of language loving intellectuals, I doubt whether that would ever have happened.
Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was particularly critical of the evolution of the English language during the 17th and 18th centuries. He feared that through the absorption of loan words and the development of new phrases, English speakers would completely forget the history and culture that underpins their own language.
Swift strongly argued for the establishment of an official body to safeguard English in its current state and stem the endemic ‘corruption’ in society. Thankfully, or perhaps regretfully, his attempts failed.