Can a language be ruined?

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Språknörd och språkpolis som jag är minns jag att det tog emot att skriva den här uppsatsen för tre år sedan. Det var mitt ”final exam” på kursen Language Usage på högskolan, och jag hade fyra timmar på mig att argumentera för att språk faktiskt får förändras, att slarvig grammatik skapar framtidens grammatik, något jag givetvis mycket väl förstod – och förstår – men det tog emot. Jag dissade språkpolisen i mig. Men jag fick högsta betyg – trots de grammatiska misstagen som jag nu ser att jag gjort mig skyldig till och med kommentaren att jag borde tona ner användandet av ordet ”thing”.

Hur som helst: Håll till godo, alla språknördar där ute!

There are many people who could be called language officers, who constantly comment on other people’s grammatical errors. They feel that they are on a special mission, namely to serve and protect a language that they have come to love. If they do not do it, who will? And if nobody does it, there is a big risk of the language being ruined. This essay will analyze whether a language can be ruined or not. It will also argue that the media only mirror what already exists, and that it should not be blamed for something that inevitably will happen.

When people say that certain people or groups of people ruin a language it is rather unclear what they mean by “ruin”. What does that word even mean in this context? Usually, when people say “ruin” they mean destroy. When something is destroyed it is usually torn apart; it is of no use; it is broken. The question that needs to be asked is if a language really can be destroyed. Can a language be broken, out of order? A language is a tool to communicate, used to understand and to be understood. Does a lack of linguistic perfection hinder people from communicating? Of course not. Neither does a perfect usage of languages increase people’s ability to make themselves understood. So by saying that a language is ruined, they do not mean destroyed, but rather changed.

The same thing can be seen in the following example from the American sitcom Friends: “Stop screaming, you are ruining moving-day for us”. What the character Chandler Bing meant by using the word “ruining” was not that their screaming made it impossible for them to move furniture; it meant that if they screamed, moving-day would not be as he wanted it to be. They ruined moving-day by changing it from the way he thought it should be, and ruining a language simply means that people change language from how certain people think it should be. In other words: to ruin a language does not mean to destroy, but to change.

That raises other questions: Can change be avoided? Should it be? Is change such a bad thing? There is an old saying that goes: “the only thing that is constant is change”, meaning that the only thing that will never change is that things will always change. The book “Language Myths”, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, discusses if language change can or should be avoided. John Algeo writes: “We don’t have to like particular changes, or even the fact of change itself. But a language or anything else that does not change is dead” (Bauer and Trudgill, 178). Being afraid of change is natural. Everybody is, more or less. And the more people care about certain things the less change they want in that particular area. If ones son likes, and the other son loves and adores, their mom’s meatballs without onion, the one who loves them will protest the loudest when they see their mom chopping onions. Language enthusiasts are the ones who protest when what used to be grammatical errors are not errors anymore. However, those who do not love and adore language – those to whom language is not like poetry, not like a sun setting at the horizon, not like fall leaves coloring the scenery red and yellow – those to whom language is merely a tool they use to be understood, are in a vast majority. And the majority does not even notice the onion. They only notice when people who care too much comment on the onion – or on the “m” in “whom”.

Change is inevitable, and it is not a new thing. On the contrary, language has always changed. Peter Trudgill says that language changes in both pronunciation, meaning of words and in grammar. “Five hundred years ago, all English speakers used to pronounce the k in knee – now nobody does […] English speakers used to say “saw you my son?” Now everybody says “Did you see my son?” (Bauer and Trudgill, 1). So language change is not a new thing and seen in a long perspective, the language that those “language officers” do their best not to change is actually a very changed language. They protect the version they grew up with, the one they were once taught. Because yes, when they went to school, their teacher taught – not learnt – them proper English.

With every generation comes an updated version of the language, and it has always been that way. Media did not create that phenomenon, as often is argued. Jean Aitchison says that “in recent years, the media – television, radio, newspapers – have been widely criticized as linguistic criminals” (Bauer and Trudgill, 15). It is a widely spread accusation towards the media that it is ruining – changing – language. In 1982, David Crystal listed the top twenty complaints about broadcast language, and complaining number one was the misuse of “you and I” versus “you and me”. That is, however, not a new thing, and certainly not one the media should be blamed for. Aitchison explains that over 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote “All debts are clear between you and I” (Bauer and Trudgill, 16), and that “Oxford-educated Lady Thatcher proclaimed: ‘It is not for you and I to condemn the Malawi economy” (Bauer and Trudgill, 17). The media did not create this supposed error; it only reflected what a world wide known and respected author wrote 400 years ago, and what a well-educated politician said in front of cameras and microphones. The media do not create – it reflects. It mirrors what already exists, and gives educated as well as uneducated people a microphone. It gives the small changes in a language a platform through which it can be spread. If people like it they will use it. If they do not, they will pay no attention to it and it will die. The media cannot create – only enhance.

Change is inevitable, even when it comes to language. Refusing to accept change is like running north through a crowd that runs south. You will either be exhausted and give up, or you will make it and live a lonely life up north. We will probably never know exactly who to blame for every single change in a language. But if someone still tries to find a scapegoat for something that has been around for 400 years – then perhaps it is time for them to change.

Jens Charlieson

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