Language Changes… and I Drag My Feet

January 14, 2010

More years ago that I care to remember, I was in an Intro to Cultural Anthropology class at UND. The professor told us to compare cultural change to a train. Technology/Science is the engine; technology moves much faster than any other aspect of culture, and forces culture to scurry to keep up. Society is next, changing and trying to keep up. Religion (not spirituality, but organized religion with all the rules that entails) is the caboose, holding back the change as hard as it can. Think of Galileo and his discovery — he was almost killed by the Roman Catholic Church until he recanted the truth of the scientific discovery he’d made. And in the last 100 years, we’ve had more scientific and technological progress than the last, oh, 50,000 or so?

Language is in that middle car, changing to keep up with technology (raise your hand if your grandmother would have known what “gigabyte” or “nanotechnology” means!) and the changes in culture it makes. In France, there is (or maybe was; I forget) a government body whose task it was to keep track of “new” words that cropped up in common speech, and decide whether or not they could be included in the dictionary of “proper French.” That may be taking things a little too far, but as a writer who grew up with Strunk and White at my side, and a Latin teacher who taught me more about English grammar, and grammar in general, than any other teacher I’ve ever had, I’m dragging my feet at some of the changes that have been popping up. I refuse to consider them changes; in the pedantic little critic/editor corner of the brain, they remain just plain wrong!

First is the “new” expression, which if you spend time with anyone under, oh, 22, you’ll probably hear: “I could care less.” What? Do they get what they’re saying? If you could care less, then obviously you CARE — what they mean is “I couldn’t care less,” but that seems to have dropped by the wayside. Sadly.

Then we have the use of the word “nauseous.” According to MY dictionary, and every other one I’ve checked, if something is nauseous it makes you feel nauseated. A nauseous smell, for example, or a nauseous shade of green. Yet speakers and writers use “nauseous” to mean nauseated. “I felt nauseous” an otherwise excellent writer wrote; so is she telling us that she felt that she was making everyone around her sick? I think not; I think she meant she felt sick herself. Sigh.

Moving on to a Strunk and White example of a widely misused word, we have “comprise.” According to good old S&W, “comprise” isn’t a substitute for “consist” and shouldn’t be used with “of.” Their example (which I don’t like, but it works) is “The zoo comprises many animals.” I’d use it in a sentence like “My book comprises ghost stories and mysterious tales.” Not ever “My book is comprised of ghost stories and mysterious tales.” It’s wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, according to every dictionary I checked. But common usage is making it “right.”

The worst, for someone who has studied multiple languages that still use case with nouns as well as pronouns, is the disappearance of the objective case in singular personal pronouns. For non-grammarians (and non-pedantic linguists), what I’m saying is that objects aren’t different from subjects in English; “book” is “book” whether you say/write “This book is great!” or “I dropped the book.” Objects only remain in personal pronounts. ” I dropped the book, but the door hit ME in the face. Americans don’t seem to have much trouble with the plural (and second person “you” doesn’t change); “Let’s keep this between US,” for example. But divide that up, and “we” have problems. I hear it in dialogue in TV and movies, I hear it in conversation, and sadly I read it in the works of authors who should know better. “That’s between John and I,” say people who would never say “That’s between we.” It’s ME, people, it’s ME — That’s between you and ME. Do the misusers think “I” somehow sounds more, I don’t know, sophisticated? It shouldn’t, because IT’S WRONG. “That’s for us” is common, but so is “that’s for Mary and I.” Sorry, Mary, but “That’s for Mary and me.” If you’re saying “Duh — everyone knows that” that’s good — it means YOU know that. Unfortunately, it’s painfully obvious that not everyone knows that.

Will common usage make these (few examples) acceptable? Common usage forced gender out of everything but third person singular pronouns in English. We’ve also lost case and several tenses. What I fear more than anything is that texting “vocabulary” will become acceptable in speech and writing. I already hear “OMG!” and “TMI” far more often than I want to. Yes, I use them in email, but I write or say the words everywhere else. “U” should never be a substitute for “you” in good writing, nor should “4” be a substitute for “for” (it’s probably fine if you mean “four,” though). And so many others that I’m too old to know or understand.

Who will be teaching English in 20 or 30 years? Will we lose words to clumps of letters, and will what is ungrammatical today become correct then? I don’t know if I want to be around to see it.

And yes, I’m a pedantic, foot-dragging linguist, who sees change coming and doesn’t much like it!

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