Monday, April 22, 2013

(Thumbs) Ups and Down of English Grammar Usage Change

Language and generation are closely linked.  By hearing the words and structure of a sentence, it is possible to know the approximate age of the speaker and, to a lesser degree, writer.  It is clear that since languages are living and dynamic, they will evolve in time. However, just as in regards to the changes in our mind and body as we grow older, we are entitled to our opinions about them.  Alas, as with our complaints about reduced vision, expanded stomachs, and disappearing hair, complaints don’t make any difference.  Still, it does provide some satisfaction to voice them.

The gradual disappearance of whom, the ithers, and the present perfect for emphasis saddens me for some reason.  I like the sound of phrases such as “To whom am I speaking” and “For whom it may concern” not to mention that classic Hemmingway title For Whom the Bell Tolls (Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was a far superior book on the Spanish Civil War).  They simply have more character than “who am talking to”, for example. As for the “ithers”, hither, whither, and thither, the last surviving remnants of the Latin locative case in English are only expressed in two expressions: come hither and whither to.  For those younger readers, locative expresses direction as compared to location and thrives in Russian and Hebrew in such forms куда [kuda] instead of где [gde], сюда [syuda] instead of здесь [sdyess], туда [tuda] instead of там [tam] and לאן [la’an] instead of איפה [aifo], שמה [shama] instead of שם [sham] and הנה [hena] instead of כאן [kan] for where, there, and here in Russian and Hebrew, respectively.    Finally, Americans now commonly use the past simple instead of the present perfect in the following sentence: I just woke up instead I have just woken up.  The latter form, still preferred by UK speakers I am told, better emphasizes the fact that I don’t want to talk or make decisions until I drink my first cup of coffee or tea.  In short, it adds flavor and texture to the language, which is desirable in the right proportion.

So as not appear as a grumpy old man fighting progress, there are usage changes that I like, really.  The almost complete extinction of the word shall brings me great joy.  The only time I see it is in the legal texts I translate, which are archaic anyway and don’t count for measuring active use.  The reason for my joy is who in the hell could remember the stupid rule: Future: I shall, we shall, all the others “will”; determinative: I will, we will, everything else “shall”.  Moreover, why should we remember that rule?  I have the same sentiment to the long forgotten restriction of the word can to ability only and not permission.  I hated the elementary school teacher answer to the question “Can I go to the bathroom?”: Yes, you can, but you may not.”  Now it is much clearer: “you can’t” without the grammar lesson.

I just have one more small request for one word to disappear as fast as possible: awesome.  The sound of middle-aged sports announcers saying that the singing of the national anthem was “awesome” sounds like parents trying to copy their teenager’s language, i.e. pathetic and utterly unnatural.

So, language will change for better or worse, whether we like it or not.  Let me know if any change in your language that pains or gladdens your heart.

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