Where You At, Language? (Part 1 of 3)

It’s almost impossible not to notice text-speak clumsily butting its way into other modes of conversation. I often hear people say “LOL” and “WTF?”; I mean, they SAY it. They SAY double-u-tee-eff. This amuses me, since the abbreviation takes longer to say than the original.

I’m less amused about the current tragic state of the apostrophe. And I’m not talking about tricky stuff, like being able to smoothly show that Sara Jones and her entire family own a mailbox. I’m talking about sentences like:

My grandmothers house is brick.


The executive start’s the meeting at 11:00.

Gahhh! No!

The apostrophe is dying, and people are trying to revive it by placing it as the penultimate character in every word that ends in an “s.” It’s one thing to forget an apostrophe, but the second example shows a basic lack of understanding about apostrophes.

I can’t help wonder what English will look like in another 50 years. Maybe Taylor Mali has a point in Speak with Conviction. Maybe we’ll be even more afraid to make declarative sentences. Maybe we’ll just use question marks as our only form of punctuation. Like, you know?

The executive start?s the meeting at 11:00.

Yes, that looks better, doesn’t it? I mean, it makes as much sense as the version with the apostrophe, doesn’t it?

But if we look at language as an ever-changing entity, maybe we don’t have to feel as doomsday about this. We hold precious what we know, but possibly, as we gripe about what texting is doing to our language, we are oversimplifying what’s happening.

In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer writes:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge

With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho

That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge

Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,

And spedde as wel in love as men now do; (Part II, lines 22-26)


This is exactly the type of smooth-talking language you hear out in the singles clubs, right?

The translation? Chaucer’s basically saying that, back in ancient Greece, which is the setting for Troilus and Criseyde, men used some pretty crazy words to hit on their ladies.

In Modern English, the passage reads:

Remember in the forms of speech comes change
Within a thousand years, and words that then
Were well esteemed, seem foolish now and strange;
And yet they spoke them so, time and again,
And thrived in love as well as any men (translation by George Philip Krapp)

I love this. Since we know he was very aware of the protean aspects of language, I picture him fully realizing the irony this excerpt would hold for future readers. Chaucer’s language, which we now call Middle English, is so archaic to us that we need a translator. Chaucer helped birth a language that later became archaic, but I wonder if he would be primarily saddened or fascinated by what happened to his little baby as he sent it out of the nest to make its own path in the world. His language isn’t dead; it has just changed, a lot.

Over the next few posts, I want to talk about what Peter Elbow and Jennifer Egan have to say about language. But even more, I’d like to hear what you have to say about language. Is English decaying? What do you expect of English in the next 50 years? If you anticipate its decay, do you see any silver lining?




9 Replies to “Where You At, Language? (Part 1 of 3)”

  1. I agree with you and would like to talk a little about the way the passive voice has crept into everyday usage. I think people are already afraid to truly declare anything. The first time I noticed this phenomenon, a supervisor said that his boss ” is wanting us” to do something. Even then, I thought either he wants us to do it or not, but this seems awkward and indecisive. Now, the passive voice is everywhere.

    When I was in elementary school, my teachers (not teacher’s) taught that Hallowe’en had an apostrophe. They explained that Hallowe’en was short for All Hallows Eve (which was short for evening) and that’s why we needed the apostrophe. I still spell it this way, even though MS Word thinks it is a spelling error.

  2. Good points, Adrienne. My guess is that the phrase “is wanting us” is an inability to conjugate correctly, but I agree with you about passive voice. Many people think of themselves as objects rather than subjects. They ponder, “What will the world do to me today?” rather than “How can I make my life the way I want it?” I realize this is a generalization, but I can’t help feeling that as the multitude of choices grows, it’s ironic that so many people shrink from agency and accountability.

  3. i recently heard a discussion of this very subject on npr. the concern dealt with the mutation/deterioration of what we know of the english language. an interesting point was made, that language is fluid and an ever-evolving entity as it has been throughout time, and generations always worried that those who followed them would not continue their literary traditions in the manner to which they were accustomed. what is so different in what is happening now, when compared to the changes that happened way back then? and what is so wrong with change and adapting to the current societal needs and uses of words and language traditions? raises some interesting questions perhaps –

  4. I should listen to NPR more often. Yes, these are all great questions, Beth. Thanks for weighing in. I wish I had some answers. I find myself constantly divided about this. On one hand, I think language SHOULD evolve; on the other, I wonder if our oversimplification of language gives us an excuse to disengage from complicated thought. As we limit our rhetoric, we limit our ability to explain nuances. I do think language equals thought, in a lot of ways. So then I wonder whether oversimplified language is the problem and oversimplified thought is the symptom, or vice versa. I’m not sure. As we go broad in our communications, is it possible for us to retain depth, too? Very few answers in my reply, mostly more questions!

  5. Perhaps writing itself will wither away and it will be the oddball who still knows how to read print, or how to spell. My youngest grand-neice might never have to learn to type (though I imagine her mother will insist she learns how to print her letters). By the time Mia’s in high school, she and her classmates may well be dictating their papers and projects. The human race will go back to its oral-tradition roots, but it will be computers that will do all the memorizing and recitation.

    1. That’s interesting, May. I sure hope that doesn’t happen, especially for us visual learners. I’d be hard pressed to listen to an essay and then grade it fairly, unless I hit rewind over and over. I suppose I can see people moving to dictation for drafting (have you ever tried the “Dragon” software?) but I still feel there would have to be some sort of visual editing. Now you have me wondering if the computer will become the editor, translating our dictation into written language just like autocorrect tries to help us out now when we text. Scary. Lots to think about. Thanks for the post!

  6. Oh my, I agree with you but I’ve also just suddenly become very self-conscious about my own writing. Unfortunately “lol” has become a part of my everyday vernacular and while I know where the apostrophe goes, and the comma, when I’m not thinking, I just through them in anywhere – unfortunately, later when I look it I can’t help but think “Did I actually write that?” But I don’t think language is decaying, evolving, yes, but not decaying. I also think, it’s because in primary schools the teachers just don’t teach enough about grammar. Honestly, I had to learn about the “comma” all by myself and the difference between “:” and “;”. I think grammar points need to be reinforced, but as for aspects of language like “lol” and “wtf”, that’s just language evolving, as long as the users are aware of the context and knows when to use the right register, then I doubt it’ll affect the use of English much. Well, that’s what I think anyway! interesting post!

  7. Yes, Nina, I agree! I think there’s a big difference between sloppiness and the merging of vernacular and written language. I think that’s the silver lining that represents evolution rather than mere decay. Have you read anything by Peter Elbow? I mentioned him in the original post because I want to talk a bit about his book “Vernacular Language.” More on this soon. Thanks for the reply!

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