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?