Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Obituary — The English Language

By Gene Weingarten,
Pulitzer-prize-winning author

The English language, which arose from humble Anglo-Saxon roots to become the lingua franca of 600 million people worldwide and the dominant lexicon of international discourse, is dead. It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness. It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself.

The end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the "youngest" daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their "younger" daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the "Obama's." This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame.

The language's demise took few by surprise. Signs of its failing health had been evident for some time on the pages of America's daily newspapers, the flexible yet linguistically authoritative forums through which the day-to-day state of the language has traditionally been measured. Beset by the need to cut costs, and influenced by decreased public attention to grammar, punctuation and syntax in an era of unedited blogs and abbreviated instant communication, newspaper publishers have been cutting back on the use of copy editing, sometimes eliminating it entirely.

In the past year alone, as the language lay imperiled, the ironically clueless misspelling "pronounciation" has been seen in the Boston Globe, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Deseret Morning News, Washington Jewish Week and the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, where it appeared in a correction that apologized for a previous mispronunciation.

On Aug. 6, the very first word of an article in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal was "Alot," which the newspaper employed to estimate the number of Winston-Salemites who would be vacationing that month.

The Lewiston (Maine) Sun-Journal has written of "spading and neutering." The Miami Herald reported on someone who "eeks out a living" -- alas, not by running an amusement-park haunted house. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star described professional football as a "doggy dog world." The Vallejo (Calif.) Times-Herald and the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune were the two most recent papers, out of dozens, to report on the treatment of "prostrate cancer."

Observers say, however, that no development contributed more dramatically to the death of the language than the sudden and startling ubiquity of the vomitous verbal construction "reach out to" as a synonym for "call on the phone," or "attempt to contact." A jargony phrase bloated with bogus compassion -- once the province only of 12-step programs and sensitivity training seminars -- "reach out to" is now commonplace in newspapers. In the last half-year, the New York Times alone has used it more than 20 times in a number of contextually indefensible ways, including to report that the Blagojevich jury had asked the judge a question.

It was not immediately clear to what degree the English language will be mourned, or if it will be mourned at all. In the United States, English has become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among young adults. Once the most popular major at the nation's leading colleges and universities, it now often trails more pragmatic disciplines, such as economics, politics, government, and, ironically, "communications," which increasingly involves learning to write mobile-device-friendly ads for products like Cheez Doodles.

Many people interviewed for this obituary appeared unmoved by the news, including Anthony Incognito of Crystal City, a typical man in the street.

"Between you and I," he said, "I could care less."

Source: Grammarbook



  1. Ha! Oh, some of that was painful to me. I think the English language has probably been in its death throes for a while now, actually. :)

  2. My grammar isn't always perfect. But I cringe when I read things like these or hear them on newscasts. A lot of folks need a back-to-basics English class certification every once in a while.

  3. I've had younger college-educated colleagues who've asked me questions about basic grammar. A few have defended their ignorance by saying they didn't major in English. I tell them that I learned the basics in fourth grade. Apparently grammar drills aren't taught anymore.

  4. Watch the newsfeed along the bottom of a newscast if you want another chance to cringe - the spelling can be...shall we say...interesting. Let us hope the English language is not dead, but just suffering from a very bad head cold.

  5. On the other hand, let's not forget that English, like any other language, is evolving. We may look at all these things as bad grammar right now, but I'd say a word 'alot' would come handy. Why not?

    A couple of hundred years ago linguists probably cringed at hearing new English words and grammar constructions that seem correct from our perspective.

    Spellings also will change over time, English just has to become more phonetic, that's a fact. Just think on how 'colour' has become 'color' in US etc., doesn't it make it easier?

    It could be that we're witnessing birth of many different Englishes these days which will become separate languages in hundreds of years!

    So I would say - maybe we can take it a bit easier and look at it with a pragmatic eye...

  6. Hopefully it'll make like the Phoenix!

    :-) Take care

  7. Alex: A bit of both...this gives another dimension of importance to editors, though! :)

    Elizabeth: OMGosh, YES! So much of that was painful to me as well. Like nails on a chalkboard!

    Carol: I agree, which takes me to Helena's comment...

    Helena: Now THAT is SAD. Although I did major in English, I still had above-average English skills from elementary, middle and high school!

    Elspeth: Those news feeds can be the worst! I know they abbreviate some of that information, but that's no excuse for the blatant errors. More fingernails on a chalkboard!

    Robby: :Like everything in life, yes English is changing and evolving. We've seen this with the addition of (for example) technical terms such as e-mail and Internet; not to mention the mountain of now hyphenated words, two words where the one-word version is now preferred...the list goes on. This post wasn't meant to be taken quite so literally - it was meant to add a bit of humor not only to the changes the language has and is experiencing, but to also share the disbelief and amazement that such obvious errors make it to print.

    Old Kitty: I like the comparison to the Phoenix! I've noticed a trend in the "World of Words" of people becoming more involved in reinstating English and attempting to be more aware of punctuation and grammar 'rules.'

  8. Crystal, I think Southerners killed it years ago and the rest of the USA just realized it.

  9. I love this! It made me laugh, although it is sad.

  10. Good tips. I use most of them to increase my English Vocabulary.This article is a good, concise summary of some of the best ways to vary one's studies in learning a language. I'm looking forward to reading more from you.

  11. It's pretty amazing our kids know how to spell at all, considering the vast majority of their writing is done by text.


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