16 Oct 2006

The Decline and Fall of the English Language?

I have finished reading a Doing Our Own Thing, a recently published work by noted linguist John McWhorter. I have had some previous exposure to his written works, and listened to him plugging this book on the radio some years ago, so I decided to have a look.

The main thrust of his book is so: in all languages there develops a difference between casual languages and ceremonial languages. Certain occasions demand a more formal type of speech, often using more complex grammar and vocabulary. Nonetheless, purely oral languages, while often being extremely complex grammatically, have a limited vocabulary range: any given person can only remember a few thousand words in their head at any time.

Written languages (such as French, German, Russian or English), on the other hand, can reach higher levels of complexity in vocabulary, as well as more complex sentence constructions. This is so because in writing, one has the luxury of consulting multiple sources for words beyond the memory, and can edit, lengthen and refashion expressions that in speaking would be broken up into simpler packets of information. Written languages can have a more “polished” feel, and often it is this use and mastery of reading and writing that allows for more complex constructions, more conventions and rules for language use, and more detached and studied forms of expression. Speaking is something more than just talking, rhetoric is more than just getting up and shooting off your mouth. Poetry, classical and classically-structured music in the Western sense are likewise forms of expression requiring attention to conventions and great skill in both reading and writing.

McWhorter then presents us with a dilemma: while most other literate languages have maintained a complex and polished written language quite distinct from casual spoken language, American English has largely lost this attribute. George Washington probably cussed and jawed more casually than he wrote, but for his society (as well as English-speaking society down to forty years ago), the written language and such forms of expression that rely on the writing were meant to adhere to rules of form and to a more complex vocabulary even by those users who possessed a relatively low level of education. Good language was a skill that was appreciated by many, even if they did not practice it on a daily basis. However, since sense of love and respect for the formal English language seems to have disappeared: where is the modern equivalent to illiterate Maine farmers listening to a recitation of Shakespeare? Mozart, or even Rogers and Hammerstein, are something on a higher level of complexity that “pop” music, whether Dylan or even Webber, yet the former have definitely lost out to the latter in public society. Poetry, for the common man, is largely dead, and anyway what of it that still exists is freeform largely based on casual speech.

And here is the rub of McWhorter’s argument. He states that it is the Countercultural Movement beginning in the late 60’s that fundamentally changed Americans’ use of and attitudes to the English language. No native speaker is praised for “speaking beautiful English” these days, as conventions and forms are seen as imposed restrictions to be shed in favour of “keeping it real” and “saying like it is”, ie casting aside written conventions and vocabulary in favour of casual speech. George W. Bush is just one of a society that values such “Let’s roll” talk over something Roosevelt, Churchill or Kennedy would have written. Americans are taught to distrust “false” sounding words and sentences, as well as the English language as something negative (in an extended aside he mentions how English-speakers are unique in demanding that opera not be translated into something that they can understand). Individuality is prized over form and structure, and casual talk is considered more genuine than reserved talk. However, a major negative of this development is that Americans lose not just love for their language, but a more complex language in general, one that is capable to deliver complex arguments that can persuade rather than just preach to the converted. We lose room for objective debate and appreciation.

Overall, I think that this is a powerful argument. I would strongly agree that Americans have lost a love for the more complex elements of their language, and that by extension they have lost something even while making gains in terms of free expression. Popular culture and expression, while meaningful, is simply not on the level of classical writing, speaking, poetry and music: it’s easier to do, and while this may democratize it to a certain extent, it also cheapens the culture. To take an art analogy, Picasso learned to paint like a Dutch master before becoming bored and attempting to press the limits through cubism. By contrast what artist today even needs to meet such classical skills when they can throw elephant dung on a painting, create a public controversy (anyone remember this one?) and become famous? All art, including poetry, literature and rhetoric, is expressive, but historically most of it hasn’t been in-your-face. McWhorter rightly points out that while we don’t have to tolerate generalized, sanitized, saccharin popular tunes like Americans did in the 1920’s, we still have lost a level of craft in putting words to melody that no rock star really has been able to reach.

Unfortunately, McWhorter leaves us hanging. He sees this decline as inevitable and unstoppable. But then, if it really is, then why should we care? He doesn’t make a very convincing argument to me about why, if the culture has been changed once in the 1960’s, it cannot change again. Likewise, his insight on the topic seems to be spoiled by (ironically) an overly casual and anecdotal tone: his writing sometimes seems to be more Dave Barry than that of a serious linguist. While I appreciated his diversity on sources of language use, I got bored with his personal asides into his love of musical theatre and the kinds of clubs he goes to in New York (I’m happy to see that U. of Cal. Berkeley’s money is well spent!). The structure of the book is also too sloppy for my taste, and I think I might have summarized his argument in 2 pages better than he did in 200. But then, this is the modern world, and a catchy, casual writing style with lots of “relevant”, already outdated anecdotes about 2003 politics is what sells books, rather than a finely-crafted argument.

1 comment:

pace said...

I find it interesting that you do not even mention that which made McWhorter famous which is his popular books on the state of blacks and race within American society and his policy solutions to race related economic problems.

McWhorter's primary job though is as a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley. This does sound like a very interesting topic that I had not previously given much attention as one who is caught up in the cultural movement to cast off the restrictions that you describe. The entire subject of declining language and expression calls to mind Orwell's '1984' particularly O'Brien's speech about the destruction of language leading to the destruction of thought entirely. On the whole I think the 1960's cultural revolution of liberation was a positive event, but such things always take place in cycles. Currently, I believe Western society is in a phase of cultural apathy, but how long could such a thing last? The current Christian evangelical movement for example shows that a culture of apathy, liberation, and decadence simply breeds and strengthens reactionaries. I believe the same will happen with culture. We do live in a free society, and one of these days it will be cool again to be educated, cultured and articulate in ritualistic or complex expression. How long can a society get by on 90's Alternative (Bitch) Rock and misogynistic and violent "Gangsta Rap" and Hip-Hop before people want something different and more sophisticated or seek for a cultural Renaissance of classical forms and traditions?

A study of history shows clearly that all societies experience these cycles and we should neither be surprised nor particularly worried about it. The good thing about a wealthy liberal society though is that if you do seek for the traditional forms, you are free to pursue, study, and produce them to your heart's content.