Sunday, January 10, 2010

Musings on the English Language

I've long been a fan of the proper use of the English language. I'm not sure if that comes from the love of good literature which my mother fostered in me, or perhaps as a reaction to the appalling misuse (or even slaughter) of the language on the Internet.

I should hasten to add a disclaimer: I am definitely not an expert of the English language. I don't claim to have perfect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Instead I prefer to think of myself as a student of language. The most important aspect of this, to me, is that I try to be cognizant of my usage. I try to think about what I speak and write.

To that end, I try to increase my vocabulary by adding new and interesting words. One excellent word that I've recently learned is recalcitrant. Isn't that a great word? A few days ago I encountered the Daily Writing Tips site. Already I've learned many interesting little tidbits.

It irks me to see misuse of language. One of the amazing things the Internet has provided is a lowered barrier to entry for people to publish their writing. But unfortunately, this has also allowed people to publish without going through a formal editing process. Sadly, most Internet denizens seem oblivious to the fact that they are communicating at a rudimentary level. With some, it is hard to tell if they are, in fact, actually communicating anything other than their own illiteracy.

There are also minor quips I have. For example, I feel like people often misuse the related words yay, yea, and yeah in writing. Phrases are shortened so repeatedly that I fear the origins will be lost, as in the phrase "speak of the devil." How long until no one remembers "and he shall appear?"

I recently listened to an interesting TED talk by Erin McKean. She talked about the tendency people have to use the dictionary to judge whether or not any particular word is "real". Her argument was basically that all words are "real" inasmuch as people use them to communicate. Also, today I learned that Erin McKean has gone on to create an interesting site called Wordnik.

I mostly agree with the points that she makes in her talk. I think it is important to capture the evolution of our language, because like it or not, it's not set in stone. No living language is -- even French isn't, despite their best attempts. But on the other hand, I worry that many wonderful existing words with rich heritage are being left by the wayside as popular culture and the Internet spawn gaudy new ones.

I really like a quote from the interview I linked above. In it Erin says:

Also, whether words are right or wrong can vary according to use. I might say to a friend , “That movie was awesomepants!” But I would not lead into a movie review in The New York Times with the word awesomepants. That would be inappropriate. People expect that one size fits all with words, when that doesn’t work in any other area of their lives. I hope that we can change that view.

I agree with this quote. But I fear that like with so many other things, society is trending away from what's appropriate. There is a growing sentiment that "it doesn't matter" and that "nothing is true, all is permitted." Refined English is becoming a thing of the past. And that doesn't even address grammar or punctuation!

I worry that the English language is becoming too casual. It is becoming too simplistic. Instead of choosing just the right word that carries nuanced meaning, people are using too many basic words or are creating shallow words. For example, awesomepants is a funny word. I imagine that most people get the gist and emotion of the word right away. In that regard, it's great because it allows you to quickly communicate that feeling. But it doesn't communicate a depth of meaning. Essentially, it is just a variant of awesome, but ostensibly more awesome than just the "vanilla" awesome.

But notice the subtle shift of meaning if you instead say that something is exceptional, extraordinary, magnificent, marvelous, outstanding, remarkable, or singular (to choose just a few synonyms of awesome). It's amazing that there are so many different words to choose from. In my opinion, the only reason to use awesomepants would be for the contemporary humor.

My second language is Khmer (a.k.a. Cambodian). I learned it while living in Cambodia for two years as a missionary. (I've also taken some Japanese classes. That's a language I'd love to be fluent in. Sadly my k12-schooled Spanish is all but gone.) It's a simple language in many ways, and this came in handy since I was trying to learn it. But once I was fluent, I found it sometimes difficult to really express myself. I know that much of this came from me not being a native speaker. My vocabulary wasn't vast (though I wonder how large some of the word sets really are in that language -- especially those commonly used), and my accent made it hard to be understood sometimes. I'm sure there were other factors as well, but the simplicity of the language was a setback in that area.

I just hope that the English norm doesn't become one that is too simple. I'd miss the fabulous variety of words. I'd miss the intellectual process required to write and speak "correctly". Thus I will continue my quest to improve my language. And I'll try to assist others as well, even if they don't always like it.