This is part of a series of blog posts cranked out by my adoring proselytes — erm, I mean, faithful readers. I’m in Utah (er, presumably — maybe the plane crashed, or maybe I was forced into white sexual slavery somewhere in Dubai), so the task of entertaining you froth-mouthed moppets falls to others.
Today’s post is by, erm, Uffington Westin-Smythe?
Good morning, class. Are you sitting comfortably?
Then let’s begin.*
Not only do I publish – or try to get published, or bitch about publishers, or stare at my screen and try to conjure stories out of insomnia and despair – I also teach the bloody, damnéd, incestuous, abominably Muppetish thing we call our language. So understand that this report is from someone on the front lines of the language war. I’m not just firing tracers rounds of snark into the darkness, no sir. I’m listening for the whistle of grammar, going over the top of punctuation and charging the wire of style. I’m throwing grenades at the pillboxes of apathy, torching the machine gun nests of ignorance and diving into the enemy slit trenches of overextended metaphors.
Hold on a sec.
Is there any term in the lexicon of warfare more inappropriately suggestive than “slit trench”? It doesn’t sound like a place where brave boys die doing their best to confound the enemy at every turn. It doesn’t even sound like a grim purgatory where sensitive writers learn the lies behind the glory in the killing quiet of the Western front. No. It sounds like that place near the airport where your best friend got rolled in the parking lot for a pack of smokes and one of his socks, after he was kicked out for throwing up a string of Mardi Gras beads during a lap dance.
Must not remember. Back on target. Yes.
So you think that the English language is being killed by instant messaging, cell phones, message boards, social networking and MTV douchebags?
“For Breakfast We Had Toasted Beagles with Butter and Cream Cheese”
Oh, trust me. In addition to literature and creative writing courses, I also teach a number of entry level English classes at a college where relatively few students are looking for a liberal arts degree, much less actively interested in English as a hobby or a profession. I don’t hold that against them, but I do see it reflected in their writing. I see things that make me wince, make me shake my head, make we want to vomit with rage.
I’m moved to weeping when I realize that even many intelligent students can’t distinguish you’re/your, their/they’re, or its/it’s. I weep harder when I realize that even more don’t care about getting it right, because if no one else does either, what’s the problem? (Not that I shed a tear for every change. If the difference between affect/effect was dying in the desert, I’d spread honey on it and wait for the ants to arrive, cackling all the while.) But when I’m curled up in bed with my wife, where the term papers and grammar quizzes cannot hurt me anymore, I console myself with one very simple truth:
Language must change, or it dies.
I know, I know, you already knew that, right? I mean, we’re all wordsmiths here, or friends with one, or possibly even groupies.** So presumably we all know the joy of having taken those 26 tired letters and somehow, magically, impossibly arranging them into something entirely new, something no one has ever managed to conjure before in all the celebrated history of our language. If we’re good and lucky and practice hard and it turns out the Outer Darkness really does appreciate the occasional black goat we leave at the edge of the woods, maybe it’s even something totally amazing. We writers live for that shit. We routinely drive our roommates, friends, steadies and spouses crazy with our eagerness to read aloud and demonstrate just how cool and clever and original we are. If no one else is around, well, we used to just talk to ourselves, but these days? Wonder of wonders! We can just pester the Internet instead. After all, as the Four Dimensional Time Cube has proven, the Internet is a crazy, lecherous drunk who will listen to anyone. So, nearer my blog to thee, and we’re set pretty much no matter what.
And let’s admit it. Late at night, when no one’s around, we sometimes pick up our own work and read it like that first naughty magazine or saucy novel that used to dwell beneath the mattress. It’s ok. We’re among friends here.
But surely all that’s different than kids jabbering away at their keyboards and thumbing their way to ignorance with their cell phones, you say? After all, you’re developing the language with your contribution, while they’re just vandalizing it. Right?
Like hell it is.
“Thin Line Between Heaven and Here”***
After I tell people what I do for a living, and they pat me on the shoulder and reassure me that everything will be alright, the second thing a lot of folks do is commiserate with me over the sorry state of our language. They’re usually surprised when I reply that I think English is doing just fine, thanks for asking.
“But what about texting?” they ask. “My niece sends me messages like ‘I less than three you – and just the letter ‘u’, you know, not even the whole word! Isn’t that a bad sign?”
“Or my kid brother, who plays Warcraft all the time and actually speaks in acronyms: ell-oh-ell, gee-to-gee, oh-emm-gee, all that crazy nonsense? Isn’t that a problem?”
“Or my sister-in-law? She watches The Hills, Laguna Beach, Rock of Love and Jersey Shore all time! She has two college degrees but now she’s starting to sound like one of those Springer skanks that’s been hit on the head with a chair too many times, going on about ain’t worried ‘bout havin’ redneck pride, how things are like totally whatever and can she axe me a question! Shouldn’t we do something?”
Hell no. Like it or not, we need that shit.
Well, not Jersey Shore. As someone who’s actually from Jersey, all I can say is I would pay a dope-happy hobo a bucket of turkey sandwiches to give those kids major surgical procedures with a frog-encrusted weed whacker. Though I have to confess it did give me an idea for my own reality television show now – Jersey Shire. It’s about a bunch of hobbits who hang out at the Dirt Mall, wander the Ocean City boardwalk drunk and pick fights with Rangers fans at hockey games. It features stars like Samwizzle, Gandalfini the Grey Mafia, Peregin “You Can’t Handle the” Took and Frodo “The Destination” Baggins. Look for it in the spring lineup for your insomnia-ravaged nightmares.
Teen mutilation jokes aside, though, what most people see as mangling is not only normal, it’s necessary for English to survive. One of the reasons our language is so successful is because it’s a mad bastard when it comes to adaptation. You couldn’t cook up something as bizarre as English, not even if you were drunk pastry chef staggering through the abandoned kitchen of a radioactive KFC/Taco Bell with a box of crayons in one hand and a sack of ferrets in the other. We’re a nightmare mash of Germanic hash mixed with chopped French pretensions and diced Latin roots, served in Spanish sauce and seasoned liberally with other languages we grab from the bulging spice rack of yet another overextended metaphor I really need to end right now.
Our language is big and stupid and crazy and reckless, but it’s precisely those things that help keep it alive, which is a hell of a lot better than the alternative. People who cry about how language is being ‘devalued’ or ‘vandalized’ by the changes in our culture are missing the essential fact that language can’t be preserved, because you can’t preserve something while it’s still alive (though Dick Clark is having a go at it).
No language ever achieves a perfect ideal, mainly because the barely shaved apes that create it keep bumbling around, making up new stuff and changing the old all the time. And if we have any love of language at all, we like it that way.
Sure, things are going to look odd as the language changes. But find me a time when English didn’t look goony as all hell? Goinge backe toe Chaucere, youe finde thingse looke ande soundede like the Swedishe Chefe. Th’en forsooth come’st Shakespearean English apace, whereart thou hadst thine Ren-Fairiest trimmings for’st thy lingual delight, yea verily and fore’er more, anon. (Alack.) Plus for Centuries we Capitalized Pretty much Whatever the Hell we Felt like, until Finally we Read some Emily Dickinson and Realized the We really Needed some Rules all Up in This Business. (And letf not even get ftarted about how Ben Franklin’f writing lookf to uf today.) As you can see from even that short and flippant list, those times when the language changed most and looked strangest were also some of the most pivotal and powerful times in its history.
I’m not saying there isn’t still a place for “proper English” – as I tell my students, if they doubt me they’re free to write an email to their boss and ask for a promotion “bcuz i’ve bin hear 4 a loooong time & u now ur not payin me enuff! j/k lol! <3” If it makes you feel better, English doesn’t tend to keep everything after it undergoes one of its periods of adjustment, so you can shelve that English-to-Leet dictionary for the time being. I don’t think it’s time to look for a production of “K1ng L34r” or a preacher reading from I Can Haz Biblez? just yet. The nature of the English language is what it has always been: infinitely accepting, constantly shifting and forever frustrating. It’s just wearing a Fall Out Boy T-shirt, leveling its night elf warrior and growing out its bangs at the moment.
Besides – and this is the best bit of all – if you don’t like what you see or where it’s headed, well, you’ve got a keyboard too, don’t you? So use it.
Take heart, me droogs.
*Trust me, this is very clever if you watch Dr. Who.
**Send pics. To Chuck, of course. Not me. Ahem. Yes. (bcc me.)
***A shout out to my man Bubbles from The Wire. You gotta see it to feel that line 100%.
+Yet more Dr. Who love. HINT HINT, you ginger bastard.