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Patrick McCarthy <[log in to unmask]>
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Charles Dickens Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 9 Jun 2015 13:16:56 -0700
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     We, too, Mr. Eliot,  did our best to "purify the language of the 
tribe."   And, more likely than not, we should try again.
We would be in good company.   E'en so, we enjoy hearing again that 
"Fears of Language decline seem to be a human
universal."   Thanks to Miriam Margolyes and Herb Moscovitz, we have the 
following lively review of the evidence:
  (Patrick McCarthy, professor emeritus UCSB; editor, Dickns-l )
> Johnson: Language anxieties Feb 12 2015 | The Economist online
> Johnson: Language anxieties
> THE English language, we all know, is in decline. The average 
> schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, 
> not that recently perhaps. It was William Langland, author of "Piers 
> Plowman", who wrote that “There is not a single modern schoolboy who 
> can compose verses or write a decent letter.” He died in 1386.
> English has been getting worse ever since. In 1387, Ranulph Higden, a 
> Benedictine monk and historian, found the culprit 
> <http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=17666> in language mixing: 
> “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ 
> Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange 
> wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.” That is to say 
> (in case your Middle English is rusty) that English speakers had taken 
> to “strange, articulate utterance, chattering, snarling and harsh 
> teeth-gnashing”, bad habits he put down to the mixing together of 
> Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Norman French.
> The wailing throughout the history of the language, by people 
> convinced that the end is nigh, can be a bit exhausting over a full 
> survey. But it holds a lesson: language is not constant. Change is—and 
> anxiety about change is constant too. In 1577 Richard Stanihurst 
> praised <http://languagehat.com/peevery-1577-edition/> the English 
> spoken by old English settlers in Ireland. Because of their distance 
> from the mother country, they had not been affected by “habits 
> redolent of disgusting newness”.
> A century later, in 1672, John Dryden, a poet and essayist, waxed 
> especially operatic on the decline of English—and not just schoolboys’ 
> English, but that of the greats:
> It is not their plots which I meant, principally, to tax; I was 
> speaking of their sense and language; and I dare almost challenge any 
> man to shew me a page together, which is correct in both. … [M]alice 
> and partiality set apart, let any man who understands English, read 
> diligently the works of Shakspeare and Fletcher; and I dare undertake 
> that he will find in every page either some solecism of speech, or 
> some notorious flaw in sense.
> Another half-century on, another great writer was at the decline game, 
> this time Jonathan Swift:
> our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are 
> by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders 
> to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and 
> Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every 
> Part of Grammar.
> Swift’s only comfort was that French was declining nearly as rapidly 
> as English. (That didn’t stop him from proposing an English academy, 
> along the lines of the Académie Française, to stop the decline.)
> Anxiety sells, and so warnings about the state of the language 
> accelerated as dictionary- and grammar-book writers sought—and found—a 
> mass market. Samuel Johnson, who has given this column its name, hoped 
> to give the language some stability, but realised 
> <http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/texts/dict/transcript1387.html> that 
> trying to stop change was like trying to “lash the wind”. But many of 
> his contemporaries were not so generous. Robert Lowth, probably the 
> most influential English grammarian of all time, began his 1762 book 
> with a quotation from Cicero 
> <https://www.uni-due.de/SHE/SHE_Late_Modern_English.htm#prescribe> 
> complaining about the rubbish Latin that the Roman statesman heard in 
> the streets around him. Lowth went on to use examples from 
> Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible as “false syntax” 
> illustrating errors, complaining that even “Our best authors have 
> committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar.”
> Perhaps the stern Victorians, at least, mastered English? They did 
> not; the poet Arthur Hugh Clough complained in 1852 that “Our own age 
> is notorious for slovenly or misdirected habits of composition.” 
> Americans in their young republic were also already going into 
> decline, too: Adams Sherman Hill, a Harvard professor of rhetoric, 
> found “the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, 
> confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant 
> expressions” in 1879.  Charles Henshaw Ward, another American, blamed 
> the usual suspects, the school pupils 
> <https://www.princeton.edu/%7Ebrowning/decline.html>, in 1917: “Every 
> high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the 
> merest rudiments.”
> Perhaps the greatest writer to be persuaded of declinism was George 
> Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that “Most people who bother with the matter 
> at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” The 
> essay in which he tried to stop the rot 
> <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm> did little good, 
> at least as far as his successors were concerned. Dwight McDonald 
> wrote in his 1962 review of Webster’s third New International 
> Dictionary about modern permissive attitudes “debasing our language by 
> rendering it less precise”. In 1973 "Newsweek" explained “Why Johnny 
> can’t write” on its cover. That same year, a young Lynne Truss 
> finished school in England. She would go on to sound the alarm in what 
> would become the modern stickler’s book-length battle-cry, 2003’s 
> “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”.
> This is in no way limited to English. I have just been sent a press 
> release for a book called /“Bin ich der einzigste hiere, wo Deutsch 
> kann?/” (“Am I the Only One Who Speaks German Here?”) with a few 
> hard-to-translate mistakes in the German title. German has also been 
> in decline for a while: 1974 saw the publication of /Die Leiden der 
> Jungen Wörter/, "The Sorrows of Young Words" (a pun on Goethe’s /Die 
> Leiden des Jungen Werthers/, the “Sorrows of Young Werther”.) Even 
> Jakob Grimm (1785-1863) thought that German had been more expressive 
> and elegant hundreds of years before his time.
> Have young people too lazy to learn to write been with us since the 
> very beginning? A collection of proverbs 
> <http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.6.1.02&display=Crit&charenc=gcirc&lineid=t6102.p45#t6102.p45> 
> in Sumerian—the world’s first written language—suggests that they 
> have. “A junior scribe is too concerned with feeding his hunger,” 
> contends one. “He does not pay attention to the scribal art.” It seems 
> that the slovenly teenager, not to mention the purse-lipped 
> schoolmaster, is at least 4,000 years old.=