My latest Eggcorn posting ended thusly:
Isn’t a language like anything else? Without proper care and attention it just decays?
An eagle-eyed reader in Greece asked whether I had meant to add the question-mark. I replied that I had put it in to nod in the direction of the thought that maybe the idea of language ‘decaying’ is itself tendentious.
And lo, as if prompted, another blogging reader comments:
Language doesn’t decay unless it ceases to be used for communication. It changes, sometimes other people’s usage (or mistakes) grate upon those who say it differently, but the language itself is not in any danger.
Language has existed for thousands of years, performing its function adequately, without any care or attention at all, and most have never been subject to it at any time in their history.
A rabid free-marketeer like myself can have little complaint if things indeed change and millions of people don’t mind too much if at all. Although I do object to my own language and identity changing because the state has effectively nationalised large parts of the teaching of English and simply can’t do it properly.
I can not shake off the thought that language is a tool. And tools if neglected can just get blunt, or wear out, or otherwise be less good at doing some vital jobs.
Imagine the English language as deployed for most of the C20 to be a sharp knife – look at the deft work done with it by Orwell, Wodehouse, Joyce, Chandler, Bradbury and all the others.
If we start to ‘lose’ spellings and grammar as currently constituted and therefore some of the innermost subtlety of expression which together have made English such a towering force for human advancement round the world, aren’t we all just poorer? We have fewer tools to do the mass of possible jobs with precision.
It’s as if Rembrandt had only ten brushes of varying sizes instead of (say) sixteen, after a thief steals six. Sure, he’ll manage to do a fine portrait. But it could have been even finer with those extra tools available. And he is diminished and demoralised if he knows that.
The issue is all too evident in the quality of writing now being served up in the FCO and across government by the nation’s top graduates. A non-trivial proportion of it is unusable and sent back for reworking: it is simply not precise enough.
Or see Gordon Brown’s letter to Parliament, riddled with errors. The office team sending it not only were too dopey to check properly that it was 100% – they seem to have been too dopey even to run the Spell/Grammar check too.
As a result, a product is produced which is less good and less clear and less authoritative than it could have been.
Sure, not much changes.
But standards help keep us all on our toes. And if a general sense of unstoppable ‘declinism’ sets in for our language (and so our very thought) as for everything else, that looks and smells like Decay to me.