Language in flux, not decline

The eternal question about English being in decline – or not – assumes that this is a binary choice. No, it’s more nuanced than that.

Questions about the supposed decline of the English language have been around for centuries and, no doubt, will persist for many more. A flurry of interest was provoked by a recent and well-reviewed book by Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari, who published a thoughtful article in his own newspaper to help promote the book.

Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decline of the English language” is more concerned with spoken rather than written English, and assumes a definition of decline based upon its use rather than its influence. These are important distinctions, as English was a lesser European language in the 15th century before its printing presses got going; while five centuries later it had become the pre-eminent global language, powered predominantly by standards of written expression agreed in law courts, boardrooms, laboratories, and editorial conference rooms all over the world.

Among the many good points made by Mr Shariatmadari, two stand out. Even in times that posterity would determine was a “Golden Age” for English, there have been variations on the complaint voiced by no less an eminence than Jonathan Swift, declaring in the early 18th century that he was “apt to doubt whether the corruptions in our language have not at least equalled the refinements of it.”

Second, conservative linguists who might come across as “hand-wringing pedants” are merely repeating the old fogey’s rant down the ages: things were better in our youth, and youngsters today have no respect for standards, etc. It is possible, however, to be both an old fogey, and not entirely incorrect. And there may be no objective standards of “linguistic goodness” – that is, no Académie Anglaise, no marble tablets – but protocols of syntax and distinctions implicit in our vocabulary – e.g. infer v imply – don’t cease being useful in facilitating clarity simply because the demotic may not recognise them.

And Mr Shariatmadari is wrong to suggest that George Orwell was wrong about the risk of a decaying language leading to a decline in civilisation. Orwell would see the decline proceeding less from complacent ignorance or sloppy use, and more from malign influence and the cynical misappropriation of language in defense of indefensible political or social positions.

Just listen to how some politicians talk of their respect for the law or their opponents, for example. Neither our language nor our civilisation can long endure under a tsunami of hypocrisy and hyper-ventilating autocracy.