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The Endless Decline of the English Language

"On every side the outlook is dreary beyond expression"

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The Endless Decline of the English Language

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Detail of an oil painting by Charles Jervas; in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Doomsayers (purists, language mavens, grammaticasters, and SNOOTS) have been tracking the decline of the English language for centuries:

  • 1667
    And, in few words, I dare say; that of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner obtain'd, than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World. But I spend words in vain; for the evil is now so inveterate, that it is hard to know whom to blame, or where to begin to reform.
    (Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, 1667)

  • 1712
    I do here in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain to your Lordship, as First Minister, that 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.
    (Jonathan Swift, "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue," 1712)

  • 1780
    [T]he regard formerly paid to pronunciation has been gradually declining; so that now the greatest improprieties in that point are to be found among people of fashion; many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground; and if something be not done to stop this growing evil, and fix a general standard at present, the English is likely to become a mere jargon, which every one may pronounce as he pleases.
    (Thomas Sheridan, A General Dictionary of the English Language, 1780)

  • 1899
    It is shameful to see our very colleges filled with students who seldom set down three consecutive sentences that do not reek with solecisms of expression, of syntax, and of style; while not a few, when they leave the college halls, the winners of a university degree, make blunders even of orthography that might well disgrace a swineherd.
    (Harry Thurston Peck, "What Is Good English?" 1899)

  • 1946
    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.
    (George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language." Horizon, April 1946)

  • 2006
    Lost for Words was my first and, I thought, my last book on English. . . . It was a protest against the cavalier approach we have taken to teaching children English over the past few decades and a lament at the way our language is mangled and manipulated by those who should know better.
    (John Humphreys, Beyond Words. Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

  • 2007
    In these days of just about enough perils facing our nation, there is plenty of evidence around to conclude that our grip on our glorious language may be loosening.
    (Dick Cavett, "It's Only Language." The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2007)
In The Standard of Usage in English, Thomas Lounsbury, a professor of language and literature at Yale University, notes that there has existed "in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition of approaching collapse, and that arduous efforts must be put forth, and put forth persistently, in order to save it from destruction."

Lounsbury supports his claim with evidence from Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, both of whom were committed to "fixing" the language. And who, like countless other "prophets of woe," dreamed of returning to a "golden age . . . when the language was spoken and written with the greatest purity."

But as Lounsbury makes clear, there has never been a golden age:

The experience of the past furnishes a most significant corrective to those who look upon the indifference manifested by the public to their warnings and to the awful examples they furnish as infallible proof of the increasing degeneracy of the speech. . . .

Neither the grammar nor the vocabulary of one age is precisely the grammar or vocabulary of another. The language of a later period may not vary much from the language of an earlier one, but it will vary somewhat. It is not necessarily better or worse; it is simply different.

That doesn't mean we're required to like everything we read and hear. (See 200 Words and Expressions That Tick You Off.) But it does suggest that the English language is likely to endure.

After all, Lounsbury's The Standard of Usage in English: Is English Becoming Corrupt? (excerpts of which are reprinted here) was published in 1908.

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