On Language: A Scary Peek Into the Future
Songwriter Cole Porter
Linguist Noam Chomsky
I found myself leafing through the pages of a newspaper the other night. The paper was dated Nov. 13, 2027.
While it was exciting to peek into the future, it was, overall, a sad experience. It was sad, not because the news itself was disheartening, but rather because society's standards, and the objectivity of journalism, had fallen so far in such a short time.
Rife With Expletives
The news and feature articles I saw were written with an unabashedly subjective slant. The stories that were written in English I found difficult to recognize; they were rife with expletives, vulgarities and slang.
High government officials and civic leaders were regularly quoted using substandard and even profane language. The statements and quotations of otherwise intelligent, sophisticated people were downright illiterate. It almost approached what is often called "gutter language."
Merely a Dream
When slivers of sunlight streamed through my bedroom window in the early morning hours of the next day, I awoke with a start; my mind was at sixes and sevens. It was a great relief to find that the upsetting experience was merely a dream; but, at the same time, I was fearful of what it portends.
Sometimes dreams are disjointed, odd, inexplicable; occasionally a connection can be made with something going on in our lives; more rarely, the dream makes a clear, unmistakable point.
In this case, I find the dream easy to decipher.
Civil Language in Decline
It reflects my deep concern about the way the English language has come under attack by its users in the last few decades. It reflects an unmistakable decline in our civilization.
Radio, television and, to some extent, newspapers are allowing, even promoting, the decadent behavior of people who used to be role models. When you have base, uncivilized behavior, illiteracy is not likely to be far behind.
Foul Language Too Common
It would be inappropriate here, and unnecessary, to cite examples of the foul language we all read and hear every day in the media. Prominent people often use words and expressions that belie their respectable status. TV need not always be educational, but is it too much to hope our public airways will not disrespect us, especially our children?
How did we come to this? Our predecessors were not saints, but they at least made some effort to be respectful. Sure, there are always exceptions, but few people went out of their way to be vulgar, especially in a public setting.
Even the great songwriter Cole Porter bemoaned his contemporaries for their failure to keep the high road. He wrote:
"Good authors too who
Once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words."
Perhaps all this sounds to you like hyperbole; maybe, but I don't think so.
Restore Common Decency
Let's hope all of us can elevate our sights a little. Let's omit vulgarities from our everyday language and restore common decency, chivalry and manners in both our private and public lives.
Yours truly won't be around in 2027, but I hope my nightmare never haunts me, or anyone else, again.
Stephen Fry: Kinetic Typography -- Language
More by this Author
None of us is getting any younger, of course. As we age we tend to become a little nostalgic. We long for "the good old days." We notice how things have changed. Here I muse about a few changes.
Yonkers, N.Y., was a bustling community in the '30s and '40s when I grew up. It was once "The City of Gracious Living." Recently it was referred to in the New York Times as "Beirut-on-the-Hudson."
Here's a compilation of some of the great songs and singers that your grandfather knew and loved a few decades ago. If you're not familiar with these artists, you have a treat in store for you.