On Language: A Scary Peek Into the Future

Songwriter Cole Porter

Cole Porter, American composer and songwriter
Cole Porter, American composer and songwriter

Linguist Noam Chomsky

Described in Wikipedia as the "father of modern linguistics"
Described in Wikipedia as the "father of modern linguistics" | Source

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.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on May 10, 1997. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages. To view my HubPages Profile Click Here

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Comments 16 comments

quotations profile image

quotations 8 years ago from Canada

I completely agree with you. A major newspaper where I live now uses simplified language and colloquial expressions and catchphrases. I suppose the rationale is that it has to be comprehensible to its readers. But if people are not exposed to good writing, how can they improve?

I have also noticed a decline in basic literacy. More and more people think that "they are" is written "their" and that "could have" is "could of". Most people have no clue about history or culture. In a recent poll a majority of people said that "Winston Churchill" and other major historical figures were fictional characters, while at the same time they identified fictional characters as being real. Very sad.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, quotations, for your excellent addition to this hub. It is sad that a newspaper would stoop to colloquial expresses and catchphrases. At my paper, we always tried to elevate the language and knowledge of our readers. I also mourn the general tendency to replace objective news with opinion, gossip and hype. Newspaper are attempting to adapt to new competition from the Internet and the corporate-owned media.


Zsuzsy Bee profile image

Zsuzsy Bee 8 years ago from Ontario/Canada

William! I fear your dream is well on its way of 'becoming'...A couple of weeks ago I took the train to my daughters home two hours away. My seat was in the middle section. In front of me were three young people and behind me two more. They were calling back and forth to each other in a lets call it 'doubtful English'. Every third word was had four letters. The sad part was that they were discussing a University paper that they had to hand in the next day to their Professor of journalism. I'm thinking to myself: how will these young people become journalists or reporters if they can't even talk????

Great hub regards Zsuzsy


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you for your nice comment, Zsuzsy Bee. It's sad, isn't it? I really don't know what these young people are thinking. If we allow our language to deteriorate, how will we communicate? I hope my dream doesn't become a nightmare!


compu-smart profile image

compu-smart 8 years ago from London UK

William..

To say the f word on tv always generates lots of laughs be-it canned laughter or real! This has always been the norm here and does not set a good example..Hopefully soon it will become uncool to swear like smoking has started to become but it needs a lot of work by the media and parants!

I hope you WILL be around much longer than 2027.. I have always been told to have hope!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thanks, compu-smart, for your observations, and for your kind words. I'm afraid that the "four-letter words" Cole Porter talks about always get a laugh here, too. If I am around in 2037, I hope I can still play golf.


Jondolar profile image

Jondolar 8 years ago from Tacoma, WA

William,

It's interesting that you've written a hub on this topic. I say interesting because this is precisely how my dad & mom felt as I was growing up and I've taken on the same attitude about it. Yet, my wife seems to think I'm being overly concerned about it because she believes language is an ever changing tool of communication over time. What makes this difference of viewpoint on the topic even more interesting is that we're both public school teachers. So, it just goes to show you that some believe the standard should be held, while other believe it's not that important. I agree with your view; it should be maintained, or we devolve into a less civilized culture. My thinking is, "Why should we let our language cater to the 'lowest common denominator' as though it's alright and acceptable?"

Yet, due to the now prevailing politically correct mindset, if I correct my students' speech - even explaining why it's not correct and that I'm letting them know because others will judge them based on how they speak - their response is to tell me I'm mean and offensive to them because I do it. It's apparent too many of my students have not been brought up by their parents to appreciate someone who cares that they learn the right things. Sad, truly sad!

At the risk of sounding negative, I'm thinking your nightmare's going to come true; especially when the next depression hits in a few years.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, Jondolar, for your very thoughtful and interesting comments.I believe our view and that of your wife are not really all that far apart.

It's true that "language is an ever changing tool of communication over time." It's inevitable that language will change; the real question is how fast and under what circumstances. Quality dictionaries make reasonable changes in their definitions, but only after the changes have become so common as to demand the addition of a new meaning, or even a separate listing.

The biggest problem today is that words are made up out of whole cloth and immediately become part of the lexicon. Even today our youngsters would have trouble understanding someone saying this in 1929: " Everyone  had a gay time last night. The party was a Deusy."

Some words lose their meaning over time, others take on new meanings, and many totally new words must be created because of changing circumstances (Just look at the Internet.) Change is inevitable, but if we make no effort to require that new words and changes in meaning advance in an orderly way then language will spin out of control. This is especially true if we allow it to sink to the "lowest common denominator," as you say.

It's easier for students to go along with their peers, and I'm sure it's difficult for them to accept your effort to correct them. I am not a teacher, but ,if I were, I would take a slightly different approach to this problem. Rather than explaining that their language is incorrect, I would simply tell them, "The best writers wouldn't say, 'I don't got no money;" the best writers would say, "I have no money." In this way, they might not feel offended because your reference is to someone else. It certainly is difficult to overcome a poor upbringing, but not impossible.

Thanks, again, for your welcome contribution to this hub.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 6 years ago from Sydney

I can see the point of people who say language is simply evolving, as it has always done. But I don't think it's evolution, it's a decline. And it's happening because our education systems aren't allowing kids to fail - they get an inflated idea of their own ability and don't think they need to improve.

A few months ago, I suggested to a Hubber that his Hubs needed revising because his spelling and grammar were so bad. I was told I was being elitist...(sigh).


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Language does evolve, Marisa, but slowly over time. Language is all about communicating, and there are no shortcuts to learning and understanding the fundamentals. Nor is there any valid excuse for poor spelling and grammar. Good education, good teachers and wise school administrators are the key. It's sad that those with poor language skills would seek to justify their shortcomings by denying the need to improve their skills. Thank you for commenting.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 6 years ago from Southern California, USA

Interesting commentary, and I agree with all of your points!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

It's a subject dear to my heart, Sweetie Pie. I'm still hopeful that the our public dialogue will improve and good authors -- in fact, all of us -- will find better words and clearer thoughts. I'm glad that you agree.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I completely agree too! Not only has foul language become the norm, but grammar in general gets sloppier every day. I'll never get used to hearing "to" pronounced as "tah". Nor will I accept that an apostrophe before the "s" at the end of a non-possessive word is an example of language "evolving". Rather, it's an example of an education system in decline. Very sad.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

I have the feeling, JamaGenee, that a concurrent decline in our education system has something to do with the sloppy language we hear on a daily basis. But that's a whole new conversation. Thanks for commenting.


suziecat7 profile image

suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

I blame the parents more than the teachers. My mother made sure I was polite and spoke well. She would correct any tendency toward sloppy diction or writing. Excellent Hub, as usual.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y. Author

Thank you, suziecat7. I think Hillary Clinton was right: It takes a village. Parents, teachers, adults, friends, neighbors and all of us have a responsibility, I think, to see that our youngsters grow up with good language skills. Today's technology is creating turmoil among our youth. Things are moving too fast. Somebody has to advise the new generations to stop and think.

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