The English Language: Its Use, Abuse and Ultimate Fate

Like everything else, language also changes. It is a constant process. Nevertheless it performs a utilitarian purpose in allowing one to communicate succinctly and comprehensibly with another person. This fact is even more crucial when one or both of the parties to a conversation are conversing in English as a second language. Why should we be concerned? What is the future of English? 

Intelligibility and lucidity

Writing clear intelligible English is a skill. With all children attending school, illiteracy is now supposedly non-existent. Yet I contend that the ability to construct simple yet precise sentences is lacking. Reading a report at work becomes a nightmare. Comprehensibility in many cases is lacking.

History of the English Language

History of the English Language

Yet listening to the Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal in the Oscar Pistorius Appeal Hearing was revelatory as Justice Leach elegantly but expertly stripped every element and nuance of how dolus or intent could arise to its essence. He addressed its three forms viz dolus directus, dolus indirectus and finally the form that the Oscar Pistorius trail popularised viz dolus eventualis.

“Intent in the form of dolus eventualis or legal intention, which is present when the perpetrator objectively foresees the possibility of his act causing death and persists regardless of the consequences, suffices to find someone guilty of murder.

“Dolus directus, on the other hand, known as intention in its ordinary grammatical sense, is present when the accused’s aim and object is to bring about the unlawful consequence; even should the chance of its resulting be small.”

Justice Leach gives his ruling at Pretoria's High Court

Justice Leach gives his ruling at Pretoria’s High Court

Through his clarity of thought, it rapidly became evident that the original trial judge Thokozile Masipa’s original verdict was flawed in that there were “errors in law.” It was not only the clarity of thought but also his lucidity in describing his thought process which enraptured me. Justice Leach was a wordsmith and master craftsman at its best.

The style of writing should also be relevant to the subject and its purpose. Even though Boris Johnson possesses an excellent command of the English language and is able to craft intelligible sentences, yet I found his biography on Winston Churchill – The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History – distracting at points due to his use of pretentious archaic English words. Within the context of an engaging work of non-fiction, it was wholly inappropriate and – quite frankly – unprofessional to use such words.

Early modern English

Early modern English

Style and Flow

Often I will not read a book not because the content is objectionable or obtuse, but rather because the style of writing is distracting and inappropriate. I find that this is especially prevalent amongst American authors where the principle of dumbing down detracts from the topic. Many of the chronicles of Vietnam veterans fall into this category. In contrast a book that I recently read by an American author, Scott Anderson, was pleasantly surprising. It was entitled Lawrence in Arabia. Apart from the pleasant tactile feel of the book, my mind was enraptured by the elegant construction of the sentences.

Compare this book with the recent biography on Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore entitled Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Despite the content being excellent, I found that style was staccato and uneven with no fluidity. Hence it was not a pleasure to read.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

I do not intentionally intend to provoke controversy but amongst those authors with a turgid unreadable style which must be consigned to the dustbin is none other than the venerated English author of Elizabethan acclaim, William Shakespeare. I never derived any pleasure in having to study two of his works at school. With an archaic style and metaphors which do not resonate with current life, little if anything of value was gained apart from frustration by studying it. The decision by the SA Department of Education to scrap it as a setwork book is long overdue.

The one trend which totally appalls me is the spelling and sentence construction on tweets, Instant Messaging and SMSes. When listening to the radio I am aghast how some of the announcers on the radio stations battle to distil the essence of what the caller wants to convey as they stumble through reading it.

Map where English is an Official Language

Map where English is an Official Language

Spelling

Correct spelling is critical to comprehension. Attaching little importance to it at the school level will only exacerbate the problem. Some real life faux pas will illustrate its importance.

  • In a legal agreement by a South African company, the word complimentary was used to describe an attachment to a product instead of complementary. The customer contended that the attachment had to be supplied gratis as the Contract of Supply clearly read They won their case in court.
  • In a cheque forgery case – when people still used cheques – the forger stated “thawsands” instead of “thousands”. On this basis, the bank contacted the cheque account holder and discovered that the presenter of the cheque was attempting to defraud the account holder
  • In yet another contract, this time for the supply of services, the word shits was used instead of shifts. Fortunately this generated mirth rather than financial loss.
  • A recent case in Britain some two weeks ago provides stark proof that correct spelling could be a life-saver. A woman in the UK phoned the emergency services claiming that her husband had collapsed. When the ambulance arrived, she handed the attendants a note purportedly written by her husband claiming that he should not be resuscitated but wanted to die “with digneaty.” After her husband died shortly afterwards, the police questioned her. Becoming suspicious, they requested that she write down what her husband had requested. On this note, the spelling of dignity was again incorrectly spelt as “digneaty.” Taken together with the similarities in the handwriting, a court convicted her of murder.
Map of EU countries with the % of people who can speak English

Map of EU countries with the % of people who can speak English

The Future of English

Without a doubt, English has established itself as the lingua franca of the world. Mandarin might possess more speakers but the geographical spread of the English language either as the official or secondary language makes it the language of choice in many forums.

The precedent for this eventuality was that of Classical Latin. As the Roman Empire expanded across southern Europe and northern Africa, it too enjoyed unofficial status as the lingua franca of those countries. The fall of the Roman Empire never impeded its progress nor tempered its acceptance. It was still unconditionally regarded as the medium of communication long after the fall of Rome. Likewise, the demise of Great Britain as an Imperial Power and ultimately the USA as a world super power will not detract from English’s status as the global lingua franca.

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What did become prevalent in ancient Imperial Rome was that the Classical Latin as I learnt at high school in Port Elizabeth ultimately incorporated the vernacular of the particular region where it was spoken. This Vulgar Latin – as it was known – continued to evolve in what the Romans called Hispania [Spain], Gallia [France], Lusitania [Portugal] and Romania [Romania] into modern day Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian.

This will be the ultimate fate of English. Already American English is diverging from Classical or British English to develop its own spelling and even its own words. Examples of dissimilar spelling include favorite, donut, dialog and center. American words such as fall, gas, elevator and diaper would be translated into British or even South African English as autumn, petrol, lift and nappy.

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While these changes are inevitable, will English not ultimately diverge into a dozen similar but dissimilar languages much like Italian and Spanish have? What about Dutch and Afrikaans? Even though these are similar languages, trying to watch Dutch TV in Holland takes an extreme effort. What happens when they diverge any further?

Yes, English will split as it is inevitable.

That will be a sad day. Personally I am of the belief that the world will rue that day as communication will again be stifled by the lack of a common language.

The use of emojiis especially in fiction will become prevalent. Back to the past with pictograms

The use of emojiis especially in fiction will become prevalent. Back to the past with pictograms

 

My conjecture is that this woeful fate will befall the English language over the next two centuries. The precursor will be those countries in which it is a second language like Singapore but ultimately British and American English will too become foreign languages.


1 Comments

  1. I love the English language because of it’s continually evolving nature. In computer terms, it has an ‘open source architecture’ which should ensure it’s longevity.

    But I must admit that I hated Shakespeare. I hated studying it and I begrudge the the time I had to waste in theatres watching it.

    However, he invented numerous (and made popular many more) sayings that are in common usage today , the origins of which most people are oblivious to. For that alone I give him A+.

    As an aside, there is an international Shakespeare festival. I’m not sure how it all worked, but in Cape Town, 16 excerpts were presented by primary schools over 4 nights at Cape Town’s main theatre, Artscape. Imogen’s (my daugther) school – Greenfields Girls Primary which has only one class per grade – presented 2. Notwithstanding the fact that Imogen was involved, her class’s (grade 6) production of Midsummers Night Dream was the most enjoyable Shakespeare, and some of the most enjoyable theatre, I have ever seen.

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