Save the Sentence!

As part of my occasional series on the ongoing death of Western culture, today I’d like to warn you about the death of the English sentence.  This dire news comes from the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who evidently doesn’t have enough to do.  "I see creeping inarticulateness," he tells the Washington Post‘s Linton Weeks. He explains, "We are moving toward the language used by computer programmers and air traffic controllers. Language as a method of instruction, not a portal into critical thinking."

Uh, isn’t that last clause a sentence fragment?

Anyway, evidence for the death of the English sentence can be found everywhere. In my job I expend more mental energy decoding emails than anything else I do.  My all-time favorite was this gem from a senior vice president. I’d emailed a request to purchase a piece of software that we needed to complete a project on time. There was some urgency to the matter, I stressed. Her response, in full, read as follows: "Decision=ASAP."

Spoken English is even worse. I work with a lot of computer programmers, many of them from Chennai. Developers, like most technically-oriented people, tend not to have strong language skills, even in their native language. Many of the Indian developers speak in a odd polyglot consisting in equal measures Britishisms ("I’m not going to the company Christmas party. I’m not doing any bum dancing!") and Americanisms (lots, and lots, of "likes"). One distinctive speech pattern is the present progressive tense, which appears most often at the end of a sentence: "Somewhere there is a problem we are having."

Still, from what I’ve seen the state of the sentence isn’t as dire as the state of the proper noun. The enterprise edition of Microsoft Office contains a random capitalization feature in which ordinary Nouns are suddenly and Unpredictably converted into Proper Nouns.  Sometimes after reading a business case from an MBA I picture that person going home and telling her spouse, "I love you, First Husband!"

People have been complaining about the decline of English since the 18th century, when the language was first codified and standardized. Elizabethan England, one of the most glorious periods of speech and writing in the history of the English language, was almost entirely ignorant of standardize spelling and punctuation. The Jacobeans didn’t fret over the decline of English from its 16th-century high point; they had no standardized version with which to compare their speech practices. Amelia C. Murdoch, president of the National Museum of Language in College Park, Maryland, reminds us, "Language, all language, undergoes constant change. And technological developments that impinge on language inevitably cause changes in language, all kinds of changes." 

Billington and the decline of English crowd aren’t just ignoring the history of the language. Disparaging a particular language practice is the same as disparaging the people who practice it. The self-appointed guardians of culture are constantly warning us about the unlettered masses trying to deprive us of what makes us human–the ability to think. This belief leads to one conclusion: Only the guardians of culture know the proper way to think. But history shows that what binds us together as people is the varied, ever-changing, imprecise language of everyday speech.

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