In 1946, George Orwell called for a rehaul of the English language in line with the traditional rules of grammar: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”
Fifty-plus years later, President George W. Bush addressed a crowd in South Carolina with the following: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”
Obviously much progress has been made.
When the former President of the United States is frequently making hillbilly blunders of the English language, what can we expect from the rest of Americans? What example are we setting for the children sitting in grammar classes? What could we possibly teach the Chinese food delivery guy taking English as a second language? According to George W., we need to ensure that they is learning proper grammar, but our grammar is deteriorating ourselves.
Personally, my favorite example of the “decay of language” is from Justin Timberlake, in his song “What Goes Around.” Now, even though music is art and may not fall by the same conventions as speech, I always appreciate it when someone makes up a word so that it can rhyme in a song:
From Justin Timberlake’s song, “What Goes Around“,
“I heard you found out / That he’s doing to you / What you did to me / Ain’t that the way it goes / You cheated girl / My heart bleeded girl…”
Looking at these lyrics with our grammar glasses on (we are so cool), most of us know that Justin means “bleeded,” given the context of hearts “bleeding.” However, the past tense of “bleed” is “bled.” Therefore, a grammatically-correct lyrical translation would be “bleated,” like what sheep do. So, when singing along to the song, we either ignore the grammatical error but get the overall message (“bleeded”), or misunderstand Justin’s message but use the correct word (“bleated”).
Even though this may be a frivolous example, it shows that bad grammar anywhere may lead to confusion: we risk distorting the language which carries the message, or we may miss the message completely. Some may end up believing that “bleeded” is a word, or that the cries of Justin’s heart sound like sheep. So to mitigate these risks, should we just let the grammar police run wild? Should we round up all the language offenders and send them off to reeducation camps? Even though there are indicators that we should (Timbaland’s hit “The Way I Are” comes to mind), language can also be exclusive if we are stringent on the rules, and we can easily alienate one another based on our definition of what is “correct”. Plus, it would be embarrassing to deport our own President because of linking verbs.
However, there are real dangers when we just let anything go. As Orwell noted, the future of our society depends on our ability to clearly convey ideas and thought. If we cannot do so (here’s to you, President Bush), or if we confuse the audience with our words (“my heart bleated, girl”), we not only perpetuate the problem, but we pass it on to others. This is the greatest risk, at its extreme: as our bad habits become others’ bad habits, and these bad habits are passed down to our children, a whole new language develops. People start saying “bleeded” instead of “bled,” and thousands of words are replaced or replicated with new words that sound right to some, but are unintelligible to others. This then raises the communication barrier, as those outside the realm of understanding will have to re-learn a changing language that has been so distorted that we barely know what’s right and what’s wrong.
With how we’re butchering it, who knows if English will be the dominant language in the future. Thus if you ever feel the urge to laugh at the Chinese delivery guy’s broken English, refrain yourself: after all, what goes around…