English fi­nally dyes of shame

The lan­guage has be­come in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - MEDIA& MARKETING - GENE WEIN­GARTEN

THE ENGLISH lan­guage, which arose from hum­ble An­glo- Saxon roots to be­come the lin­gua franca of 600 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide and the dom­i­nant lex­i­con of in­ter­na­tional dis­course, is dead. It suc­cumbed last month at the age of 1 617 af­ter a long ill­ness. It is sur­vived by an ig­no­min­iously di­min­ished form of it­self.

The end came qui­etly on Au­gust 21 on the let­ters page of The Washington Post. A reader cas­ti­gated the news­pa­per for hav­ing writ­ten that Sasha Obama was the “youngest” daugh­ter of the pres­i­dent and first lady, rather than their “younger” daugh­ter. In so do­ing, how­ever, the let­ter writer called the first cou­ple the “Obama’s”.

This, too, was pub­lished, con­sti­tut­ing an il­lit­er­ate proof­read­ing of an il­lit­er­ate crit­i­cism of an il­lit­er­acy. Mo­ments later, al­ready se­verely weak­ened, English died of shame.

The lan­guage’s demise took few by sur­prise. Signs of its fail­ing health had been ev­i­dent for some time on the pages of Amer­ica’s daily news­pa­pers, the flex­i­ble yet lin­guis­ti­cally au­thor­i­ta­tive fo­rums through which the day-to-day state of the lan­guage has tra­di­tion­ally been mea­sured.

Be­set by the need to cut costs, and in­flu­enced by de­creased pub­lic at­ten­tion to gram­mar, punc­tu­a­tion and syn­tax in an era of unedited blogs and ab­bre­vi­ated in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, news­pa­per pub­lish­ers have been cut­ting back on the use of copy edit­ing, some­times elim­i­nat­ing it en­tirely.

In the past year alone, as the English lan­guage lay im­per­illed, the iron­i­cally clue­less mis­spelling “pro­noun­ci­a­tion” has been seen in the Bos­ton Globe, the St Paul Pioneer Press, the De­seret Morn­ing News, Washington Jewish Week and the Con­tra Costa (Cal­i­for­nia) Times, where it ap­peared in a cor­rec­tion that apol­o­gised for a pre­vi­ous mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

On Au­gust 6, the very first word of an ar­ti­cle in the Win­ston-salem (NC) Jour­nal was “Alot”, which the news­pa­per em­ployed to es­ti­mate the num­ber of Win­ston-salemites who would be va­ca­tion­ing that month.

The Lewis­ton (Maine) Sun-jour­nal has writ­ten of “spad­ing and neu­ter­ing”.

The Mi­ami Her­ald re­ported on some­one who “eeks out a liv­ing” – alas, not by run­ning an amuse­ment­park haunted house. The Fred­er­icks­burg Free Lance-star de­scribed pro­fes­sional foot­ball as a “doggy dog world”.

The Vallejo Times-her­ald and the South Bend Tri­bune were the two most re­cent pa­pers, out of dozens, to re­port on the treat­ment of “pros­trate can­cer”.

Ob­servers say, how­ever, that no de­vel­op­ment con­trib­uted more dra­mat­i­cally to the death of the lan­guage than the sud­den and star­tling ubiq­uity of the vom­i­tous ver­bal con­struc­tion “reach out to” as a syn­onym for “call on the phone” or “at­tempt to con­tact”.

A jar­gony phrase bloated with bo­gus com­pas­sion – once the prov­ince only of 12- step pro­grammes and sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing sem­i­nars – “reach out to” is now com­mon­place in news­pa­pers. In the last half-year, the New York Times alone has used it more than 20 times in a num­ber of con­tex­tu­ally in­de­fen­si­ble ways, in­clud­ing to re­port that the Blago­je­vich jury had asked the judge a ques­tion.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear to what de­gree the English lan­guage will be mourned, or if it will be mourned at all. In the US, English has be­come in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant, par­tic­u­larly among young adults.

Once the most pop­u­lar ma­jor at the na­tion’s lead­ing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, it now of­ten trails more prag­matic dis­ci­plines, such as eco­nomics, pol­i­tics, govern­ment and, iron­i­cally, “com­mu­ni­ca­tions”, which in­creas­ingly in­volves learn­ing to write mo­bile-de­vice-friendly ads for prod­ucts like Cheez Doo­dles.

Many peo­ple in­ter­viewed for this obituary ap­peared un­moved by the news, in­clud­ing An­thony Incog­nito of Crys­tal City, a typ­i­cal man in the street.

“Be­tween you and I,” the man said, “I could care less.” – Washington Post

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