Posted At: September 29, 2013 9:30 a.m.
by Susan Griffiths
Aha! Your eyes shoot open, you relax your shoulders and the lines of text pour out of your mind and onto the paper. You finally remembered the perfect word — the word that was on the tip of your tongue, the word that is exactly what you are trying to say, the perfect word.
With more than 171,000 words, the English language is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. However, with an evolving world of technology and communication, is the English language suffering?
Scrolling through a Twitter feed, more often than not, one will see numerous spelling, grammatical and usage mistakes. From “to, two, and too” all the way to “poor” versus “pour,” the younger generation struggles with simple grammatical decisions. So are the Millennials destroying or reviving the English language?
“I’m interested in seeing the fight over what English is going to be,” said Andy Johnson, a published author and English professor at The University of Alabama. “It is a dynamic language; it changes almost every day.”
Social media created a platform that allows thoughts to be expressed almost instantaneously. It is a way to articulate opinions, share ideas and virtually connect; however, it should require a basic knowledge of writing skills. While it is easy for individual users to correct mistakes, company accounts can be updated by different company representatives and thus should be carefully monitored. One misused word or phrase and a company’s Twitter page is virtually bombarded with corrections from eager followers and possibly held up to ridicule.
With new words and terms like “Y.O.L.O” (you only live once) gaining popularity almost entirely via social media, another question emerges: Does the lack of rigid rules in the English language make sense?
“You look at a language like French, which was created and studied in the French Academy. It is set in stone. English speakers don’t have that,” said Johnson. “It is what you make it.”
The linguistic structure of English allows for a variety of choices when it comes to selecting the perfect word. However, with these choices comes the issue of similar words with different meanings.
Let’s take a look at a word that is not only provocative, but vastly misunderstood: racism. The American media and general population are using this word more and more. We saw it this summer over a controversial verdict and more recently, students at The University of Alabama have come in close contact with the harsh word.
Racism is a “buzz word,” a word that causes readers to want to read more and possibly see behind the shroud of secrecy that circles race issues in the United States. However, this word is often misused. Racism refers to an individual or group believing they are superior to another based on race. Racism is often used when the word “bigotry” or “prejudice” is more appropriate. It is a word whose original meaning has been expanded through use until it has become a word that is now understood to also mean intolerance, bigotry and prejudice — a word that encompasses a broad array of hateful thoughts and actions.
While the language has some wiggle room, there are words and phrases that are almost constantly misused, misspelled or misunderstood:
• To, two, too:
“To” — infinitive verb phrases “To go” “To eat”
“Two” — only used as the number 2.
“Too” — a word to explain “in addition to” or an excessive degree
• There, their, they’re
“There”— in reference to location
“Their”— the possessive form of they
“They’re”— the contraction of they are
• Your, you’re:
“Your” — the possessive form of you
“You’re” — the contraction of you are
• Literally — the true, exact meaning. Not figuratively.
• Could care less — this phrasing would mean there is a capacity to care less, rather than the correct phrase “could not care less”
Words have meanings, and changing their meanings can modify legal documents or contracts in a conceptual way — potentially altering meanings in historical documents like the Constitution of the United States. If one changes the definitions, ideas that were once meaningful are corrupted or become meaningless.
Throughout our nation’s history, our lives have been constantly shaped by the documents and the writings of our forefathers — writing, many would argue, that is nothing short of pure beauty, elegance and significance. As time marches on, we have moved from pages and pages of descriptive language to 140 characters or less.
“The form of, say, Twitter, puts a premium on brevity, abbreviation, fragmentary and transitory thought. It is not realistic to expect language to soar in those conditions,” said Geoffrey Norman, a nationally syndicated political and adventure writer. “ More important, I think, is the fact that many people — and not just young people — believe that fluency, precision and elegance in language is sort of . . . dull and stuffy and not hip and with it. Slang, words and phrases that are used over and over, clichés . . . using these are more socially acceptable and lead to you being accepted. We all want that. The young most of all.”
“The voice of our generation” has yet to be found. We are stilling waiting for our Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, our Plath and Tolkien. But until then . . .
“Read everything and anything that interests you,” said Johnson. “Read the classics, poems, comics. Anything.”
While we can appreciate and admire the aspect of Twitter that requires brevity and precision of thought, perhaps we should also consider what we may have lost in the process.
“The movie “Lincoln” got at how much the man was able to accomplish through a mastery of the language and a feel for its music. ‘With malice toward none, charity toward all . . .’ or ‘ . . . the last full measure of devotion.’ And many other phrases that send shivers up the spine,” said Norman. “We listen to them, or read them, and it occurs to us, with some little sense of shame, that you don’t read that sort of thing on Twitter. And that this is a pity.”
Whether or not the Millenials are hindering or enhancing our language remains to be seen. The English language continues to evolve — new words are created, old words fall become archaic, and existing words take on new meanings. It is a language that has shaped history and is widely accepted and used (spoken, read and written) across the globe. And as one of the most inspiring authors of all time put it:
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.” — T.S. Eliot