The English language, we all know, is in decline. The average schoolchild can hardly write, one author has recently warned. Well, not that recently perhaps.
William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, wrote: “There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.”
He died in 1386.
Yet Langland was far from being the earliest critic of linguistic ineptitude. For that, we have to go back to around 3000 BC and the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
Among clay tablets discovered and deciphered by modern scholars is one which records the agonised complaints of a Sumerian teacher about the sudden drop-off in students' writing ability.
The same theme – and variations – keeps recurring. Take these comments cited in a study by Princeton University:
· “The common language is disappearing. It is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of verbal conglomerate, a pseudospeech at once both pretentious and feeble, that is created daily by millions of blunders and inaccuracies in grammar, syntax, idiom, metaphor, logic, and common sense... in the history of modern English there is no period in which such victory over thought-in-speech has been so widespread. Nor in the past has the general idiom, on which we depend for our very understanding of vital matters, been so seriously distorted.”
· “Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”
· “From every college in the country goes up the cry, ‘Our freshmen can't spell, can't punctuate.’ Every high school is in disrepair because its pupils are so ignorant of the merest rudiments.”
· “The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”
· “Unless the present progress of change [is] arrested... there can be no doubt that, in another century, the dialect of the Americans will become utterly unintelligible to an Englishman.”
· “Our language is degenerating very fast.”
Together, they appear to be a devastating critique of a modern failure in education and a failure by students (and graduates) to master the basics of English usage – spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Yet only the first three quotes are from this century!
The first is from 1978 and a paper called What's Happening to American English? The second is a 1961 paper Attitudes toward English Teaching. And no matter how relevant it seems today, we have to go back almost half a century and 1917 for the third example.
The final three are even earlier, from Methods of Study in English (1889), and comments by Captain Thomas Hamilton (1833) and James Beattie (1785).
But as comparatively recently as 2008, a study by Cambridge Assessment, one of the UK’s biggest examination boards, found that half of teenagers could not distinguish between standard English grammar and colloquial language.
The survey covered more than 2,000 teenagers in 26 English secondary schools, many of whom did not realise that phrases such as "get off of" and "she was stood" were grammatically incorrect.
Not surprisingly, social networking websites and mobile phone text messaging were fingered as the culprits undermining children's literacy skills. Government ministers also complained many young people spend too much time playing video games and watching TV instead of reading books.
Plus ca change… (assuming schoolchildren still learn foreign phrases as part of their English studies).
Dr Beth Black, author of the report, was more optimistic, saying: "It is possible that these less well-recognised non-standard English forms will find their way into standard English, especially given the view that teenagers are linguistic innovators who bring about change in standard dialect."
True, English is a living language, constantly evolving and adapting. Otherwise, we’d still be writing in the same style and structure as Chaucer and Langland. But while this process takes place, we still have to observe convention.
Between you and I, sub-titled A Little Book of Bad English by former Penguin Books editor James Cochrane puts it very well: “Many readers may be surprised to find that much of what they thought was ‘bad’ English is in fact perfectly good, and what they have been led to think of as ‘good’ English is sometimes ignorant, dishonest, or plain stupid.”