[lg policy] Death of English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Sun Sep 19 21:04:58 UTC 2010

Goodbye, cruel words: English. It's dead to me.
Below the Beltway

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, September 19, 2010

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 Aug. 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 language lay imperiled, 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 (Calif.) Times, where it
appeared in a correction that apologized for a previous

On Aug. 6, the very first word of an article in the Winston-Salem
(N.C.) 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 amusement-park haunted house. The
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star described professional football as a
"doggy dog world." The Vallejo (Calif.) Times-Herald and the South
Bend (Ind.) 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 programs 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 United States,
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," he said, "I could care less."

E-mail Gene at weingarten at washpost.com.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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