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Evolution of language
Posted: 10 July 2013 04:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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If we go back two hundred years to Melville, Dickens, Hawthorne et al. the language has certainly changed and simplified.

Changed, certainly; it would be amazing if it hadn’t. Simplified? Well, in some ways yes, of course. Nobody now – even if he or she was being paid by the word - would elect to start a popular novel with a ponderous Latinate one-sentence paragraph like this example:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

Do you think they ought to? Is that the kind of writing you look for in contemporary fiction? Would you even consider the use of semicolons to be correct?

The only evidence I have concerning older literature versus modern is that the classics possess more challenging words, the scenery and characters are more fleshed out, everything in general is more descriptive.

And that’s no evidence at all. We should expect established literary classics, that have been read and admired for generations, to be better than the average of our day just as they were better than the average of their own day. That, after all, is why they are classics. Stephenie Meyer vs. W Faulkner is not a fair or meaningful comparison; go find a representative selection of the pulp and romantic fiction of Faulkner’s day – the kind of stuff emotional adolescent girls were lapping up - and if you can show that kind of material to possess ‘more challenging words’, ‘scenery and characters more fleshed out’, et cetera, you may have a case.

I also referred to the ubiquity of profanity in today’s language. Do you consider it to be deterioration or a progression?  Again, I’m not concerned so much with profanity as I am with the repetitiveness of certain expletives, such as the “F” word used as an adjective, noun, gerund, verb etc. Do you honestly think that this is progression?

I don’t think it is even much of a change. I refer you to the celebrated poem The Great Australian Adjective, by W T Goodge, published in 1898: 

The sunburnt bloody stockman stood
And in a dismal bloody mood
Apostrophised his bloody cuddy;
“The bloody nag’s no bloody good,
He couldn’t earn his bloody food -
A regular bloody brumby.
Bloody!”
He jumped across the bloody horse
And cantered off, of bloody course,
The roads were bad and bloody muddy;
Said he, “Well spare me bloody days
The bloody Government’s bloody ways
Are screamin’ bloody funny.
Bloody!”
He rode uphill, down bloody dale,
The wind, it blew a bloody gale,
The creek was high and bloody floody.
Said he, “The bloody horse must swim.
The same for bloody me and him,
It’s somethin’ bloody sickenin’.
Bloody!”
He plunged into the bloody creek,
The bloody nag was bloody weak,
The stockman’s face a bloody study!
And though the bloody horse was drowned
The bloody rider reached the ground
Ejaculating, “Bloody?”
“Bloody!!”

Okay, that was a skit specifically on Australian speech habits; but a century ago there were certainly other parts of the English-speaking world where certain classes of society used a profanity in every sentence. The only material difference is that the habit has spread to classes that used not to use them so freely – and that’s a social rather than a language change .

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Posted: 10 July 2013 04:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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You’re throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and hoping that something sticks. This is just a hodgepodge of stylistic complaints and one whopping straw man argument. (No one in the history of the world has ever suggested that Stephenie Meyer is as good a writer as William Faulkner, so just cut that crap out right now.)

“Challenging” words. What makes a word challenging? I’m serious. I have no clue what you consider to be a challenging word. What is challenging to one person is easy-peasy to another. Once you’ve defined what a challenging word is, then you need to make the case why using them is better.

“Scenery and characters are more fleshed out.” How do you measure this? And is this a function of the language, or a question of literary fashion? If it is happening, then it’s more likely a sign that realism in novels is considered less important, not linguistic deterioration.

“Everything in general is more descriptive.” This is hopelessly vague. And again, it’s a question of literary style, not linguistics.

None of these alleged changes are remotely related to the alleged simplification of grammar that started this thread.

The reason I’m harping on finding things to measure is that we need to establish that certain changes are actually happening. To do that we need data. I would suspect that for many of these fashion-related points that you’ll find as much variation among contemporaneous writers as you will across the decades. For example, if you want to measure the use of multi-syllable words I suspect that you’ll find that Hemingway comes up short compared to Faulkner, Woolf, or Joyce. Is that “deterioration”?

Regarding profanity, there is no question that profanity is much more common in published material than it was decades ago. That’s been demonstrated many times. But is it “deterioration”? Profanity has always been shifting ground. Once “bloody” was highly offensive; no one would consider it so now. “Nigger” and “cunt” were once commonly tossed about, markers of coarse speech but hardly profane, now both words are taboo. How are the current changes in how profanity is used any different from the changes in the past?

Another might be the rise in grammatical and spelling errors in journalism. I haven’t measured, but I suspect there are a lot more now than twenty years ago. But is this a result of linguistic deterioration or the laying off of copy editors in an attempt to reduce overhead? I suspect the latter.

So you need to do the following:

1) Define exactly what you mean by “linguistic deterioration” in terms that can be measured.
2) Ensure that the metrics you come up with actually measure “linguistic deterioration” and not changes in literary fashion or style or other things.
3) Select a corpus for study. Ideally the corpus should be narrow, e.g., journalism, sports writing, novels, so that you don’t have crossover from genres and registers.
4) Select a time period. (It’s important to do these things before you actually dive into the corpus, otherwise you’re engaging in a fishing expedition. Pure chance will say that you’ll find something if you aren’t looking for anything specific, and you’ll end up measuring the noise and not the signal.)
5) Measure to see if the change is actually occurring.
6) If the change is occurring, then we can start to talk about whether this is “deterioration.”

As it stands, you’re simply making a “these kids these days” argument. No one is saying that you have to like changes in fashion or style, but you need to state them as personal preferences, not as indications of societal or linguistic decline.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 05:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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De gustibus non est desputandum.

People used to be able to spell Latin correctly.  I guess the world is truly going downhill.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 05:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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De gustibus non est desputandum

That’s actually rather humorous. “Regarding taste, there is no spitting out.”

It’s also an example of language change. Desputo is a late Latin neologism.

An error that works on many levels.

[ Edited: 10 July 2013 05:45 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 10 July 2013 05:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Richard - 09 July 2013 01:12 PM

... this does not negate the fact that language has not deteriorated.

A man may, in error, speak the truth.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 05:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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I think we can safely say that English does not decline.

(I’ll get my coat.)

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Posted: 10 July 2013 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Going over this thread from the beginning, I can’t avoid the feeling that somebody (I name no names) is having fun, leading some of us on.  I’s an easy thing to do, after all --- certain statements about language are to posters at wordorigins.org as a red rag is to a bull (*). We have a thread like this every few months --- with variations, of course.  One of the things I like about wordorigins.org is that we tend to take each other’s sincerity for granted. But it does make us vulnerable.

(* Yes, I know that red rags are to a bull as green rags, or rags of many colours ;-)

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Posted: 10 July 2013 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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I think we can safely say that English does not decline.

\

Baboomtish

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Posted: 10 July 2013 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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English is just a girl who can’t say “no.”

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Posted: 10 July 2013 01:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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This blog post may be of interest. It’s clearly a bit tongue in cheek, but it exhibits both good and bad aspects of the debate.

First, as the first commenter notes, this isn’t really a spelling question, per se. Although it is an orthographic one.

Second, it demonstrates how selection of the corpus can bias one’s results. Yes, polling Craig’s List will give you the “man on the street” usage, but that’s only part of the overall usage picture. They are deliberately excluding professional and skilled writers, and skewing the picture. It is the opposite of the tautology that professional writers will spell well because they write a lot. Yes, Craig’s List posters may make a lot of spelling errors, but since they don’t write much, they don’t contribute much to the overall condition of the written language.

The swipe at descriptivist lexicographers at the end is also off base. First, it’s really the usage and style guides one should go after, not the dictionaries. And most usage guides base their conclusions on surveys of edited prose. They aim to provide advice based on what most careful writers do, not on what unskilled ones do. Using your for you’re is still pretty much universally considered an error, and any descriptive reference that cited the usage would undoubtedly include a usage note along the lines of “considered an error by most.”

But I can certainly predict that references will at some point start to include the usage. In general, the apostrophe is on its way out, and has been for centuries. This is just one example of this larger trend. At some point, the usage guides will start to pick up it. Although it will likely be a few more centuries before the current error becomes standard. It’s a slow process.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 03:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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For me, the your/you’re error is actually a weird kind of typo. I average two 500 - 600 word articles a week and it’s not all that uncommon for me to discover the your for you’re error in my first drafts and it never fails to surprise me because I know I was thinking “you’re” but somehow typed “your.” If I wasn’t carefully editing my own work, those errors would get out, even though I know the difference (and also find it a grating error).

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Posted: 10 July 2013 04:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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happydog - 10 July 2013 03:35 PM

For me, the your/you’re error is actually a weird kind of typo. I average two 500 - 600 word articles a week and it’s not all that uncommon for me to discover the your for you’re error in my first drafts and it never fails to surprise me because I know I was thinking “you’re” but somehow typed “your.” If I wasn’t carefully editing my own work, those errors would get out, even though I know the difference (and also find it a grating error).

My theory on this sort of error is that it’s the fingers listening to the brain but not bothering to parse what the brain is saying.  A related error is typing that when than is intended.  I find myself doing that quite often and I chalk it up to that being significantly more common than than. The fingers get started on tha and go blindly off to t rather than n.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 04:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Faldage - 10 July 2013 04:11 PM

My theory on this sort of error is that it’s the fingers listening to the brain but not bothering to parse what the brain is saying.  A related error is typing that when than is intended.  I find myself doing that quite often and I chalk it up to that being significantly more common than than. The fingers get started on tha and go blindly off to t rather than n.

Tip: save hours and hours of time by not making these types of mistake manually; instead, leave it all to a text predictor algorithm!

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Posted: 10 July 2013 09:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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Regarding Zythophile’s post:  my sentence is correct, it seems that he purposefully truncated my sentence to submit an aphorism.

By the way, the sentence is an example of litotes; a figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. 

Note.  Dave did not come to my defense.

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Posted: 10 July 2013 10:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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Thank you languagehat for pointing that out.

It was a typographical error, but I’m more embarrassed because I’m Italian and the word disputare, dispute, is obviously spelled with an I as it is in Latin, Shame on me.

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