Is the American Language evolving or decaying? Some say it signals the end of the American Empire. It happened so quickly, not by armed conflict but by our own voices.
The Language of Disintegration
H. F. Jansen Estrup
It has only been twenty or so years since James A. Michener pointed out that if you don’t know the proper use of "bring’ and ‘take’, you literally do not know whether you are coming or going. Today, I hardly ever hear the word ‘take’. ‘Bring’ is misused at every level of our society. "Bring it (to me)" has a nasty, greedy ring to it, like ‘gimme’! Take it with you seems somehow generous, giving, unmasculine.
One never hears ‘few’ or ‘fewer’ any more either, despite the fact that it is often a more accurate way of describing quantity. "Less’ is the only word we seem to know. How much less is never quite clear and this is probably intentional. Vagueness is a way of hedging one’s bet, never being quite wrong, but also not quite right. "Less’ implies a loss and advertisers want us to be in a constant state of need. Less is ‘somewhat’, ‘something’ or ‘whatever’. Less requires no knowledge of any subject. Fewer might mean fewer pounds, fewer calories, fewer acquaintances - more actual friends, fewer bills, more income to save or invest.
Less is also not as personal. Crowds are not personal either. More is the opposite of less. More faceless are welcome at raves. Faceless people using fake names are invited to rallies, demonstrations, even revolutions. More things and ‘friends’ and tweets make up for the less one feels. More it is supposed, is better than less, especially if it also involves a lack of intimacy.
Such mistakes are minor, some say, just a sign of our changing language. But these errors are dangerous - often life or death. Words like floor, roof and ground are taken to mean the same thing. Many of us saw the CNN clip of a policeman, handgun cocked and pointed at the face of a suspect who was kneeling on the roof of a two-story building, hands in the air. "Get on the ground!" the policeman yelled breathlessly, "Get on the ground! Get on the ground!" How is the suspect to respond? If he jumped up to leap off the building to the ground, he would surely have been shot, or badly injured from the fall. Not complying with his order, the cop would have been cleared by his board of inquiry, justified in shooting the man. Luckily, both men were frozen to inaction. Ignorance creates all manner of ‘no win’ situations.
Pronouns are butchered, too. ‘Where’ indicates a place, yet even professional people insist upon adding unnecessary words like ‘to’ or ‘from’. "Where are you going?" Simple question, but if you don’t know the difference between bring and take, you probably don’t know about where, either. What is another word widely ignored. What, like where, can stand alone. What? Is a question. What’s that? Is the same, only using two more words; is and that. That is something. That’s used to mean the following thing belongs to that or goes with that. We've heard judges query, "What did you do that for?" when the correct question is "Why?" More words obscure meaning, rather than clarify. Nowadays it , a thing, seems to be a contraction, ‘that is’ ... Around here it is used this way. Red and black is where it’s at! As a slogan it makes little sense, but the business or its customers seems to think it rhymes, is catchy or memorable. But who, why, what, how, when, and where, once the tools needed for reporting and evaluating information, are destroyed.
‘Myself’ is another destructive appellation. Somewhere (school, church or leisure) we were told that ‘I’ is bad, egotistical, self-centered, even (in my day) conceited (which means with light - informed, aware, grounded, knowing). Instead, ‘myself’ (or is it ‘My Self’?) is six times longer, two words instead of the shortest possible word, and no longer signifies a unique individual. Instead it implies something inward, indefinable, hidden, ignorant, unknowable, but nonetheless demanding attention.
Being little or nothing ourselves, we finally notice when fellow students announce themselves by intimidation, bullying, brutal beatings and finally, mass killings. We didn’t pay attention when our parents and teachers told us ‘persons that’ instead of ‘people who’ - having objectified people in general, it becomes much easier to take the next step. Commonly, from news readers and commentators we hear that this or that conflict requires more ‘boots on the ground’. Boots, we learn from Army tradition, are lined up to honor comrades killed in action. Are we being taught to expect more casualties, continuous warfare, more wounded and dead? Having heard that ad nauseam, we are prepared for the next round. In order to fix our most terrible industrial ‘accident’, sometimes called ‘environmental catastrophe’, we need more bodies out collecting oil and goo. Not men and women, citizens or workers, or volunteers, just (reanimated) dead. A corporate world with zombie/robot-like ‘workers’ needs little pay, no home or sustenance or civil rights. Nor do they need an organization to speak for them or a government to act on their behalf.
Certainly we don’t require a government of, by and for "the people." We heard the mantra, "No more big government" and we seem to agree, our teachers having forgotten to teach us that we are the government. Clamoring for 'little government', we belittle ourselves.
No wonder we think so little of our neighbors, the people down the street who go to a different church or wear odd clothing. Little wonder we wish to punish with invisibility those with different sexual orientation or illnesses which cannot be cured by ‘positive thinking’. With small reservations we condone torture and ‘execution by sniper’ of people who (that) are really only ‘bodies’. We thrive on zombie and vampire thrillers, as if marveling at ourselves. Rather, our Self.
So go ahead. Shout to the heavens that everyone must learn our language and pretend that you know it yourself. In The Language of Cannibals, George Chesbro told us, "The fastest way to destroy a society is to corrupt its language."