Honey, I shrunk the language

The title of the 1989 film wasn’t grammatical, but then it didn’t have to be.

I strongly suspect the script writers knew that the past tense of ‘shrink’ is ‘shrank’, not ‘shrunk’, but they used the solecism for stylistic effect. (Not having seen the picture, I can’t tell you what the effect was.)

However, when similar and worse atrocities are perpetrated on English out of ignorance, and when such abuse is pandemic, the problem goes beyond just recondite conventions of grammar and usage.

Language, after all, shapes and communicates thought. The two are closely interconnected, although I don’t know the exact mechanism involved. Neither does anyone else though – this in spite of the billions pumped into assorted Decades of the Brain and Genome Projects.

Yet such gaps in our knowledge don’t negate purely empirical observations. The relevant one is that language and thought are married and, like all couples, affect each other – either positively or negatively.

Hence, those who express themselves in elegant, well-shaped sentences may or may not be great intellects, but then neither can they be stupid. When God gives people an ability to play language like a musical instrument, He also tends to give them good tunes to play.

Conversely, imprecise language usually betokens woolly thinking, especially when it comes out of the mouths of educated people who ought to know better.

Thus, I didn’t have to analyse the thought of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in any detail to know that he is far from being the intellectual giant he is often depicted to be. All I needed was this one sentence he wrote:

“In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”

Show me a man capable of writing this sentence and I’ll show you a man who is – what’s the polite term? – intellectually challenged. But my lament isn’t about any specific personalities.

Though linguistic failings are bad enough in each individual case, they point to an individual problem only. The problem, however, becomes a collective, civilisational calamity when it is widespread and – even worse – when most people dismiss it as an irrelevance. A society that neglects language ends up neglecting thought, and this is a grave matter.

One hears assorted ignoramuses justifying bad usage by saying that language develops. That’s true to the point of being a truism. However, the underlying assumption, common to modern barbarians, that all development is meliorative, is patently false.

Things that can get better can also get worse, and the second tendency is more common – so there go Darwin’s key assumptions, along with the fix they provide for progress junkies. And if the past couple of centuries are anything to go by, when it comes to matters of the mind the second tendency isn’t just more common but prevalent.

The key point is that, a huge influx of computer terms notwithstanding, the on-going changes to English are reductive. Rather than expanding, the language is shrinking.

English is blessed with the biggest vocabulary of all Indo-European languages, three times as big as the Russian lexicon, for example. That creates a glorious opportunity for precision – not just in language qua language, but also in underlying thought.

Alas, English doesn’t just offer endless opportunities for precision. It also lays traps and imposes tests. And anyone who ignores the vital distinctions among words that sound synonymous but aren’t will fall into the traps and fail the tests.

A case in point is the current problem experienced by Associated Newspapers, the publisher of The Mail. Several celebrities (dread word), including Elton John and Prince Harry Markle, are charging it with hacking.

Responding to the accusations, the company issued a statement, saying: “We utterly and unambiguously refute these preposterous smears…”

They do nothing of the kind. They don’t refute the “smears” – they deny them. To deny something means saying it’s untrue. To refute something means proving it’s untrue.

Disregarding this distinction isn’t just ignorance of the difference between two words. It’s ignorance of the difference between two concepts, and this failing is now commonplace.

“I refute what you are saying” is these days heard everywhere, and nowhere is it followed by an actual refutation. When a successful print medium blithely ignores the problem, it perpetuates not only bad usage, but also crude thought.

A personal example, if I may. Once a lovely young lady disagreed with something I said at a dinner party, which didn’t upset me: I am prepared to brook any disagreement from lovely young ladies.

Later that night I heard the girl’s mother recount the exchange to her father, who asked if the lovely young lady had argued with me. “She did,” said the mother. “She said she disagreed.”

This is a closely related problem. Saying one disagrees doesn’t amount to an argument: I can say I disagree with the heliocentric view of the universe, but I can’t argue against it.

An argument is the enunciation of a judgement, which in turn is an opinion rationalised. These days failure to distinguish among the three italicised words is endemic, as is saying “I feel” instead of “I think”. We used to have thinkers; now we have feelers.

In other words, an argument becomes one when it contains valid reasons for rejecting a statement. If no valid counterarguments are then presented by the utterer of the original statement, it stands not only rejected but also refuted.

If one word multi-tasks (another dread word) too much, it takes on jobs hitherto done by other words, thereby making them redundant. English shrinks as a result, and the thought it expresses follows suit.

Another factor of shrinkage is blind faith in synonyms. If two words mean the same thing, what’s the difference? There’s the rub: no two words, however close in meaning, mean exactly the same thing. There’s no such thing as complete synonyms: a distinguishing nuance always exists.

Faith in synonyms is aggravated by faith in cognates. For example, one never hears the word ‘masterly’ any longer; it has been ousted by ‘masterful’. But, though the two words are etymological siblings, they mean entirely different things. ‘Masterly’ means displaying mastery; ‘masterful’, being forceful, domineering.

This is one of many examples refuting, not just denying, the oft-heard claim that modern usage is all about everyday communication, not showing off one’s vocabulary. First, if language were all about everyday communication, we’d have neither Shakespeare nor the King James Version.

Second, our shrinking language undermines the very communication it’s supposed to foster. Hence a musical performance may be masterly without being masterful and vice versa. Therefore when it’s described as ‘masterful’, I don’t know what the reviewer means. The communication chain is broken by a shrinking language.

Our ancestors left us an immense wealth of capital, arguably the richest language on God’s green earth, and certainly the most precise. This is the capital we are busily frittering away, hoping there will still be enough left to last us our lifetime. Therein lies the danger, nay certainty, of linguistic, and therefore intellectual, bankruptcy.

Does this mean we aren’t as smart as we think we are?

4 thoughts on “Honey, I shrunk the language”

  1. The problem you correctly identify probably has many causes, of which I suspect the most important may be the education of the educators. Every educational procedure is, by its nature only an approximation, as indicated, crudely, by percentage marks given/gained. Teachers are likely to have received marks between 50 and 100 % (put crudely) and their success-rate at educating their charges reflect that ability modulated by the quality of the books used. Thus there are inevitable losses at every stage, accounting for your perceptions. I have no solution.

  2. “Our ancestors left us an immense wealth of capital, arguably the richest language on God’s green earth”

    Lexicon as Alexander says three times that of Russian. Writers too from a whole host of nations authors with a national perspective different. American, Australian, South African, Irish and of course British.

    Authors too their primary language not English such as Joseph Conrad nonetheless esteemed.

  3. I hate the argument that “language is always changing.” Modern man’s propensity to use nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns is a terrible assault on the language. I do not know how it started, but being viewed as well educated is considered an insult to many. (See my comments quoting Charles Barkley.) It is cool to speak poorly. This trend is exacerbated by the media (try to find a television character who is well-spoken) and the poor folks at Merriam-Webster, who cannot wait each year to publish their list of changed meanings. My go-to example for years was biannual and semiannual. Biannual used to mean every two years and semiannual meant twice a year. The entries for both words now include both definitions. How in hell can a word mean both twice a year and every two years? I find fault with much of what I read and hear, but another word group that makes me cringe: ensure, assure, and insure. Few know that these are not the same word.

    1. The American Heritage Dictionary used to be good. They had a panel of experts (writers, academics) who voted on each contentious usage. So, when they said that “90 per cent of the panel agree that…”, one could more or less trust their verdict. I don’t know what the situation is like now, though I suspect the AHD isn’t what it used to be (what is?). Dictionaries used to be prescriptive; these days they are descriptive, proceeding from the assumption that there’s no right or wrong. Whatever people say is right.

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