Universal (il)literacy

Listening to the commentators at the Australian Open is hard going for anyone who loves the English language as much as I do. Just two examples, off the top:

“She hits the ball hard in spite of her physicality.” The word you were looking for, dear, was ‘physique’. If it was the player’s physicality you wished to highlight, then the proper preceding phrase would have been ‘because’, not ‘in spite of’.

Or, “I referenced his backhand earlier.” ‘To reference’ means to cite the source of a claim. ‘To refer [to]’ means to mention, which would have been the right word there.

These mistakes aren’t as bad as their origin: the prole belief that adding syllables adds sophistication no matter what. Actually, it doesn’t, even when the words are used correctly. When they aren’t, the effect is as risible as it’s upsetting.

That gets me back to one of my pet themes: issuing licences to use words of more than two syllables. A simple test should establish eligibility, with questions like “Choose the right word: the performance was [masterful, masterly], every nuance came delicately shaped.”

Such a procedure wouldn’t just protect the curmudgeonly sensibilities of an old pedant like me. Above all, it would have an outside chance of saving the greatest language on earth from mangling vandalism.

Oh well, that will have to remain a cherished dream. However, one has to take issue with one axiomatic assumption of liberal ideology: the advisability, indeed virtue, of universal literacy.

Since any ideology ends up delivering results opposite to its proclaimed aims, a politically motivated commitment to make everyone literate is guaranteed to make most people illiterate.

This is borne out empirically. In Victorian England, before literacy was declared to be a social-engineering hoist lifting the downtrodden masses out of their misery, 97 per cent of the population were literate. Today, after liberal notions have indeed become axiomatic, that rate is 10 per cent lower.

Literacy in this statistic means being able to read simple texts, such as road signs, fluently and without moving one’s lips. Climbing up from that basic requirement, we’ll get to a higher plateau: the ability to use words in their true meaning and arranged according to the demands of proper grammar.

Now that height is beyond the reach of most of our comprehensively educated masses, as it always was even before education became comprehensive. But there is a difference: in the past, people unable to use English properly didn’t get to parade their ignorance in the public arena, especially in a professional journalistic capacity.

And I’m not talking about a very distant past either. Anyone who listened to the wireless in the ‘50s, watched TV in the ‘60s or read the papers in the ‘70s will confirm that my vituperative attacks on egalitarianism aren’t wholly groundless.

Alas, turning English into a heap of solecisms is part of the general vulgarisation of life. And the latter, in turn, proves a law of nature to which there are no known exceptions: everything that requires discernment will be destroyed if made available to the masses.

Modernity is mindlessly committed to the elevation of the common man, but this goal is unachievable in any other than the crudest material sense. Yet ideology prevents this demonstrable truth from ever being mentioned.

Today’s malcontents are out to destroy the hierarchical social structure. They don’t realise that, when that pyramid collapses, it will bury culture under the rubble.

For the masses won’t rise up to the level of cultural subtleties – they’ll force them to tumble down to their own level. Poetry will be reduced to doggerel, literature to potboilers, music to easy listening at best and anti-musical satanic chants at worst, politics to Rishi Sunak.

And English will plummet into the linguistic gutter inhabited by the masses, out of whose ranks sports journalists are being plucked.

Now I’d better shut up, just in case. I’m sure elitism will be criminalised before long, and there’s no guarantee that law won’t be made retroactive.

6 thoughts on “Universal (il)literacy”

  1. I’ve almost completely given up watching TV and radio because it wasn’t doing me any good to shout corrections of grammar, syntax, usage and pronunciation at the perpetrators every ten seconds. I don’t know what language the perpetrators of TV and radio speak, but it’s not what I recognise as English.

    But what can we do about it, apart from setting a good example?

    1. P.S. Nietzsche wrote (approximately) “I fear that we’ll never get rid of God until we get rid of grammar.” Is the attack on grammar perhaps a part of the attack on God?

    2. You are absolutely right — that’s exactly what it is. In fact, that’s how I was going to write this piece, but, feeling a bit the worse for wear, decided I wasn’t quite up to it. Perhaps this weekend then.

    3. At this stage, we can only save our own souls, but no one else’s. So setting a good example is the best we can do. Anything else would involve pushing the reverse button on history, and that’s beyond our power. Well, mine at any rate.

  2. Some school districts have announced that mathematics is racist, so I do not see any reason why language and literacy are not as well.

    You may be part of the last generation to know there was a difference between “physicality” and “physique”. With enough misuse (and it is almost certain, given that people heard it on TV), the publishers of dictionaries will change the definition of both words in order to ensure (assure/insure – see a prior rant!) their interchangeability.

    I stopped reading the newspaper for the same reason PJR stopped watching television. For a time it was fun to note the atrocious grammar and send exampes to friends or family, but in the end it just became too aggravating. The headline in USA Today proclaiming to have found the “First Amphibious Pitcher”, although hilarious, is also quite sad. A professional journalist did not know the difference between ambidextrous and amphibious and neither did his editor.

    As far as adding syllables to words to sound intelligent, it seems to work in German, so why not English?

  3. I think it is more functional illiteracy rather than illiteracy. People can read the words, but they really don’t have a comprehension of what they are really reading.

    Most of these are literature, functional literates, too I think, not necessarily the result of bad Schools are bad teachers. It is primarily the result of lazy students.

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