Modernity is remiss not only intellectually and morally, but also aurally. How else could one explain the current profusion of ugly, jarring usages?
For example, no one with a good ear would ever use the construction to be sat, as in I was sat next to the hostess. Since this usage is rapidly gaining currency, the conclusion is inescapable: an increasing number of people suffer from a tin ear for language.
Otherwise, depending on what they want to communicate, they’d say I was seated, I was sitting or simply I sat. One could vindicate such preferences by referring to the entire history of English, especially its transition from the Middle to the Modern period.
When languishing for several centuries after the Norman Conquest in a secondary, almost dialectal status, English underwent massive changes. Most of them gradually made the language more streamlined and compact, with some grammatical categories (such as the cases and genders of nouns) becoming extinct and some others highly suspect.
One such category was the passive voice, which offended the emergent structure of the English sentence revolving around an active verb. Since language constantly interacts with the national mentality, alternately reflecting and forming it, this tendency probably sprang from the dynamic, pragmatic English character.
The same goes for the uncompromising demand for an active, rather than nominal, subject in an English sentence, one assuming responsibility for the action conveyed by the verb. By contrast, a Russian sentence can thrive without either a verbal predicate or a subject, possibly reflecting the characteristic Russian vagueness the West perceives as ‘the mysterious Russian soul’.
In English, however, these two allies, the subject and the predicate, join forces to relegate the passive voice to a suspect status. It’s to be avoided whenever possible, and only brought in from the cold in dire necessity (as in this sentence, for example).
One could enunciate one’s objections to I was sat in this rational manner, avoiding any allusion to aural acuity. But the better argument against this abomination is that it’s jarring to the ear – in the same way that a wrong note hurts the ear of anyone blessed with a sense of pitch.
In his presidential campaign of some 25 years ago, Bill Clinton asked the voters to “give Al Gore and I a chance”. That led to a lively argument on The Firing Line between the host William F. Buckley and his guest, who had just published a popular book advocating linguistic permissiveness.
The guest defended Clinton’s usage by asking a question he considered rhetorical: “Are you accusing this Rhodes scholar of being illiterate?” “No,” replied Buckley, “I’m accusing him of having a bad ear.”
Such an accusation would clinch the argument for anyone who heard language in the same tonal detail. A musician may also point out to a tone-deaf listener that the piece he has just heard is in the wrong key. The former requires no rational proof for his remark – he just knows it’s true. But the latter may wish to dip into the area of acoustics, wishing to know, for example, what frequency corresponds to D Minor.
Similarly, Buckley heard the false grammatical note, but his guest didn’t, or rather wouldn’t. He tried to excuse the Rhodes scholar’s illiteracy by offering a factually correct but conceptually irrelevant defence. Clinton, he explained, must have been taught as a child that it’s wrong to say Me and Hilary both want to be president. He should say Hilary and I…
That compromised in his mind the usage of me altogether, and Clinton, along with millions of others, felt one always had to opt for I to be on the safe side. In the same vein, many Englishmen taught not to drop their aitches as children actually pronounce the tricky letter as haitch, thinking they sound ‘well posh’ thereby.
Buckley’s guest didn’t explain why Clinton’s impressive transatlantic credentials didn’t cover the difference between subject and object. To Buckley that difference was self-evident, to his guest irrelevant, to Clinton nonexistent.
I would have been tempted to backtrack even further, to the same transition from Middle to Modern English, during which the whole category of the case came under attack. As a result, it suffered attrition, but still managed to hang on in personal pronouns.
Interestingly, Buckley also tried to make his point by suggesting that no one would say give I a chance. He was using an argument borrowed from transformational grammar, a useful teaching tool if nothing else.
But his crystal ball was murky: these days one can hear many Americans, and a growing number of Britons, saying things like they invited I to a party. Tin ear is a contagion spreading as fast and wide as some pandemics we’ve grown to know and love.
Buckley’s guest then tried to unsheathe a rusty truism as his defence weapon. “Language,” he said, “is constantly changing”. Like most truisms, as opposed to truths, this weapon ought to have been decommissioned a long time ago.
We’ve known since the time of Heraclitus that everything changes, emphatically including language. Hence a modern reader finds Shakespeare hard to read in places, Chaucer maddeningly so, and Beowulf well-nigh impossible.
That language changes is indisputable. However, the pernicious presumption of progress misfires here as badly as it does everywhere else. For not all change is for the better; much of it is for the worse. Its direction depends on who initiates the change, why and on what basis.
English used to be a club with a qualified open-door policy. Outsiders could be admitted, but they had to be vetted by the club members first.
The metaphorical club included the cultured elite endowed with the education, sensitivity – and yes, ear – to judge which newcomers should be admitted and which blackballed. They managed to keep undesirables at bay, sometimes forever, sometimes at least for a long time.
That elite used to be small in number, but it was never culturally marginal. Now it is. The masses broke the club doors down and rushed inside, trampling underfoot the linguistic treasures lovingly collected over centuries.
That onrush is these days growing exponentially, especially under the influence of social media. Increasingly, verbal communication gives way to either cryptic acronyms or hieroglyphics, all those smileys, emoticons and emojis.
The prerogative of using the written word to affect the usages of millions has been stolen from the elite and usurped by our comprehensively educated masses who don’t know the passive voice from a holding midfielder.
English has never had a single regulatory body like the French Academy. In the past the speed and temperature of change were on a short lead, but the lead wasn’t nonexistent. Now it has fallen by the wayside, and a game played by loose but definite rules has given way to an anarchic free-for-all.
Rather than becoming richer and bigger as a result, English has become poorer and smaller. For anarchic change is always ugly and reductive – in language and everywhere else.