Pity poor English
ðu ðe eart on heofenum
si ðin nama gehalgod
to-becume ðin rice
geweorþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum.
Urne ge dæghwamlican hlaf syle us to-deag
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgifaþ urum gyltendum
ane ne gelæde ðu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfle.
That’s how you would have said the Lord’s Prayer—in English—had you lived a thousand years ago. During the Old English class I took as part of my linguistics degree, we read aloud to each other, or tried to, and collapsed in laughter. The Anglo-Saxons pushed their language down the throats of the Britons they conquered, as conquerors always do.
If get this message you, PC you restart.
That’s one of the error messages we saw as we connected our new flat-panel TV to our home network. At least we understood what that meant.
The changes in English today aren’t the result of armed invaders. As the language rubs shoulders with the rest of the world on social media and all over the internet, not only are new words created—one of the great advantages of English—but words experience subtle changes in meaning. Check out the Urban Dictionary (http://www.urbandictionary.com) for entries such as bromance, lions for lambs, lom, and minify. You can make up words if you want to, and if enough people agree with you, those words may end up in the dictionary.
Another issue affecting our language is English training in many countries where the level of teaching is not up to a desired standard. This creates an odd mixture of incorrect grammatical construction and vocabulary items mixed with the students’ native language.
Another matter is poor machine translation. Sloppy software applied in a field where much research is still needed has the expected result.
We, therefore, have a collective decision to make. Understandability is, of course and always, the primary criterion against which any communication is judged. Beyond that, what types of odd syntax are acceptable? How many inappropriate synonyms such as radiator covering for radiator cap does a paragraph need before being discarded? How much guesswork should be required of a listener or reader?
We already assume lower standards for texting, social media, blog posts, etc. That’s logical and reasonable. But we hold high school students to a higher grammatical standard for a written report. Can you give them a valid reason why?
English has always changed and will continue to change depending on its environment. I wonder if the native English speakers of the next century will even understand the English of the last!