English is changing: for better or for worse?

Aug 18, 2010 by

Two things are certain — and I am not talking of death and taxes. In language the two certainties are that language is constantly changing and… that we keep complaining about it.

And English is no exception to this rule. It changed from:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeod cyninga, þrym gefrunon
[the opening lines of Beowulf written in Old English]


Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye —
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
[the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales written in Middle English]


Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life?
[the opening lines of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan written in Early Modern English]


Sticklers for correct spelling and proper pronunciation could be fighting a losing battle if a new exhibition is anything to go by.
[the opening lines of an article in the Independent on the opening exhibition on … the development of the English language]

And people as consistently complain about the evil changes in the language. George Orwell wrote that

“…most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way…”

August Schleicher, a German philologist wrote in 1848 that the English of his day is

“…the most ground-down [of all Germanic languages. It shows] how rapidly the language of the nation important both in history and literature can sink

Thomas Sheridan in 1780 complained that

“The greatest improprieties… are to be found among people of fashion; many pronunciations, which thirty or forty years ago were confined to the vulgar, are gradually gaining ground; and if something [is] not done to stop this growing evil… English is likely to become a mere jargon… [while] during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-14]… it was probable that English was … spoken in its highest state of perfection…”

But nearly thirty years prior to Sheridan’s quote, in 1755 Samuel Johnson saw English as an illustration to his maxim that

“Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration…”

And during the reign of Queen Anne, in 1712 Jonathan Swift wrote a “Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue” in which he

“in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain[ed]… that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions…”

So is English decaying or is it improving? Or perhaps merely becoming different and no better or worse? And is what’s happening with English today — abbreviated text messaging language, massive borrowing, changing grammar — anything new and different, by historical standards?

Find out in my Continuing Studies course “The Story of English: Past, Present, and Future”. There are still a few spots left so don’t delay signing up!

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