Why the historical perspective on language matters

by Professor Eleanor Dickey FBA

5 Nov 2014

The modern world is full of tensions and conflicts about language. Some people worry that their language is being debased, depraved, and despoiled by the sloppiness of e-mails and text messages. Others are upset that an influx of words from another language – usually English – is radically changing their language. Many express fears of minority languages dying out altogether as their speakers shift to using English, while in some English-speaking countries the concern focuses on immigrants who do not learn English: what happens to our society if they force multilingualism on us?

We often approach problems like these as though nothing similar had ever happened before. Yet such issues have arisen over and over again in the past: if we look at how they played out last time and the time before, we shall be in a much better position to handle them this time around.

Take for example the changes that written English is undergoing as a result of digital media. If anything in our language experiences is new, this must be it, for digital media themselves are unparalleled in recorded history. Their collective effect is to shift the balance of control of written English away from publishers, who have long filtered the vast majority of written words read by English speakers, to ordinary speakers of the language. A few decades ago, most of the words that we saw — and especially most of the words seen by children whose ideas of written English were in a formative stage — had been standardised by editors and proofreaders; now the words so standardised are often a minority of what we see. It seems natural that this shift is resulting in what one might tactfully refer to as greater diversity in written English.

A steady stream of changes in spoken language is an inevitable process found in every language that can be traced over a period of time: no language learned naturally by babies remains fixed from one generation to the next. But written language need not change exactly as the spoken language does; for example the pronunciation of English has undergone some very significant changes that are not reflected in our spelling system. Written English became standardised after the development of printing, under the guidance of editors working for publishers: is such standardisation even possible without that guidance? Does anarchy result when ordinary speakers seize control of the written medium?

If one looks further back into the past, one comes to the centuries before the invention of printing, when there were no publishing houses or professional editors. In some of those centuries the written language nevertheless shows an astonishing degree of standardisation. In the second century AD Greek speakers considered the correct written language to be that used in Classical Athens, about 600 years earlier. This would be the equivalent of a modern English speaker attempting to write English from the year 1400, two centuries before Shakespeare. Not everyone managed to reach this standard, but a surprising percentage of Greek writers came surprisingly close to it, not only in literary works but even in documents intended for more limited circulation.

This result was achieved because the ability to produce correct Greek was prioritised by the society: people who wrote as they spoke had very limited career prospects and faced a social stigma, whereas those who could produce elegant Greek were praised and rewarded. Significant resources were devoted to education enabling people to fall into the latter category rather than the former.

The 19th and 20th centuries developed an extreme reliance on editors; authors really had no need to get things completely right themselves, as the copy-editor could be relied on to fix it. The same was largely true of a significant portion of private communication, because secretaries often functioned like editors: those in positions of power frequently dictated letters to a secretary rather than writing them themselves. If the boss could not spell or did not know where to put a comma, who would know? But now that dashing off an e-mail is so much faster than dictating it to a secretary, and authors are expected to produce blogs as well as books, our own command of written English is much more visible than it used to be. And while the standard we are expected to adhere to may have softened, it has not altered nearly as much as our own individual exposure has increased.

If you look at the Greek-speaking world of the second century AD, you can see a fairly clear model for one of the routes our language could now take. We could replace the work of editors by social pressure that results in significant educational resources being devoted to ensuring that we can produce written English to the required standard. It can certainly be done; after all, it was done in the second century. But we might also want to reject the costs that come with that model and choose a different option. In either case we would be well advised to take a good look at the historical precedents before making up our minds.

Eleanor Dickey FBA is Professor of Classics at the University of Reading.

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