Virtual Voices

We're, like, damaging the English language

Culture

Not long ago I found myself near a group of young people, listening to their conversation. They spoke a dialect of English often used by their generation:

"She was, like, 'You've got to try this.' And I was, like, 'Are you serious?' And she was, like, 'You totally won't believe it.' And I was, like, 'I've got to get one!'"

I'm a professional writer, a wordsmith by trade, and sensitive to anything that involves language. I didn't want to judge or scold or hold any kind of opinion about their conversation, but it really bothered me to hear educated, intelligent middle-class kids talking this way.

In my depths, I felt that they were inflicting damage on the language of Lincoln, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible-the language I use every morning in my writing office.

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And they weren't even aware of it. They were just high school kids, trying to figure out how to hitch a ride on the bullet train of popular culture, trying to fit in and be "normal."

At their age, I too yearned to be normal. But for educated people, being normal-truly normal-should include an instinct to honor and protect the English language. Living languages evolve, but we should be very cautious about the changes we legitimize through constant use.

English is our conduit to the founding documents of English-speaking civilization, the body of law, literature, and Scripture that shapes our understanding of what it means to be a God-made, civilized human being.

The more we change the language of the present, the more difficult it is for us to retrieve a clear message from the past.

Also, we should bear in mind the observation of George Orwell as he watched the growing horror of the Nazi conquest of Europe: political evil begins with the corruption of language.

Honest language gives us protection from scoundrels. Honest language can be diagrammed. "Jesus wept" is a perfect sentence that any 5-year-old can diagram and understand. We know who did the action and exactly what he did.

That is not the case with, "She was, like, 'You've got to try this.'" The verb is missing and "like" obscures the action. It is not clear what "she" did, and the sentence will confound anyone who tries to diagram it. It has been damaged for no good reason.

Our best defense against tyranny and the loss of cultural memory is a language that maintains honesty, simplicity, and clarity. The corruption of language doesn't begin with an act of Congress, but with careless use and quiet neglect by people who should know better.

John R. Erickson
John R. Erickson

John is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series. He and his wife, Kris, live on their cattle ranch near Perryton, Texas.

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