Cops and robbers


Language, like practically every field of public life, has rule-followers and rule-breakers. The one side rages against violations, the other side rages against restrictions, or just shrugs and carries on. I think as usual the truth lies somewhere in-between.
To the rule-breakers there is not much I can say. You are probably breaking the rules because you don’t know about them, or you don’t care about them. If you don’t know the rules of speaking correctly, you are making choices you may not be aware of: a certain kind of job with a certain kind of pay but more importantly with a certain kind of people around. With these people you will share certain hobbies, certain interests and you will see the world with more or less the same eyes. You will probably choose your husband / wife from among these people and this will further dictate the kind of furniture you’ll buy and the standard of the holiday you’ll choose to spend. More importantly, this standard won’t be given to you – you will make it by yourself, by simply being yourself.

To the small category of those who break the rules because they want to, I have even less to say. Your efforts to prove that language is a set of norms that place you within a society you don’t agree to will bear very little, if any, fruit. The fancy, weird, quaint turns of phrases will – maybe – linger on in some archived interviews or articles, but you will be labelled as what you in fact wanted: an outsider, an outlaw, a maverick.

To the large category of rule-followers I can say a bit more. If you worry that language is being degraded by those dirty guys who keep making the same annoying mistakes, relax: a lot of the rules today were ‘mistakes’ in the past. Language changes, even if we may not notice that. It’s strange to think that a sentence like ‘These are the books that I like’ used to be incorrect in Romanian 100 years ago; the correct version would have been ‘These are the books THATS I like’, because the word ‘that’ pointed back to many books, not just one.

The second thing is, there’s nothing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about how language changes. You may not like this or that, and you may call them ‘barbaric’ simplifications, but there it is, language changes under the pressure of a community, which in turn is under the pressure of broader economic, social or geo-political circumstances. It has nothing to do with right or wrong, with nice or nasty. It’s just a fact. There is no benchmarking for how a language should operate, there is in fact no such thing as ‘should’ for languages: whether the language has 2000 concordance rules or just 10, whether it has 10 differentiations for ‘we’, or none, there is no neat model or standard that languages ‘should’ come closer to, or not.

The third thing is, if we’re talking about global languages for global business, language is becoming more and more just an instrument to carry messages. It is losing its ‘face’ value, in other words, business can be done in a dubious language quality and the partners don’t look down on each other because they used the present perfect wrongly. When a famous language expert (Peter Medgyes) declared in the 90s that global English would become an ‘intermediate’ English in the next century, he was most probably right – but that has nothing to do with quality, rightness, or beauty. It doesn’t mean people will become dumb, or that English will be spoken by dumb, uneducated people.

So to sum up: rule-followers, relax – language will make its own selections, on a darwinistic battlefield. Rule-breakers, the moment you open your mouths you give yourselves away – what TV shows you watch, what you had for dinner last night, and what school you’re taking your kids to. Besides, only a minimal quote of your mistakes will make it as a rule in the future.

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