Friday, November 16, 2012

What Say You?

Hunh?  ‘Sup?  Dude!  Duuuuuuuudddddddee!  Nice!  ‘Cuz.  It seems that our English language is shrinking!  Listen to a group of high school students have a conversation and they have evolved with the ability to communicate in one-word sentences.  Throw in a little inflection and they can change the context.  Toss in a little emotion and they can change the intent of their message.  Of course, that is if you can actually be so lucky to hear them talk rather than just communicate with their thumbs across the table from one another with their portable electronic devise in hand!  In reality, it is not just the kids today.  Our English language has changed a lot over the years, and part of me questions whether that is a good thing, but more important, are we just more efficient in regard to expressing ourselves? Or, are we not as smart?
A few years ago I watched the movie remake of True Grit.  I am a huge western buff and love the genre.  What has struck me about westerns in recent years is the attention that the directors and producers pay to detail, making certain to make it as realistic as possible.  In True Grit one of the things that stood out to me was the language and how “fancy” the characters spoke using words and phrasing more like I read in Shakespeare than what I hear spoken today.  And then it struck me: the characters in the movie were for the most part uneducated individuals, or had a lot less formal education than we have today.  For example, take a look at this statement by 14-year old Mattie Ross, one of the main characters:
I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father's death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence.  I say that of these ponies.  I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts.  I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful.  Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say,  well, that is superstitious 'claptrap.'  My answer is this : Preacher, go to you Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.
At another point in the movie, another character answers a question posed by young Mattie about possible individuals that she may contact to help her find her father’s killers:
I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now LT Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say that Quinn is about the best they have.

Highbrow educators will say that we have “dumbed down” the English language, and when you sit and listen to teenagers talk sometimes, it is hard to argue with that.  Knowledge of vocabulary among school age kids is not near what it was, which is troubling because words give meaning to our culture, our civilization.  How can we have a learned society if we do not know the meaning of language?  But then you look at the fact that we have streamlined every aspect of society that we can with fast food and Quick Lube, why shouldn’t we streamline our language?  Skilled “texters” do not even spell out the entire work, using “how r u” rather than taking the additional two seconds to write “How are you?” 

I didn’t need a dictionary to understand the conversations when I watched True Grit, though I did have to listen very close so that I didn’t miss what was said.  However, I am not sure that is the case for younger generations.  Is that a bad thing?  Well, when so much of our history is passed down through written and spoken language, I think it is.