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Sunday, June 13, 2010
Time was when the future of English is simply real ba-a-a-a-d, or not
So I like OMG Im so not going there no matter what the Quadrangle says it will do Vlad and I are running Alaska from Tea Party headquarters in Cheney and I can see the whole world from my living room Again the TPA (Tea Party of Alaska) government refuses to kowtow [pronounced cow toe] to American imperialism I have extracted the above from a statement made by Pres. Palin of the Alaskan Republic in the year 2060. Lest you mistakenly think, dear reader, that this week's Counterpoint is about politics, please allow me to disabuse you.
Okay, so you can't be blamed for not knowing that the Pentagon in Washington lost one of its sides in the war against Canada; that Gov. Bristol Palin declared Alaskan independence in 2058 and seceded from the Union; or that her husband Vlad is none other than the grandson of Vladimir Putin (who was tragically mauled by a Siberian tiger in 2018, has been stuffed — Putin, not the tiger — and is on permanent display in the nave of a church in St. Putingrad); or that the first thing the first Alaskan couple did when they got married, after renaming the capital of Alaska "Cheney," was install new curtains in the Moose House. No, I don't blame you for not knowing. How could you?
But well might you be blamed for not being aware that the English language is in high flux and that the first paragraph of this article has been written in the language as it is spoke in 2060. I hasten to add that there is only the spoken language left in 2060. Written English went out with the mobile home.
Note the absence of punctuation in the first paragraph. Punctuation disappeared in the '50s and with it the job of newspaper editor. But since the last issue of The Murdoch Crier slipped off its press in 2045, there have been no newspapers anyway; so, as for journalists and editors, a job that doesn't exist can't be redundant, right? Even people with no double negative are hardly unaware of that.
The occasion for these predictions was a lecture I was privileged to give a few days ago to advanced students of English at the University of Tokyo on "The Future of English." I have been giving these lectures for the past six years and, I dare say, this one may have been my last. Once you've predicted the future, there's no going back.
One sassy student dared to ask me, "How can you say anything about what you don't know?"
To that I retorted with barely a pause, "What do you think I've been doing as a journalist all these years?"
I tell you, I don't know how some of these students got into the supposedly greatest educational institution in the land. Japanese universities were much safer places for academics when the students didn't ask any questions, which was, like, always.
Well, everyone knows that for every journalist there is an equal and opposite journalist. Shucks, we learned that in middle school. And the same goes for linguists and just about every other occupation, except, thank goodness, for dentists.
So, how can we know what's going to happen to the English language in the future? You guessed it. We can't. But we can extrapolate. (Extrapolation: The process by which historians create a model of the future based on the one they created of the past.)
This week I will take a look at some of the ways in which the English language has evolved over the past decades, and next week I'll engage in some heady extrapolation.
First, titles and names. In the really old days, children used to say, "Yes, Father." In my day, we said, "Yeah, dad." Nowadays kids never say "yes" to their fathers over anything and they call them "Chuck," "Dick" or "you a*****e." (The asterisks are all mine.)
In fact, everywhere you go in the English-speaking world, with the possible exception of India, everyone is on a first-name basis with everyone else. Will last names disappear? Well, go back a few centuries and most people didn't have one anyway. But, I am getting ahead of myself. I'll get back to the future next week.
So, when you introduce yourself at a party, please use first names. This may be especially hard for Japanese people, who don't really know each other's first names; and even if they are given their name card, they often can't read the kanji anyway. I knew one guy who was married to his wife for four years before he found out her name was Rumiko. It was embarrassing: When they canoodled he kept moaning, "Oh, Mrs. Okamura . . . "
The gradual disappearance of titles has appeared, paradoxically, in the professional fields as well. Several of my doctors in Australia have asked me to call them by their first name. "Would you check my prostate, Frank?" Well, it took a little getting used to.
As for the use of "Dear" in a letter, this has been totally replaced by "Hi."
I got a letter the other day from the bank . . .
"Hi. Someone's swiped your credit card, Roger, but we're onto to the bastards.
Head Dude, Fraud Section"
As with many things, Americans are to blame for the gross democratization of the language. The people of the United States like to think of American society as classless, and it is, if you consider the number of schools around the country that are now without classes.
The second big influence on the English language has been that of slang, which can be broken up into jargon or argot on the one hand, and so-called dirty words on the other.
It was Americans of color, particularly the black musicians, who gave the word and the concept of "cool" to the language. "Cool" is "hot." Cool jazz was music that was soft, soothing and relaxing. Get it? If you are the sort of nerd who is as thick as two toilet seats and calls things "swell" and "neat," you probably won't, which makes you pretty uncool. "Cool" has taken on new meanings, like "He's cool," which means, "He's okay."
The use of "man," as in "Hey, man," and of "bad" — meaning "good" — come from the black heritage. There's no higher praise than "Oh, man, that Obama, he's bad, real ba-a-a-a-d!" I mean, how on earth does Kim Jong-il keep up with this? By watching adult videos? I seriously doubt it.
As for dirty words, why, you hear them dribbling out of the mouths of babes like mother's milk. This is a family newspaper, and only language sluts, if you will, get off on spotting the unseemly in print. But don't get your rompers in a knot if you see the B-word, the C-word and the F-word thrown around by every organ of the media. Of course these stand for "Bush," "Cheney" and "Forgot already?"
I haven't. Just the other day, old W was talkin' about "the new chicken burgers they got at GFC."
He had mistaken the Global Financial Crisis for Kentucky Fried Chicken. So what else is new?
Check out Counterpoint next week and you may just find out.