15 hours ago
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Language and Change
Over on FB, on a closed thread, I wrote a light-hearted post about students who misuse "whom" when they write.
I suggested that it might be okay to ban students from using the word "whom." This is something, by the way, that I actually believe -- that we should tell students not to use the word whom, ever.
Why do I believe this?
Well, as a student of the English language, I have learned that all living languages evolve and change. For instance, once upon a time, people who spoke standard educated English would say "thee" and "thou" for the singular form of the 2nd person pronoun. But around 1250 or so, these forms began to fall out of use in Standard English. (This happened for complicated reasons having to do with the influence of Norman French on the language.)
For awhile, we had only the two plural forms of the pronoun, ye and you. Ye was the nominative (subject) form, and you was the accusative (object) form.
But in spoken English, all non-stressed vowels revert to the schwa sound, and so people increasingly had trouble telling ye from you, or distinguishing between the subject and the object forms of the word. Shakespeare -- for example -- almost never gets it right, and the translators of the King James Bible have similar problems.
Fast-forward to the 18th century and only you remains -- people have stopped using ye entirely.
Something of the same process is happening with who and whom in current standard English. In another fifty years, whom will be as dead as ye.
I did not make this lengthy argument on FB, of course. I was making a joke, not giving a lecture.
But you can guess what happened. It's the same thing that happens whenever I point out that Standard English is a living, changing language in a public forum; or even when I note that many varieties of English exist, and they are all different, and all equally valid*.
Someone with a substandard understanding of English grammar and linguistics began to lecture me on how my attitude would destroy the language; on how change in languages was "cancer"; and on how my fancy Ph.D didn't mean I knew more about the topic than they did.
My attempts to use evidence and data resulted -- as always -- in this person only getting more angry. This person pulled the "when you get to be my age, honey" card almost at once. (Because, as you know, I am a mere child.)
It's exasperating, frankly. Would anyone argue this way with an engineer? Would you tell a heart surgeon that your understanding of human anatomy and medicine was superior to theirs, no matter what their training? Hell, would you even argue with an auto mechanic in this fashion?
But it's perfectly okay to tell professors of a subject that they know nothing valid about the subject.
I blame the GOP**, who has told us -- endlessly -- that educators are idiots and should be treated with contempt.
*Pro-Tip: Don't try to convince conservatives that Black English is a legitimate dialect. It's both pointless and exasperating.
** Before anyone gets incensed about this, I'm also halfway joking here. I wish it were only Trump-supporters who had a Dunning-Kruger level of understanding when it comes to English grammar / the English language.