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.


Bardiac said...

Yes, this, so much this!

And the overcorrecting of things that don't need correcting (thinking of "can" and "may" here).

delagar said...


delagar said...

I swear, about 20% of my class when I teach English Grammar is just patiently saying, "No, that's not actually an error." "Right, that's not an error." "No, I have no idea why your teacher thought it was an error, but it's fine."

nicoleandmaggie said...

I dunno. Whom is a class marker. If not whom, then something else will be used. At least the rule for whom/him is known and can be taught... whatever replaces it might not be so easy. It would be lovely if language wasn't a class marker, but it is. (Even lovelier-- no class markers, especially since even the high class markers seem to be aimed at keeping women down. Why yes, I do read a lot of Regency/Victorian novels.) Code switching is a really valuable skill. (I just had this conversation with an international graduate student yesterday who had picked up "her and I" from some of our undergrads.)

In my math classes I talk about grammar too-- why you do XB for a vector instead of BX even when it's clear you have vectors, why you never accept a null hypothesis but fail to reject it even though everyone knows what you mean... these are all like making sure you have a + C when you do an indefinite integral. There's a tiny kernel of, "things are a bit clearer when you do this correctly" but for the most part they're just markers of how good your math education was.

delagar said...

N&M: I do teach my students about class markers / shibboleths when I'm teaching grammar. (I actually point out that standard English *is* a shibboleth.)

I'm just not convinced the ability to use whom correctly is going to remain such a class marker, at least not for long. It's like ye/you -- too many people can't tell the difference anymore.

The "you and I" shibboleth is almost gone as well. Poll any hundred people, and 70% of them will tell you there is nothing wrong with the sentence "Elvis drove Molly and I to the movie."

D Shannon said...

"Fast-forward to the 18th century and only you remains -- people have stopped using ye entirely."

Not in Yorkshire.

"Thee" and "thou" still appear in some Yorkshire dialects. However, those words tend to be considered lower-class markers; see the example of Compo Simmonite on "Last of the Summer Wine" as a particular example.

delagar said...

True! Ye/thee/thou are still used in some dialects. Not in standard English, though -- neither British nor American.

Here's something else we're losing -- the present perfect and the past perfect forms of the verbs. If you're a teacher, give your students a little quiz on those verb forms some time. Not one in 20 can get it right these days.

It's all simple past and present tense.

delagar said...

Update: Today yet another fella is mansplaining grammar to me. On the same site, someone asked about the use of reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, yourself) -- wondering why it was improper to write, for instance, "The board and myself thank you for your contribution."

I explained, and AT ONCE this gentleman had to "correct" me. (His explanation is wrong, no surprise there.)

Now he's arguing with me about whether it's ever okay to use a pronoun without an antecedent.

My pro-tip to you -- don't attempt to discuss grammar on FB.