The Incomprehensible Generation

Should we be bovvered about the decline of language?
From the April 2009 Trumpet Print Edition

The British Empire is dead. But one aspect yet wields the same influence over the world that it did in Britain’s glory days. Even today, the sun hasn’t set on the English language.

English has a legal or official status or heavy influence in 115 countries. Language Today lists it as the most influential language in the world. But in its birthplace, the home of some of its greatest orators, Britain’s last great institution is vanishing. An entire segment of British society is simply unable to communicate effectively.

“Dere was somefing minging in de State of Denmark which was making ‘Amlet all uncool,” begins a translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, based on today’s “street” English. “Verona was de turf of de feuding Montagues and de Capulet families,” begins the modern-day Romeo and Juliet. “And coz they was always brawling and stuff, de prince of Verona told them to cool it or else they was gonna get well mashed if they carried on larging it with each other.”

Almost anyone who’s been in England can recognize this slang; it’s in major cities, on television, and all over the schools—in many cases at the direction of the teachers. One school performed an irreverant nativity play, in which teachers had actually prompted children to get up on stage and deliver their lines in “street” lingo. Teachers have largely turned their backs on teaching obedience to English rules, and no longer “bovver” to teach children correct spelling. No wonder standards of literacy are sinking like the Titanic!

University professors are finding that many of their students cannot communicate effectively at all. “Spelling and punctuation is only part of the problem,” said Prof. Tony Marcel. “Their vocabulary is poor and mistaken; they have little idea of syntax, cannot punctuate and seem to have no idea of what constitutes a sentence.” The Telegraph reports that “thousands of children leave school too innumerate and illiterate to hold down a job.” Illiteracy equals unemployment.

But this is about more than communicating well enough to get a job. In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell drew the connection between language and thought. Our language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” We are what we think! Sloppy thoughts lead to sloppy speech and sloppy writing. And the same is true in reverse: If we cannot speak clearly, we cannot think clearly.

As Jesus Christ said, “[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). The inability of a person to speak properly reveals a weak, undisciplined heart and mind.

How can a people with a confused, muddled and garbled language have a clear sense of national identity? If you cannot define something, you do not understand it. If you cannot say it in words, then it is not clear in your mind.

In 1984, Orwell described a totalitarian government restricting the language of its people so much that they cannot even think about being free. The word freedom no longer exists in their vocabularies, and thus they can’t say it or think it.

Is that nightmarish scenario becoming reality? Many are not truly able to explain what democracy is, or what freedom is. Many are capable only of repeating prepackaged phrases coined by someone else: “No blood for oil” or “Bush lied, people died,” without understanding any of the issues behind them. If a person cannot articulate his or her thoughts, that person is not truly free.

America’s Founding Fathers understood this principle. “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic,” said Thomas Jefferson. “Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens.” Healthy societies are comprised of competent, effective thinkers. And you can measure that thought by language.

Britain’s language problem is not just an annoyance. It does not just mean an unintelligent workforce. It comes from the destruction of Britain’s core. Men were once proud to be British. Now, many can’t even define it.

As Jefferson warned, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”