National Grammar Day

(On Language Change)
By Shlomoh
March 1, 2008

Shlomoh Sherman [] quoted in the now defunct Free Expressions YAHOO group on March 1, 2008:
National Grammar Day:

Arnold Zwicky (Language Log) has many wise thoughts on the subject of incorrect English usage. Here's one, though you should read the whole post:
[T]he assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and therefore impede communication ... is mostly just taken for granted, without any kind of defense -- in what way is "between you and I" less clear than "between you and me"? in what way is "all shook up" less clear than "all shaken up"? They're non-standard, certainly, but LESS CLEAR? -- and the occasional explanations of how particular non-standard usages are unclear don't survive scrutiny. Instead, it's just an article of faith that non-standard variants (and conversational, informal, and innovative variants, and variants restricted to certain geographic regions or social groups) are unclear, vague, sloppy, or lazy ....
This has been my experience as well, not in all instances, of course, but in many: Often people complain about some (supposedly) novel usage, and assert that it's stripping the language of clarity or precision or useful distinctions, but on closer analysis the assertion proves to be unfounded.

To read more, click here:

Some readers of the Volokh blog who commented on this said that misuse of our language shows either ignorance, lack of education, or lack of intelligence. Others said that poor usage would drastically change our language and that we have an obligation to keep the integrity of the language intact, and so forth.

As a trained linguist, I have other feelings about usage.

To begin with, whatever "integrity of the language" may mean, it does not mean that the language must not change. All languages change. It is possible that English is changing less rapidly than it did before the invention of the phonograph, the telephone, the cinema, the radio and TV, and the Internet. The fact that we daily hear a "standard" of English which is considered "proper" allows us to imitate it more easily than when society and its language were divided by mountains, rivers, and desserts. That former situation allowed for the rapid formation of dialects. Of all Indo-European languages, English has the least number of dialects, and many linguists maintain that English has no dialects, only regionalisms, and all these variants of English are mutually intelligible to all English speakers. I would agree in general except that there is an area on the north western coast of Britain where English is barely decipherable without subtitles.  

In America, if we want to look at an English that many might consider unusual, we can look at the English of Appalachia. The people of this area are descendants of immigrants from the mountainous areas of Britain, and they themselves feel comfortable living in a mountainous area. I pointed out above that geography plays an important part in creating dialects and maintaining them. Rivers and mountains are notorious barriers to standardized language. Appalachians retain in their speech vestiges of an earlier English which was less influenced by London than other areas of England. Their vowel system approaches an almost Elizabethan pronunciation. Wikapedia describes other features of Appalachian English, including the use of "ain't" to mean "hasn't" as well as "isn't".  "He ain't done it" is the equivalent of the standard "He hasn't done it." Sometimes strong verbs are conjugated as though they were weak verbs. Examples are "I knowed," or "He seed". Subject, object, and demonstrative pronouns are interchangeable as in "Them's the ones I want" and "Him and her are real good folks."  Perhaps the most obvious trait of Appalachian as an older version of English is the desire to differentiate between the singular and plural of the second person, as in "you was" for the singular and "y'all were" for the plural. In former times, mountains isolated people and language. But Appalachians no longer are isolated. It is not only voice media that will now influence their English. Automobiles, trains, and airplanes give all Americans mobility and greater communication with each other.

Appalachian usage has counterparts in other variants of English. Most notably are the pronouns, and I will concentrate on these as examples of how there is no loss of clarity in Appalachian speech or in the speech of any English speaker.

The question was asked, is "between you and I" less clear than "between you and me"? Obviously not. In like manner, "Him and her are real good folks" is not less clear than "He and she are real good folks". Appalachian "y'all were" is not less clear than Brooklynese "Youse guys were". The latter example shows us that English speakers are still psychologically uncomfortable with an important pronoun that doesn't differentiate between singular and plural. Often, discomfort with a certain aspect of language will cause people to create new forms with which they feel more comfortable. "He ain't" is just as clear as "He isn't." In one case at least, "ain't" makes a lot of sense. One of the clumsiest constructions in our language is the first person negative interrogative of the verb "to be". The ONLY correct form of this is "Am I not?" Who says that? No one I know. So either we wind up with an incongruous "Aren't I?" or a circumlocution such as "Isn't that right?" Why we do not have "Amn't I?' is beyond me when we do have
"Isn't she?" and "Aren't we?" In this case, the use of "Ain't I?" makes perfect logical sense. Is "Ain't I?" any less clear than "Am I not?" I don't think so.

Obviously "between you and I" is what is known as a hyper-correction. The speaker wants to sound "correct" and thinks that use of the subject case pronoun will always sound correct when in fact it doesn't. Prepositions describing a location, ("between", "on", "in", "near", "about") take the object case of the pronoun.

But let's now look at pronouns in English. Our pronominal cases: nominative, genitive, and accusative (he, his, him) are a holdover from an earlier period of English when word order was not important to convey meaning. All Germanic languages, including English, started out as declined languages.
"Declined", in linguistics, means a language system in which nouns and pronouns change form to indicate meaning. For example, in Yiddish, ICH ZEY
IM and IM ZEY ICH mean the same thing, "I see him". The word order doesn't matter. There is only a change in nuance, not in meaning. In older English, at the time of Shakespeare, it was not uncommon to hear, "Him do I see." We no longer use that type of stylized speech in ordinary conversation.
More tellingly, Yiddish DER MAN GIT DEE KOYL DEM YINGEL, "The man gives the ball to the boy" can also be rendered "DEM YINGEL GIT DER MAN DEE KOYL.

The definite article, whose function is similar to a pronoun, tells us the meaning. Word order is less important in Yiddish. But English stopped being a declined language at the end of the 1200s and became a synthetic language, one depending on word order for meaning. Therefore word order tells us that "I see him" and "He sees me" mean different things. The doer will precede the verb and the receiver will follow it.
If word order now is the chief method of conveying meaning, what need have we for different cases of pronouns any longer? We don't. We hang on to them because they "sound right" BUT - let me show you examples of why the time for getting rid of extraneous pronominal forms might be now, and why we really don't need them.

Several decades ago, Italian used the word EGLI to mean "he" and LUI to mean "him". Today if you travel to Italy, EGLI has all but disappeared. In it's place, many Italians are now using LUI, that is, one word stands for subject and object. I asked an Italian what does LUI CANTA BELLO mean. His answer: "Him sings beautifully". Is what he was saying clear to me? Of course. For several centuries, Yiddish has no longer used its original pronouns for the 3rd person plural. ZEY now means both "they" and "them". French VOUS serves as both subject and object as does YOU in English. Classical Latin had CUIS which meant "who" and QUEM which meant "whom". The Roman soldiers stationed in Spain were not great orators. They spoke a kind of street Latin in which they used QUEM for both "who" and "whom" Consequently Spanish wound up with QUIEN as both "who" and "whom".

At the time that Shakespeare lived, the second person forms of address were undergoing what linguists call a "flattening" process. In the 1400s, there were 4 forms of address in English which meant "you". The singular forms were THOU for subject and THEE for object. The corresponding plurals were YE and YOU. At the beginning of the 1500s, THOU and THEE were quickly disappearing as they were considered too condescending in polite speech. English people preferred to be addressed as YE in the singular just as French people wish to be addressed as VOUS as a sign of respect [although among French youth, TU is becoming more popular and VOUS may disappear as a singular form]. By the late 1500s, the THOU forms were gone, and even the King James Bible of the early 1600s could not bring them back into common usage. Because YE was pronounced as YUH, it began to blend together with the broader YOU, pronounced YUH-OO. By the mid 1600s, there was only one form in English, YOU. Has our language managed with this one form? Sometimes with confusion, but yes.

We are then led to the conclusion that the use of a subject pronoun where we expect an object pronoun, and vice versa, will not lead to loss of clarity of meaning in English because our language relies on word order more than it does on pronominal declension. We are already seeing the disappearance of "whom"; "who" serves now in common speech as both subject and object. "Him" and "them" correspond to "whom". Can "he" and "they" serve both functions of the pronoun? Why not? And so can "we" serve the function of "us".

Finally I will mention the further flattening of our language. When I was a child, certain language conventions were taught in school and expected in intelligent conversation. These conventions are disappearing if not almost already gone. "Can I?" is now interchangeable with "May I?". "Shall" and "will", "should" and "would", "may" and "might" are now also interchangeable. Languages evolve to give their users ease of speech. So it is with English. These changes do not imply sloppiness or laziness on the part of English speakers. They imply adaptation.

Standard languages are also influenced by subculture slang usage. Expressions that were once used only in The Afro-American community have now become part of the mainstream usage. These include "ripped off", "bling", "right on", "get down", "busted", and "dissed". They are all used in mainstream conversation as is "MickeyD" for McDonald's.

English will always change and adapt to a changing world more readily than any other Indo-European language, and that has made it the most viable vehicle for the universal world language that it has become. In fact, according to linguists, English is no longer considered an ethnic language. When students in India, China, Russia, and Israel learn English in the 21st century, they do not think that they are learning a European language. As far as they are concerned, they are learning a global language. As people from all over the world learn English, they will influence its evolution by giving it their own particular usages. Between you and me, or you and I, I can see a day, centuries from now, when folks from Dublin, Sidney, Brooklyn, and Appalachia will speak, or shall speak, a common speech. Ain't that the truth?

Pamela Elsa Sherman responded in an email to Shlomoh on March 2, 2008:
Here you are at your best!!  I am going to hang this up in the English Department at the college where I teach.  I'll let you know some responses.
I'm giving it to David to read now.
Thank you for sending this most informative treatise.  Are you writing a new book?  It could be entitled, Aint It The Truth?

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