Planes, Trains and Past Participles

I’ve just returned from a short break in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and where my husband was flying drones (unmanned aerial vehicles).

This has made me think about the juxtaposition of the old and the new – not something unusual to me, as I am a science writer living in a walled city that was once part of the Roman Empire, on a street that, as I heard a tour guide put it, “has architecture from the 15th century, the 19th century and the 1980s” – and why we seem to accept changes in science and technology more willingly than we accept changes in language.

UK television is rife with programs telling us about the technological advances of the Celts, the Romans, the Victorians.  The British are expected to be proud of their country’s innovations in the fields of medicine, electronics and engineering, just as members of other nations are proud of their country’s achievements.

Few, if any, Americans are ashamed of the fact that the first person to walk on the Moon was born in Ohio.

When it comes to language, though, we are Luddites.

Changes in English that happen naturally – because all languages evolve, and language itself has been evolving since a human being living in prehistoric times uttered the first word- are seen as corruptions of a tongue that should be pure and unblemished.

A high speed broadband connection is considered superior to a dial-up, and both are seen as better than snail mail (itself a derogatory term,) but the use of “u” for “you” or the omission of an apostrophe are treated by some as almost  criminal acts. Why isn’t spelling out the word “for” when the symbol “4” could be substituted called “snail English”?

We read jokes about the misunderstandings that come about through misspellings, the incorrect use of capital letters and faulty punctuations, but that’s what puns are.  The response to a language-related misunderstanding does not always have to be anger or violence; it can be laughter and the acknowledgement that different people think in different ways.

Besides, spoken language existed for tens of thousands of years before alphabets, spelling and punctuation came into existence (and even when they did, many remained illiterate), yet somehow people managed to survive without being able to decorate their sentences with commas, semi-colons and question marks.   There are cultures today where people get along despite a lack of a written language.

So why are we so conservative when it comes to language, when many of us will gladly replace relatively new technology for something that is even more up-to-date?

My husband’s fellow British drone operators will purchase the latest UAV equipment so that their vehicles can fly faster and further than ever before, yet they still waste time by spelling colour with a “u”.

Why use “they’re” (7 characters) instead of “there” (5) when almost everyone will be able to figure out what you mean either way. Why refuse to make the change when you have no problem replacing your old iPad with one with that has a faster processor – and the language upgrade is free.

It’s not as though English hasn’t experienced changes like these before.

Some English past participles use to have the prefix “ge-“in front of them; the word “sung” was once “gesungon”.  The prefix was lost because life was easier without it. According to the linguist John McWhorter, author of The Power of Babel, the Vikings got rid of it. They were people who certainly depended on tools (language is a tool) being functional and easy to use.

So why the discrepancy?

Both language and tool building are inherent parts of being human; rudiments of both language and tool-making ability can be found in all of the other great apes (orangutans, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees), indicating that these skills probably developed in a common ancestor.

Why do we seem more likely to accept change when it comes to our tools and less likely to accept change when it comes to our words?

Is it possible that engineering and technology draws the interest of people with a more progressive outlook, while, contrary to common stereotypes, those who are interested in “softer” pursuits like writing tend to be more set in their ways.

Is gender an issue?  In western culture, more men than women seem to be drawn to technology, while women are thought to have better language skills than men.  (Whether these differences are mostly biological or cultural is a matter of debate.)

Maybe society encourages men to seek out new opportunities and women to protect the status quo – Man goes forth and hunts; Woman makes sure that the home runs smoothly.  Therefore, technology is associated with the daring hunter, while language is associated with the comforting homemaker.

An apostrophe before a possessive “s” is like a drop of milk in a nice, warm cup of tea.

Class issues are almost certainly involved. Language has often been used to stratify people by class. After the Norman Conquest, Norman French became associated with the upper classes, Old English, with the lower classes – why today it is preferable to (Latin-derived) defecate than to (Old English-derived) shit.

Later on, the standardization of spelling and punctuation (after Shakespeare – the literary genius spelled his own name more than one way) made it easy to distinguish the educated from the uneducated – the ability to obtain a formal education has often been directly related to social class.

Today, we can designate someone as “one of us” or “one of them” according to whether or not she or he uses language the same way we do.

By restricting the rate at which language can change, we uphold the barriers between correct and incorrect English (and the distinctions between the right and the wrong sort of people).

Technology ownership, like language use, is also a measure of social class.  People with more money tend to have more things – more expensive things and newer things.  The possession of well-maintained “classic” items can also be a sign of high social standing.

However, some producers of technology may find that in the long run, it is more advantageous to sell many products to people of various social classes than to sell a small number of products to members of an elite.  Microsoft began with the vision of “a computer in every home”.

The constant purchase of new and improved products doesn’t just encourage the development of new technology; it helps technology producers to make more money. Planned obsolescence has often been a successful marketing strategy.

I find it interesting that changes in language have often been associated with technological changes.  Pidgin languages developed as a way of facilitating trade (which has also been helped by advances in transportation technology). The invention of the telegraph resulted in the development of a short, clipped punctutationless writing style, telegraphese, known for the use of STOP to represent the end of a sentence. And we have since developed txtspk.

Language, like technology, is affected by capitalism, but in the case of language, the commodity that is bought and sold is often the aforementioned formal education.  So convincing a parent that knowledge of when to use the subjunctive is essential for their child’s futures success is, in a way, similar to convincing them that their children can only be healthy if there is a Wii Fit in the house.

The difference, of course, is that society is structured so that your ability to conform to language norms really does have a powerful effect on your social status in and, consequently, on your life chances.

Maintaining old language norms increases your chance of success in life; hanging on to old technology does not.

Leave a Comment