Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Expansion of Language

In public expression, we try to adhere as closely to Written Standard English as we comfortably can, as a cultural marker that we have been taught to care about standards, or traditions, or literature. How we write and speak declares something about who we are and what we value.

This has been changing under our feet for decades, and has been accelerating on the internet. Not only are forms changing, such as the increasing use of phrase-abbreviations such as IMHO, BTW, LOL, and WTF, but switching between Standard and Colloquial is increasingly valued in communication.

Hispanics who grow up in America switch back and forth between English and Spanish. Linguists call it code-switching. It is a declaration of relative comfort with both languages, and the rules of when to switch are not arbitrary. Black writers switch back and forth between Written Standard and African-American Vernacular, to make the statement that they have command of both and move in both worlds. In less dramatic fashion, writers like Dave Barry code-switch between colloquial and standard for comic effect. The use of sentence fragments is increasing in standard written discourse.

I should deplore this, but I like it. How someone who never splits an infinitve and will have to have the Princeton/Oxford comma pulled from my cold, dead fingers can countenance such solecism may seem impossible. But I still like it. So there.


Old Wacky Hermit said...

Sometimes informality leads to better communication of ideas, but sometimes it's just distracting and annoying. Sentence fragments, for example, can be way overdone. I can't stand the "Magic Tree House" books (at least the early ones; "Dinosaurs Before Dark" comes to mind) because the author makes such extensive use of sentence fragments that I found myself having to construct sentences out of them just to read them aloud to my kids.

I can't believe elementary school teachers swoon over these kinds of books just because they get kids to read. No one would swoon over Twinkies because they were getting kids to like the taste of cream.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent analogy. I would also suggest that you are correct to ignore current trends in written expression when you are instructing children. I don't make any apologies for having raised my children on elevated, even archaic language. There is plenty of time to take the bridle off later.

Also, the humorous or emphatic aspects of the sentence fragment are lost on those who have not been trained to the Sentence Formale.

Garrison Keillor: "To parents, Western Civilization is just a job. You don't have time to see if it's improving, deteriorating, or whatever."