Tuesday, March 24, 2020


When I was a boy, elementary school teachers would shudder with disapproval if you used the word kids. "Kids are baby goats," they would say. You would have to start your sentence again and use the word children instead. This seems ridiculous and artificial to us now. It seemed so to the children even then. Kids did not seem to be slang.  It was at worst less formal. Predictably, as the teachers aged out of the system and hordes of new kids kept coming along, the language changed. Only in very formal writing, such as a research paper, would anyone insist on the use of children at this point.

We think to ourselves that the teachers were wrong, but this is not necessarily so. The language changed away from what they thought correct and in our self-centeredness we think "See? It wasn't important.  Just like I thought back then." Yet when it came into general use in 16th-18th C's it was indeed considered low slang and no instructor would have tolerated it in class or in writing.  Over the course of the 19th C it became more acceptable in speech, but still would not have been used in a newspaper or magazine, let alone a textbook. Teachers of the time believed the point was to teach every child a more formal English that made them sound educated and intelligent. The theory is sound.  It is good to be able to speak the most formal dialect of your language with ease. The specific rules they got caught up on were a mixed collection of excellent disciplines that enhanced clarity and pure bunkum that had been artificially imposed on English a century or two earlier by pompous pettifoggers, but the idea was sound.

Somewhere there was a crossover area between the days when kids was low slang requiring correction and century later when it was obviously ridiculous.  There is even Oxford English Dictionary Facts For Kids now.

There was a nuanced version which they could have advanced, explaining "That word might be entirely acceptable while speaking with your friends, but when speaking with adults, and especially in the classroom, one should use children."  Grammar school teachers didn't think that way then, and likely they should not have tried.  Not one child in ten would have understood and fewer still would changed speech because of it.  Still, they liked to make us be very precise then according to their fashion, so I will hold them to a similar standard now. The Kids Are Alright. 


Grim said...

That's an amazing video. For the first nearly two minutes I was thinking, "Man, this sounds not even a little bit like the Who." And then at 1:55....

sykes.1 said...

In the 60's, there began a collapse in the teaching of English spelling, vocabulary and grammar. We now have two full generations of people who never got any formal instruction in English, and who speak and write a sort of pigeon English. My wife edits an on-line Spanish journal, and she routinely comes across senior humanities professors, native English speakers, whose who do not know anything. They never heard of the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, irony and satire do not exist, etc.

This is not the slow evolution of language, the difference between Chaucer and Hemingway. This is illiteracy.

Language must have rules, which can change slowly, but without rules language is meaningless.

Add geography, arithmetic, handwriting, phonics, analog clocks to the things modern students have never seen. If you tell a teen to "watch your six," would he understand you?

And remember, the teachers, even senior teachers, are every bit as ignorant as their students.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That would be "pidgin" English, a topic covered in introductory linguistics. It comes from the word "business," as that was difficult for the Chinese to pronounce. Yet to do business, one group or the other needs to acquire at least a stripped-down version of the other's language. It is usually the men doing business who learn the target language. Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea comes from the same root, "Talk Business." It was used so extensively that it became a lingua franca among the many tribes and is now on its way to being the most common language there.

I don't know what it means to "watch your six." If I don't know it, you can guarantee it is either artificial or long obsolete.

You have summarised what I believe to be the popular incorrect understanding of language quite well. Rather than refute your points myself, I recommend the much more enjoyable experience of listening to one of the Great Courses on the history of language or the history of the English language, which cover quite completely notions of grammar and correctness - where they come from and where they are and are not useful. John McWhorter is very good, and he has many books out as well. He speaks clear, precise, conservative English himself but defends the vernaculars against the usual criticisms.

Grim said...

“I don't know what it means to "watch your six." If I don't know it, you can guarantee it is either artificial or long obsolete.”

It might be both. It comes from the fighter pilot jargon that works off an understanding of an analog clock. So “12 o’clock high” is directly in front but above; “watch your six” means “look out behind you!”

Texan99 said...

Not an NCIS fan, obviously. Tony always followed Jethro out of the room saying, "On your six, Boss!"

Being widely read contributes to staying familiar with obsolete usage, even slang. I remember decades being told I mustn't use the word "apprehend" in the sense of "understand," because my readers would think I meant to connote "fear." It's always necessary to tailor the usage to the audience, but to do that, it's also necessary to speak in a variety of systems, or dialects.

Sam L. said...

The first I ever heard of The Who was on my local radio: "Who's coming!" OK, who is coming? Tell me. Who the hell is coming? Took me a while to sort that out.

Makes me wonder; did they ever title an album "Who's Who"?

GraniteDad said...

Many young men would likely know “watch your six” since it is common military slang used in first person shooter video games.

See? Video games are useful!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Now that it is mentioned in those contexts, I get the concept, that it is related to the many uses of the analog clock to describe location: Go around the rotary to about two o'clock. Yet I think that is better evidence for my point that against it. It is specialised slang that has bled out to parts of the culture. My fifth grade teacher would never have accepted that as proper speech. Language is always a churning mass of regional, historical, ethnic, professional, and literary influences, and these operate quickly. When writing doesn't slow language change and two strong influences collide, it is well known in history worldwide that sixty years difference can make grandparents and grandchildren not fully intelligible to each other.

Donna B. said...

"sixty years difference can make grandparents and grandchildren not fully intelligible to each other"

That's where the fun begins! My grandchildren love explaining and demonstrating things to me. They are so pleased when I 'get' it. In return, they listen to my explanations of the 'way things were' more readily. They like explanations that connect history to now.

It's not just grandparents. Homeschooling during quarantine took on an entirely new direction when one of my grandchildren asked her father "Who is Spock?"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is charming, but I am referring to even less intelligibility, where the sentence itself is not clear, even beyond the cultural reference. Because everyone, even the babushkas in the villages keep up with changes as they happen at least partially it takes a great deal of change before things become unintelligible. Yet it has happened repeatedly. The closest we get to the phenomenon here is when long-time immigrants return to the village of their youth and cannot be understood.

Donna B. said...

"The closest we get to the phenomenon here is when long-time immigrants return to the village of their youth and cannot be understood."

Yes, entirely different as you noted that language is a churning mass.

Estoy_Listo said...

My sainted mother was a stickler for grammer. She scolded every sentence ending in a preposition with, you sound like a hick. Mom was from a small town in MT. Sounding like a hick scared her.