“See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”
Overly simplistic, even for the time, I escaped their clutches thanks to my older sister, who taught me to read before I started school. It was soon apparent to my first-grade teacher that I could read above level. And so one of my classmates and I were given separate lessons at the third-grade level—with several non-Dick-and-Jane books.
At the risk of dating myself, I went through school when English was an important course, where we learned not only to read and write, but to think—both creatively and critically. Sure, the subject matter sometimes put kids to sleep. Anyone remember diagramming sentences? (Please, someone say yes!)
Another component of the course was vocabulary building. English isn’t the most complex language, but it has a huge vocabulary. Historical events have a lot to do with that—the influx of French into England with the Norman Conquest and the use of Latin in the Catholic church, for example. English speakers (and writers) have long borrowed words from other languages, providing richly nuanced descriptions for the audience (and a market for thesaurus writers).
Old-school English classes also included grammar lessons with endless exercises of writing sentences using various verb tenses. That multitude of verb tenses and moods also reflects a concept of multiple levels of past, present, and future as well as states of being. Not every language does that. But consider the following.
I know I’ve left out a few possible constructions, but you get the idea (that English can express many states of being and action, not that I eat a lot of chocolate). Even if you don’t know the “proper” terms for these tenses and moods, you likely understand the differences in meaning between them, subtle as some may be. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I can’t remember all the terms, either.)
There’s a modern view that the more complex tenses and moods like the subjunctive belong only in the realm of literary fiction. I’ve never understood that. They can be easily mixed with “simpler” tenses without losing a reader.
The Earthling didn’t get it. If I were king, I’d ban her beloved chocolate, the imported scourge that had transformed thousands of my people, including my brother, into six-foot marmots with pink fur.
But our modern world apparently recognizes only one speed—fast. Today’s communication is instantaneous, which can be a good thing (severe weather warnings) or bad (ever hit “reply all” by mistake?). And it seems most communication takes place on one of these in this format:
When speed counts, language has to keep up. So what do we do? We strip “excess” words. Lose the descriptive adjectives and adverbs—It’s a cat, not a long-haired tabby with steely gray eyes. Simplify the verb tenses—”I ate” rather than “I had eaten.” Use simple words like “eat” rather than “consume.”
And how many bits of linguistic shorthand has texting added to the English vocabulary? I rarely text, and what follows is about all the text-speak I recognize: CYA, LMAO, LOL, OMG, TMI, TTFN, and WTF. And, of course, those previous two sentences show how a noun has also become a verb in recent memory. Based on what I’ve seen on various websites, the “text words” have probably reached into the hundreds.
Baffled as I am by all these contracted words, there was a time when they didn’t appear on my radar. After all, text words were originally confined to, well, texting, and I didn’t do much of that. People—even teenagers—didn’t speak them. But now? People actually say “O M G, you’re kidding. L O L.” Seriously? Is it really “quicker” or “easier” to say “O M G” than “Oh my God?”
Today’s 13-year-old probably doesn’t care about “the old way” of doing things or speaking any more than I did at that age. But with age does come some perspective. It’s good and right to let go of some previously acceptable beliefs and practices as the human species moves forward in time (think racism and sexism). But maybe we lose some of the good along with the bad, throwing out the baby with the bath water as the cliché goes.
I took enough Linguistics courses as an Anthropology student to know that every language evolves through time. The rules of grammar shift. Some words lose favor and new ones are coined to describe new discoveries and inventions. Culture drives language. And culture continually evolves. Our time is no different from the Paleolithic in that respect. To say language shouldn’t change is to deny innovation, creativity, and even necessity.
But is the oversimplification of a language, such as we see with modern English, in its speakers’ best interests? Does it perhaps suggest a level of laziness? Dismissal of creative and critical thought? Disdain for both new knowledge and historical memory?
Do Dick and Jane get the last laugh after all?