r. Boli has noticed that his readers are fascinated by questions of language, and that questions of usage almost always bring more discussion than any other subject. The lively discussion below “A Useful Reference That Does Not Exist” shows that we are all intensely interested in the future of our language, and many of us are not happy about the direction it seems to be taking.
Dr. Boli is perhaps more neutral on that subject than many of his readers are.
We live at a time when the English language is changing faster than it has changed at any time since the days of the Tudors. Dr. Boli has seen more change in his life than most people: in his own lifetime he has seen the gradual near-extinction of the subjunctive mood, for example, and watched as the word “nice” took one meaning after another until it finally became meaningless altogether. He hopes, therefore, that his readers will pardon an otherwise unforgivably long essay on the subject of the future of English.
What will the English language be like three or four generations from now?
First of all, English dialects will be much further apart, and may even be classed as separate languages. We confidently predicted that the telegraph, the radio, the television, the Internet would erase the differences between dialects, and spread one neutral English from London to Philadelphia to Christchurch to Melbourne to Mumbai. Quite the opposite has happened, and for some very interesting reasons.
The first reason is the extinction of upper-class speech. Even fifty years ago, the speech of the upper class in America was very similar to the speech of the upper class in England or Australia; a Yale professor had no trouble gossiping with an Oxford don. It was the lower classes whose dialects diverged into mutual incomprehensibility. The upper-class dialect was the basis of literature, even in ordinary newspapers and magazines. Today the upper-class accent has been deliberately suppressed as anti-democratic in English broadcasting; even the younger members of the royal family have spurned it. Queen Elizabeth and her grandsons sound as though they came from different countries. For similar reasons the American and Australian versions have faded away. We are left with what were once the lower-class dialects as the language of literature.
A second reason, more important than we realize, is the computer spelling checker. You must decide which dialect you will write, and your computer will tell you that all deviations from it are wrong. Now, there have always been alternative forms in American usage: “traveler” and “traveller,” “gray” and “grey.” Your computer will tell you that one of those is wrong. If you say you are British, it will tell you that the other one is wrong. Without even thinking about it, we are putting a great deal of effort into forcing ourselves to draw a sharp line between American and British, or between American and Canadian, or between Canadian and Australian, where before there was a fuzzy and porous border.
The data we have gathered, therefore, apply mostly to the American language, and we can make a few predictions about its future that may not apply to the other descendants of English.
First, the language will be less regular. In particular, position will matter much more than it does today.
An apostrophe will look like an opening single quotation mark if it comes at the beginning of a word (‘cause that’s what our computers have told us is right).
The distinction between “to” and “too” will be positional, not lexical: “too” at the end of a phrase or sentence, and “to” elsewhere. “Who were you talking too?” “I was talking to Harold. He’s not doing to well.”
Plurals will often be made with apostrophes (as “Martin the Mess” observes). Perhaps new rules will evolve to govern when an apostrophe is necessary; for example, an apostrophe might be required when the singular form ends with a pronounced vowel (but not silent E). Thus “grapes,” but “potato’s.”
As always, people will try to understand obsolete technology in terms of current technology, and related but distinct obsolete technologies will coalesce under the same term. Already an 8-millimeter movie camera is a “camcorder” on Craigslist. As smartphones and tablets replace computers for more and more people, we will not be able to distinguish a computer with a keyboard from a typewriter, and one or the other name will be applied to both species. The lens of an old camera, as we mentioned, is already called the “zoom,” and all vertical pianos are “upright pianos.” A steel pen in a holder is usually identified as a “fountain pen,” though of course it lacks the ink reservoir that is the defining characteristic of what Dr. Boli is used to calling a fountain pen.
There will be a strong pedantic tendency to displace the simpler of two homophones with the more complex: “reign” is replacing “rein,” as “John M.” observed.
“Might” as the past of “may” will be extinct, and there will be no way to distinguish between “he may never have been caught” (meaning that, to the best of our current knowledge, it is possible that he was never caught) and “he might never have been caught” (meaning that he was caught, but under different conditions it might not have happened). This change has already occurred in British English.
“Whom” will survive and flourish, in spite of all predictions to the contrary. It will especially flourish in usages that are currently considered incorrect: “Reginald, whom I thought was playing sousaphone, was listed as playing euphonium.”
The question of when dictionaries ought to accept these new developments is probably unanswerable. For decades, lexicographers of English (for some reason this phenomenon does not seem to spread to other languages) have lived in a mad fictional world of their own devising. “Description, not prescription,” is their battle cry; yet they will not and cannot describe one of the fundamental phenomena of a literary language like English, which is the fact that everyone except lexicographers believes that there is a correct standard that can be prescribed. To dismiss this belief as a vulgar fallacy is breathtakingly—what is the proper academic term?—elitist; but, more to the point, it completely invalidates the lexicographers’ claim to be describing rather than prescribing usage.
In response, the lexicographers cover their ears and go on pretending to describe the language impartially. But how impartial are they? We have already seen that the average American is probably more likely to write “your” than “you’re” as the contraction of “you are.” Will the lexicographers describe that phenomenon, and accept “your” as the preferred spelling? Or will they dismiss it as the ignorance of the vulgar rabble—in which case they must admit that they are describing the English of a certain elite class?
Dr. Boli has a vague suspicion. He has noticed that the mistakes that do find places in our dictionaries—like “comprise” for “compose,” or “literally” for “figuratively”—are overwhelmingly mistakes made by people who consider themselves educated. His suspicion is that these are the mistakes the lexicographers themselves have made, and for which they were once corrected. Instead of accepting correction gratefully when it came (as Dr. Boli always tries to do, even if he has not achieved perfect humility yet), they seethed and vowed that they would have their revenge. And they got it.
Who would like to help Dr. Boli compile the reference book (or Web site) he has often wished he had but has never quite found? (Or who would like to point out the thing to him if it exists?)
What Dr. Boli wants is a glossary of universally misused words.
In the days when the essential furniture of every home included a piano (up to about thirty years ago), everyone knew what an “upright” piano was: one of those tall old pianos that lived in the basement. A piano technician would define an “upright” as any vertical piano more than 48 inches tall. After the Second World War, Americans bought almost exclusively those little spinet and console pianos whose bass strings were too short to make any sound other than indistinguishable rumbling noises, and they never called them “upright” pianos.
Now that no one except professional musicians actually wants a piano, the terminology has passed out of ordinary use. Non-musical Americans know that there was some sort of thing called an “upright piano,” but they assume that it means any vertical piano. If you search Craigslist (which has become Dr. Boli’s favorite linguistic research tool) for “upright piano,” you will find that a majority of the “upright” pianos are spinets and consoles. A piano technician will still make the distinction between uprights and smaller verticals, but in the real world the term “upright piano” has changed its meaning.
Photography has changed radically since digital cameras appeared (which was really only a decade ago for most people), and the names for the parts of a camera are changing, too. For example, the word for “lens” is now “zoom.” Dr. Boli first realized that as he puzzled over an advertisement for an antique folding camera that kept mentioning the “zoom.” For the minority who still talk about the “lens,” the word is plural; a single lens is a “len.”
Likewise, the word “shutter” used to mean the thing that opens momentarily to allow light to hit the film, but now it means the flap that automatically closes over the lens—or, rather, the zoom—to protect it when the camera is not in use.
There are many other examples. “Flaunt” almost universally means “flout.” “Penultimate” means “ultimate,” or perhaps “really ultimate.” No one can agree on what the past tense of “lie” is, but it is definitely not “lay.”
Dr. Boli is not as young as he used to be a century and a half ago, and the rapidly changing language sometimes leaves him baffled. It is as though everyone around him has suddenly begun to talk in West Frisian: the language is clearly very close to English, but not quite close enough for him to understand it accurately.
Thus the need for a glossary. Which words in modern American English are almost universally misused, and what do they mean when ordinary people misuse them? Together we can not only come up with an entertaining list, but in the process we may well be compiling something that has never been compiled before: a dictionary of the English of the future.