What has happened to the English language?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 28, 2008

Over the past many years, our country has wrestled with the issue of making English officially our language. There are, of course, deeply held opinions on both sides of the question.

I believe that English should be our required language in the U.S., but the fact is that there is a deeper, underlying problem. Our language is fast deteriorating, no matter what changes we make in our laws.

This was brought home forcefully to me last weekend as I listened to my wife’s grandson talk on his cell phone (Why do children have cell phones?) to his friends.

Our native language is being slaughtered from within. That slaughter is largely encouraged by television and the movies. Our young people imitate what they hear in films and on TV. The process is accelerated as they then imitate each other.

Unless they are readers, they are missing out on the splendor of words. Our language is drawn from many other wonderful languages and is a thing of beauty. Kids are missing out by adopting the language of the street in order to be cool.

“Cool,” of course, does not relate to temperature. For our young people, it involves dressing and speaking like their friends.

There are many words and phrases that no longer mean what they once did. There are many more that 10 years ago would not even have meant anything. (That sentence seems to assume that today they do. In a perfect world, that would be a false assumption, but…)

Forgive me, but “What up?” is not an acceptable way to answer the telephone or enter into conversation.

And “No problem” is not the way to respond to “thanks a lot.” At one time, we said “you’re welcome” but that apparently was not “cool.” Those two words are no longer heard on television or in the movies.

We are all (even those of us who know better) using television-speak or music-speak rather than the words of writers and poets. What does “tripping out” mean anyway? Does it have anything to do with vacations?

I thought “chill” was something done to watermelons and wine, maybe something you experience when you are ill. But today it apparently means something else entirely. (What was wrong with “rest” or “relax”?)

I must have been asleep when we decided to address men as “dawg.”

I missed out on the decision regarding the use of “dude,” too.

As to the forms of address for women, girlfriends are called “my old lady” even those who are 16. (I shudder to think about what my father would have done if I had even considered that usage. At our house, women were ladies, even if they weren’t. As for the other words used to reference women today, I would never have reached adulthood had I used them.)

Then there are there are the phrases, all from TV, which are repeated so often they become meaningless. They are adopted first by young people, then after a while by their parents.

Perhaps young people should be allowed to mess with the language a little, but adults should not pick up their kids’ phrases. It should be the other way around. The idea has always been that children should emulate their parents.

I rather hope that “Have a nice day” is dead, but it seems that many today try to replace that meaningless phrase with “Have a good one,” which is even more meaningless. Have a good what? The words have been so overused they have lost their once pleasant sound. What’s worse is that most people who say either phrase really don’t give a hoot whether you have a good day or not.

(The same goes n and has always gone n for “How are you?” What would happen if, when someone asked us that, we responded truthfully, itemizing our various health issues n “Well, my blood pressure was up a little this morning, but I took my pill…,” or whatever else might be impacting our well being at that specific point in time.)

“You go girl!” expresses a nice, encouraging sentiment, but has been overused to the point that it means nothing.

I understand what “dis” means, but isn’t it disrespectful to mangle such a good word?

“Rad” stands for radical and, if I am interpreting correctly, is a complimentary term. (It does not work for adults, however. We tend to distrust radicals from the left, the right or the Middle East.)

We all know that most children, even the littlest ones, watch too much television. They are growing up thinking that all these ridiculous words and phrases are acceptable, that everyone uses them.

Unless someone tells them that proper language should be used, written and saved, children will speak only with ugly, sometimes vulgar, sounds without much meaning. And the situation will only get worse, with each generation chipping away even further at what its forebears already have diminished.

It is sad.

David Sullens is publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.