Language fogy

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange is becoming an old fogy; he’s fighting a rearguard action to cover the retreat of the English language.

(LANGE) I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August the other day and was struck by her description of our native tongue. She calls it “that magnificent instrument that lies at the command of all of us – the English language.”

She’s right, of course. It’s the world’s largest, most interrelated, most nearly universally understood, and most dynamic language. With all its nuances, idioms, and homonyms, English must be fiendishly hard for foreigners to learn; and yet foreigners who’ve taken the trouble to do that generally speak it better than most of us natives. If you doubt that, read some Joseph Conrad or Henry Kissinger.

A little later I tuned in to the NBC affiliate station in Plattsburgh to hear the local and national news. After a few minutes, I found myself protesting aloud at the mangling of the language, at both the local and network level! All the announcers, Brian Williams included, seem never to have suffered from whooping cough; thanks to modern immunization; they’re too young to have had it. Because the immunity can fade, the disease is returning in adolescents and adults, and is in the news. And because the young announcers have never had it they all call it “wooping cough.” As someone who as a child feared imminent suffocation for several days, I find that irksome. It’s as if somebody referred to your Purple Heart as a “purple kidney.”

None of this is new. American English has been evolving more rapidly than any other language since the Revolution, when patriots worked at eliminating what they considered effeminate Anglicisms from robust colonial usage. In 1783 Noah Webster recommended that Americans eschew English usage, to prevent the pollution of American by decrepit Old World maxims. He needn’t have bothered; we’ve been changing ever since, in spite
of the railing of old fogies like me, who weren’t always fogies.

Nor do we ourselves always speak consistently. We don’t use the same language in hunting camp that we do at church suppers. The introduction to Webster’s New World Dictionary explains that and forgives a multitude of what language puritans would deem egregious sins.

Still, I can’t help getting upset when the word, “media,” is used
as a singular. Or when the word, “only,” wanders around in a sentence vainly seeking the word it’s supposed to modify. It’s
like Chinese water torture.

So, to use a famous mixed metaphor, I’m taking arms against a sea of troubles. I’m writing a grumpy version of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. To make it palatable, I’m going to make
it a cook book, as well: for men whose wives are away for a few days, who own a microwave, and who want a minimum of fuss. Thus they can improve their English while they eat alone.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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