The mother tongue

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been speaking English, more or less, for over sixty years, and often laments what has happened to it during that time.

(Lange) Is it just my imagination, or is the English language dying a slow, horrible death, unnoticed by most of the millions who use it?

It’s bad enough when one of our local newscasters mangles our Mother Tongue, or when a young reporter goes adrift on the pronoun “whom.” But recently, when a National Public Radio announcer mismanaged the word convince, I’d had it.

“When you shout at the radio or TV,” my wife says, “you just sound like a smarty-pants showing off.” She may be right, and because rear-guard actions against an evolving language are bootless, it’s with ambivalence I even mention the subject. English is a juggernaut, rolling irresistibly, and picking up thousands of accretions as it goes. Still, I’ve loved it for a long time, and wish it would change less rapidly.

Many of us who were students fifty years ago were taught three levels of usage: proper, colloquial, and illiterate. We drilled constantly in rules, cases, moods, and voices, and hated the odious job of making corrections. So if we’re fussy, it’s because we’ve paid our dues.

Proofreaders and English teachers say when they look at a poster or a page of text, the mistakes jump right out at them. Thus I can’t help but notice that in the Preamble to the Constitution appear the words, “…in order to form a more perfect Union.” As students, we’d have been penalized a full letter grade for that mistake. On the other hand, none of us could have written the constitution. So a little give-and-take is no doubt the best course.

Still, it grinds my teeth when someone who should know better reports “the President has been unable to convince Congress to pass this legislation.” In the history of our language, that’s never been possible; you persuade people to do things and convince them they ought to. The words aren’t interchangeable. Well, till now, maybe.

English is the largest and most used language on the planet, and the most dynamic. So it changes rapidly. We should remember Shakespeare invented more new words and expressions than anyone else before or since. But I’m having trouble with the use of media as a singular noun. It started life as a little Latin plural that included newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. But so many of us get our news only from television that TV is now commonly referred to as the media. It is, of course, a medium. If I were in charge, I’d propose we use mediums for the plural and reserve media for a female necromancer. But I don’t suppose that’ll fly here.

Nothing reactionary, in fact, will fly here. This language, like those who speak it, is headed forward, and as the Ferrari driver said, tearing off his rearview mirror, “What is behind me does not matter.” Still, may I be swallowed by the earth if I ever stop shouting at the political ad that begins, “Who do you trust?”

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.

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