As adults become less able or willing to use formal language, their children are likely to care less about learning the rules. The trend is clearly toward less formal language and lower public literacy. But definitions of literacy are slippery.
If it is defined as being able to understand written text and partic.i.p.ate in society, U.S. fifteen-year-olds are about average, according to an international a.s.sessment of literacy in 2009 by the National Center for Education Statistics. It showed that 30 percent of young Americans reached aproficiencya level 4, while 18 percent fell below level 2, aa baseline of proficiency.a The results put U.S. partic.i.p.ants in fourteenth place among thirty-four countries in the survey, about where they were in 2000.27 According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education in 2008, roughly 40 percent of Americans of all ages scored at either the basic or below-basic level of proficiency in English. This meant that two out of five adults knew so little about formal English that they could not write a simple letter about a billing error.
A what? Who writes letters anymore? Can you remember the last time you wrote a complaint letter and actually mailed it? Just think of all the energy and time that goes into the process: the typing (hand printing?), folding, inserting it in an envelope, sealing the envelope, attaching the proper stamp, addressing the envelope, adding the return address, and dropping it in the mailbox for anytime delivery. The exercise is called snail mail because itas not only slow but for the birds. Of course, going through an automated telephone menu is not fast either.
It might be more in line with todayas customs for researchers to a.s.sess the ability to text or telephone while mult.i.tasking, two more prevalent means of communication today. The figures might show much more functional literacy than old-fashioned a.s.sessments do.
Alteration of the language inherited from Britain began as soon as the colonists. .h.i.t the beach. H. L. Mencken, who chronicled many of the early changes in English in this country in his mammoth book The American Language, says the colonists eagerly explored language changes and afreely exchanged parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, nouns into verbs, and adjectives into either or both with an abandon that is still one of the hallmarks of American English.a28 There was also a continuous free exchange of language between the colonists and the natives. The power of guns over darts and arrows forced the natives to pick up the invadersa language in a heap big hurry. The exchange of words gave the resulting mishmash a decidedly Native American flavor.
Mencken called the mixture aAmericana to distinguish it from British English, which many intellectual Americans have tried to preserve over the years despite a largely libertarian climate. Indian terms that survive include chipmunk, hickory, moccasin, possum, pecan, podunk, powwow, racc.o.o.n, skunk, squash, toboggan, and woodchuck. Most come from the Algonquin tribe since it was the one most closely in contact with early English settlements in the eastern part of the country.
Todayas Americans canat go far without running into Indian place names. They include half the states and hundreds of communities, such as Chicago (Algonquin for agarlic fielda), Manhattan (aislanda in Algonquin), Milwaukee (agood spota in Algonquin), and Pensacola (ahair peoplea in Choctaw). Then there are Ma.s.sachusetts places that sound like a lunch menu: Mashpee, Chicopee, and Sippewisset. Or is that a bus line?
A Yangtze Doodle?
Even the familiar Dutch-American term Yankee may have partly originated in the plains of Asia, according to an item in H. L. Menckenas The American Language.29 It says the word may be from the Persian janghe or jenghe, meaning a warlike leader. So does that make the terrible Genghis Khan the first Yankee Doodle Dandy?
Say it ainat so.
Many native languages are still spoken. One of them is Navajo, which earned a special place for itself with the Marines in World War II. Without any alphabet or symbols, it proved ideal as a code that canat easily be deciphered. For starters, consider its equivalent of the word navy: atsah wol-la-chee ah-keh-di-glini tsah-ah-dzoh.a Another Indian language, Choctaw, served the same purpose in World War I.
Little noticed was the ability of many Indian tribes to understand each other, a fact indicating that their languages had a common Asian connection. According to the Smithsonian Inst.i.tution, Siberian ancestors of American Indians crossed the Aleutian chain by dogsled about 14,000 years ago when sea levels were some three hundred feet below present levels. They then spread throughout the Western Hemisphere.
An Asian flavor can easily be detected in many Indian words and phrases, as well as in the names of the tribes themselves, everywhere from Alaska to Brazil. Verbal likenesses include tangwaci and mamaci (afathera and amothera) in Southern Paiute, and the words for atwoa and athreea in Innu (related to Algonquin), nishu and nishtu. To eat in Innu is mitshu.
According to Polat Kaya, a former Turkish government official and researcher for Bell-Northern Research in Ontario, there are numerous similarities between Indian words and Turkish ones.30 He claims that ancestors of Turks and others shared central and northern Asia with ancestors of American Indians. Kaya adds that many ethnic Turks still live in Siberia up to the Kara Sea and the Bering Strait, as well as in central Asia, ill.u.s.trating the broad sweep of Turkish influence.
His comparison of the words for father (ata, apa, baba) in Turkish with forty-seven American Indian languages shows many similarities. Close parallels to the Turkish words for father include atataq in Eskimo, adaq in Aleut, atotuh in Cherokee, tatag in Algonquin, ta in Navaho, and apa in various South American tribes. The Turkish words for mother (ana, anne) also have many Indian likenesses, according to his research.
Todayas lingo, of course, also contains flotsam from the early arriving Spanish, French, Dutch, and Germans, as well as others. Words include creva.s.se, carryall, prairie, and -ville, the suffix to many place names, from the French; banana, c.o.c.kroach, la.s.so, corral, mosquito, and ranch from the Spanish; boss, pie, stoop, and spook from the Dutch; noodles and sauerkraut from the Germans; goober (peanut), gumbo (soup), and hoodoo from African slaves; and b.u.t.ternut, bullfrog, eelgra.s.s, and lightning bug from the English.
This chapter has described how Amglish is becoming the common language of the United States. The next chapter will tell about how teachers, musicians, poets, comedians, advertisers, and others have unconsciously prepared the new language for shipment to the rest of the world.
Teachers and Other Pioneers.
The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible . . . even harmful effect on the improvement of writing.
a"The National Council of Teachers of English, 1963 The national swing toward Amglish is due to many factors, particularly the dedicated work of groups and individuals who see a future for less formal language.
Among the groups, none has been more supportive than the leading organizations of English teachers in the United States. With the awkwardly worded sentence above, the National Council made clear that it knew nearly half a century ago which way the linguistic wind was blowing, and it wasnat toward more formal instruction.1 Bravely reversing 2,500 years of grammar tradition, the group claimed ain strong and unqualified termsa to have aabout a century of researcha to back up its theory that the best way to teach grammar is not in a separate cla.s.s devoted to it but only incidentally to teaching reading and writing.
Since then, the NCTE, which says it has about 60,000 Ka"12 English teachers as members, plus some 500,000 users of its website, has issued further resolutions firmly backing its 1963 policy statement. Most teachers have gone along with the councilas initiatives.
Citing Student Rights.
Moving in the same direction as the teachersa"but with an intriguing twista"has been the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), which shares the same office building in Urbana, Illinois. Representing mostly college English instructors, the Conference determined in 1974 that students have the right to speak and write virtually any way they wanta"whether in Spanglish, Ebonics, Valspeak, or Geekisha"and teachers should respect that right. The official statement said, We affirm the studentsa right to their own patterns and varieties of language. . . . The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans.
In other words, what could be called a mistake in formal English could mean a dialect that needs protection, not correction. The wording reflected the difficulty English instructors themselves were having reconciling the demands of teaching with the need to be politically correct. The instructors obviously chose the latter, and the cause of promoting less formal English has benefited as a result.
As if to demonstrate the difficulty of being grammatically and politically correct at the same time, the Conference delegates spent most of one dayas session arguing over whether to use the singular word student which would trigger the awkward but PC words his or her as the later references. They chose to fudge the issue by using the plural.
Since then, the language establishment has quietly found it necessary to bend the old grammatical rule and allow the plural word their to refer to a singular collective noun such as whoever or anyone. However, language authorities have never officially acknowledged their rule change, which trailed the decision of the general public by decades.
Dialects Are Us.
The Conference seemed to be saying that all students have a right to speak and write the way they want, and teachers should not try to correct them for fear of imparting afalsea or aimmorala advice. In other words, adialects are us,a and young Americans from all backgrounds are the beneficiaries.
The Conference went even further by issuing a background doc.u.ment saying in part, aIf we can convince our students that spelling, punctuation and usage are less important than content, we have removed a major obstacle in their developing the ability to write.a NCTE officials have heartily backed the Conferenceas stand on these matters. Randy Bomer, director of language and literacy studies at the University of Texas and a former president of the Council, told me, aStudents have the right to remain attached to and use language they are comfortable with. We need to respect the languages that kids bring to school.a2 But what is acontenta? Nowhere in the websites of the two teacher groups is there a simple, easily accessible definition of the word. The vagueness of such a key term is another sign that educators are doing their part to encourage more informal English. They make that clear by saying that spelling, punctuation, and how you use the language are not as important as what you say and what the message is.
In other words, the old-fashioned concept of acorrectnessa in language is no longer as important as the ability to get another personas attention and understanding. If your grammar is iffy, your spelling is nothing to brag about, and you sometimes use a wrong verb tense or p.r.o.noun, yet other people know what you mean, whatas the problem? After all, isnat being able to communicate the ultimate purpose of language?
The teachers could not be clearer in their endors.e.m.e.nt of informal English. It fits todayas att.i.tude of many students who like to mock or ridicule those who get good marks and try to use formal English. In effect, both students and teachers, along with many others, agree that informal English is the way to go.
As Washington Post media critic Tom Shales wrote in 2007, aBeing well-schooled, well-trained and experienced is actually acquiring a taint.a A popular b.u.mper sticker at the time of the teachersa shift in views said question authority. It simply means that society and language have been changing together.
Even the word aEnglisha has become too scary for the youngest of learners. As a subject, it is now almost universally called alanguage artsa or alanguage studies.a And agrammara has become such a dirty word that it hasnat been used to name an elementary school in half a century or so.
Food for Critics.
Few people outside the education community got any inkling of this huge shift in policy. It was barely noticed by the ma.s.s media. But it aroused a few harsh critics. Former NBC newsman Edwin Newman was among the more prominent. In a 1974 book, Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? he answered his own question with an emphatic yes.3 Needless to say, many Britons also have been deeply disturbed by what they see as a coa.r.s.ening of English by the Americans. In 1995, the Prince of Wales complained that the U.S. version was acorruptinga the Queenas English. He said Americans atend to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs and make words that shouldnat be.a He added that awe must act now to insure [sic] that . . . English English maintains its position as the world language well into the next century.a4 He didnat realize that this Battle of Britain was already lost.
p.i.s.s Enters the Royal Chamber.
Prince William, the son of the Prince of Wales, seems to be setting a language tone more toward Amglish than his father might like. In January 2010, he was asked about his musical preferences while greeting a crowd of well-wishers in Australia. He blurted out, aI normally get the p.i.s.s taken out of me for my choice of music. Bit rappy.a5 Others who have resisted the trends include David Mulroy, a language professor at the University of Wisconsin. He attacked the NCTE policy on grammar in a book ent.i.tled The War against Grammar.6 In it he said, aIt is hard to give any kind of language instruction to students who lack the conceptual framework provided by the terms of basic grammar.a He added that inserting some grammar into other parts of a school curriculum ais like trying to insert partial foundations beneath half-finished houses and concluding from the ensuing debacles that foundations are useless.a It is telling that Mulroy had to reach back to the ancient Greeks to find a society that really revered grammar, which eventually became the first of the seven so-called liberal arts. Since then, the enamor for grammar has been on a downhill slide all the way to todayas U.S. society.
The Curmudgeon Image.
Did the NCTEas decision to relax grammar instruction have anything to do with the desire of English teachers to wipe out their traditional image as curmudgeons ready to chastise a weak student in front of others?
Former NCTE president Randy Bomer acknowledged the possibility by officially denying it when he declared that English teachers ado not see themselves as grammar police, on the lookout for mistakes and intolerant of diverse ways of speaking.a But even in a writing cla.s.s, a teacher cannot help becoming an enforcer when correcting a studentas speech or prose in the presence of other students. After all, what is a teacher who doesnat teach?
Falling Test Scores.
The steady relaxation of formal language standards may have had an effect over the years on test results from the College Boardas annual Scholastic Apt.i.tude Test (SAT) for verbal skills. But the Board has done its best to cover up the actual scores. Apparently that is its way to go with the flow. (The Board refused to honor several phone and e-mail requests from me for scores back to 1963, but I obtained them elsewhere.) The Board has even gone so far as to fudge its own figures. If you had followed its news releases since 1994, the important average score for the verbal part of the annual test went up from 478 in 1963, the year of the NCTEas big shift on grammar, to 501 in 2010.
But the scores actually went down. The 2010 score does not show what happened in 1994, when the total had plummeted from 478 in 1963 to 419. At that point, the Board figured out how to make things look better. It added 80 points to the scores. It explained that the test needed to be arecentereda to reflect a study indicating that the decline was largely due to an influx of poor blacks and Hispanics during those years.
So if you subtract the 80 points from the 2010 score, you get a substantial decline from 478 to 420 over the fifty-seven-year period. Meanwhile, the Board has inflated the scores from before the arecenteringa of the SAT, which it previously called aan unchanging standard.a Even the middle name of the test has been changed from Apt.i.tude to Achievement, apparently to make it go down better.
As to the reasons for such poor student performance on the tests, the Board had a basketful of possibilities beyond those already cited, including changes in the national culture, lower scholastic expectations, a proliferation of nonacademic courses, and less homework.
But a Cornell professor contended that the overall decline was more likely caused by a sweeping simplification of schoolbooks over the earlier years.7 Donald Hayes said the idea was to describe more common experiences so that children could read and learn the language more easily. aBut,a he added, aif you simplify texts, you deprive children of concepts a.s.sociated with uncommon words.a A Princ.i.p.al on the Front Lines.
Parents of students at the Middle School of Art and Philosophy in New York City got another type of clue as to why SAT verbal scores have dropped so much: an e-mail from Princ.i.p.al Andrew Buck in 2010 defending his att.i.tude toward education.
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It contained some imaginative uses of p.r.o.nouns, syntax, and other signs of informal English. Parents had objected earlier to the lack of what they felt were sufficient textbooks. Now they wondered whether the princ.i.p.al himself knew formal English. He obviously was trying in his own way to prepare his students for the changes in social and linguistic standards that had occurred since the complaining parents had gone to school.
Author Diane Ravitch quotes an anonymous textbook writer who broke under the strain: They sent 10 pages of single-s.p.a.ced specifications. The hero was a Hispanic boy. There were black twins, one boy, one girl; an overweight Oriental boy; and an American girl. That leaves the Caucasian. Since we mustnat forget the physically handicapped, she was born with a congenital malformation and only had three fingers on one hand. One child had to have an Irish setter, and the setter was to be female. . . . They also had a senior citizen, and I had to show her jogging. I canat do it anymore.13 Who Needs the Queenas English?
Such pressures are especially resisted by creative writers. Novelist and poet Wolf La.r.s.en wrote an essay t.i.tled aWho Needs the Queenas English?a in which he said, aLanguage must be the servant of the writer . . . [who] should throw off the straitjacket of grammar whenever necessary.a He added, aTraditional grammar is not necessary in creative works. . . . Literature often has a rhythm that makes grammar unnecessary, just as a good verse has a natural flow that has made the rhyme obsolete.a14 He also attacked the alleged discriminatory nature of Standard English. aWhy should the mode of speaking of the most privileged members of our society be considered standard English? Why shouldnat the rich and constantly evolving language of poor blacks in the ghetto be considered astandard Englisha?a He added that hip-hop lingo is afar more exciting and rich in contemporary culture than the astandarda English of Park Avenue.a A Shocking Ad.
Even before the historic liberalization of grammar instruction by the NCTE in 1963, copy writers for advertising agencies were testing the bounds of acceptable grammar. The most noticeable breakthrough came in 1954 with an ad for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. It said, aWinston tastes good like a cigarette should.a This slogan with the questionable grammar became one of the clearest public signals that a new type of English was emerging in the United States that no longer respected the outworn rules and standards of formal English inherited from the mother country.
Today, such an ad would not even be noticed for its language. But back then, pillars of culture went wobbly, English teachers were horrified, and millions of former students who had had problems in cla.s.s finally got a whiff of emanc.i.p.ation. Until then, the language establishment had insisted that in such usage, like should be as, because of the conjunction function or something.
The Winston advertis.e.m.e.nt was so widely circulated on radio and television, including the Beverly Hillbillies and The Flintstones, that the otherwise undistinguished Winston brand soon rose to the top of the market. The poet Ogden Nash celebrated with a ditty saying, aLike goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation.a Many Americans finally felt like they could let all their linguistic frustrations hang out if such powerful commercial interests were so relaxed.
Power to the People.
The ad also did what no previous event had been able to do: it essentially switched the power over language changes from the much-feared guardians of grammar to the general population, from professors, publishers, and lexicographers to street b.u.ms, pop musicians, and others on the lower and middle rungs of society.
Seven years later, defenders of the status quo were stunned further when Merriam-Webster published its Third International Dictionary, with no criticism of the word like for such usage. Strict constructionists, who were waiting for some support from on high, suddenly saw a major dictionary without a spine.
Language sticklers took another blow a few years later when ad writers gave the relaxed-grammar movement a new boost with a slogan for Tareyton cigarettes saying, aUs Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.a Like the Winston breakthrough, this deliberate use of a grammatical aerrora rocketed Tareyton up the sales rankings.
These new signs of Amglish were proving to be good for cigarette sales, not to mention lung cancer.
A Social Revolution.
Although it was not readily apparent at the time, the building language revolt became part of a broader political and social rebellion. The seeds had been sown by social rebels all the way back to the ancient Greeks and from them to Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis of a.s.sisi, Luther, Th.o.r.eau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, to mention only a few who refused to conform to the norms of the day.
Signs of broad social change began a decade or so after the end of World War II. The most immediate prototypes were members of the Beat Generation, such as Allen Ginsberg, with their bohemian, beatnik styles of the 1950s. More sparks came in the next decade from yippies, hippies, and civil rights activists. Others were spurred by the a.s.sa.s.sinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King in 1968.
Many cities were hit by devastating riots. The city of Chicago added to the violence when the cityas police force decided to crack down with a vengeance on political dissidents at the 1968 Democratic convention. Growing resistance to the draft and the Vietnam War added even more to the general dissidence.
The hippie movement emphasized a counterculture lifestyle including sloppy (or optional) clothes, pot smoking, and free thinking, mostly by young people. It was a natural convergence of beatniks, young rebels, college dropouts, draft resisters, environmentalists, and flower girls, in addition to poets, musicians, writers, and a.s.sorted dreamers. A popular b.u.mper sticker was aIf it feels good, do it.a At first the movement centered in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco; then it spread to other cities around the country, including Greenwich Village, New York, where the New York Times is said to have fixed the letters ie to the word hippie instead of the letter y to avoid any reference to the hippy look.
The main themes soon went international, with colonies arising in Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and Germany, among other places.
New Musical Themes.
Music was the main vehicle of the movement, with lyrics almost always pointing toward a new informality of language and indifference to societal norms. This was particularly evident at the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. Among the major stars were Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who helped spread the gospel of the psychedelic mindset in the BBC-banned alb.u.mas closing song, aA Day in the Life,a from their game-changing Sgt. Pepper alb.u.m.
John Lennon struck a similar theme with his dreamy vocal, aIad love to turn you on,a a notion inspired by Timothy Learyas slogan, aTurn on, tune in, drop out.a The Beatles did much the same with songs that stretched the limits of what a pop record could be, with shades of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lewis Carroll, and the folkie-turned-rocker Dylan.
Dylan took a different path to the same place, following folk and blues idioms to craft his own catalog of songs that referenced everyone from Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot to Bette Davis. His aMaggieas Farma at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was one of his final protest songs and was directed at the folk protest movement itself.
With their themes of protest, noncompliance, and love, these artists also were helping to shape a new American lingo, one that was free from the constraints and tensions of old-fashioned English.
Codifying the Patter.
Out of all this came a 688-page Hippie Dictionary by John Ba.s.sett McCleary, a former hippie himself.15 aWithin recent history,a he writes in the book, ano other counterculture has had as much effect on our lives and our vocabulary as has the hippie culture. . . . One must admit that the 1960s and a70s greatly influenced what exists today.a Adam Wojtanek, a blogger who calls himself aThe Polish Hippie,a goes further. He credits hippies and the Beatles not only for their broad cultural impact but for their powerful effect on American politics, resulting in ending the Vietnam War, granting amnesty to draft evaders, and helping to push gay rights, womenas rights, and ecology out of the shadows.
Todayas relaxed linguistic atmosphere was shaped to a great extent by hippie themes. Among popular words and phrases coined then and still in wide use are hang in there, heavy, chill, cool, cop out, and head case. The one word that seems to embody the whole story is cool, which not only survives but still flourishes today. A certain degree of cool seems to come from merely repeating the word as much as possible.
Heritage Words from Hippiedom.
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