About two years ago, while reading the book 'The Information', my view and take on language took a 180 degrees turn. It was - and has been - something that I wanted to write about ever since; on the next re-read, I had been telling myself. Times up.
I like wholesome words. I cannot recall the exact instant when I had this momentous epiphany, but I can furnish a time frame when this notion of liking full words and proper sentences, and - like some weed - an aversion for the shrtct lingo took root. It was when I voluntarily started to consume and produce the written word for the first time.
“Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.”
In some sense, it has been a rite of passage; I too have been an enchanted pilgrim. The 'word' has to be precise, that is why it exists. If a word exists to label something specific, then its replacement with two words that mean 'almost the same' will not do. 'Almost the same' is not 'the same'. So, while fragments of poetry like the following piece tickled me, they also cemented my notion of how the written word should look like - correct, complete.
I lately lost a preposition;
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair,
And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there."
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, "What should he come
Up from out of in under there for?"
Some of my pursuits became - finding apposite words, finding and furnishing an apt song for the occasion, finding the best way to write a computer program and the likes. The good outcome is the richness of diversity that having an eclectic approach opened up for me. The bad parts are, it caused me to reject what was not in tune with this pursuit, and poor communication with those who didn't share this enthusiasm.
While the pre-millennials scorned the millennials for vandalizing the language, the millennials now cringe at the murder of whatever remains by their successors - the generation-Z. The YOLO and SWAG crooners happily typ lyk dis, aggravating the searing headache that the readers from the anthropocene era get from the overheating-interpretation-engines chugging inside their heads as they squint a little harder to make some sense of the written symbols. One might argue that there is no gain in typing 'dis' instead of 'this', but there is - so much to the effect that it was once a good career prospect.
"if u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd job & mo pa." - went an advert on a subway somewhere in the previous millennia before computers went mainstream. Talk is cheap but words can be costly. In fact, journalists and other users relied on removing redundancy from their messages to avoid being fleeced by telegraph companies which charged money per character. Ever written a matrimonial advert for the newspaper that charges by the word? I used to believe that this shortform usage that many of us scorn today is a vestige of SMS days - when text messages had a character limit and carried cost. But as I mentioned, it was a necessity during the telegraph era too. 'mhii' for 'my health is improving' and 'shf' for 'stocks have fallen' were many such usage propositions of the bygone era. Compared to that 'u r gr8 n nyc' is really benign! Of course, some things keep reinventing themselves or reintroducing time and again like new fads. The romance of language is one such meme.
u cn gt a gd jb w hi pa!
So thinks a sign in the subway.
Think twice when letters disappear
Into Commodity’s black hole—
No turning back from that career.
This counterspell may save your soul.
While writing and speaking clearly are certainly virtues worth extolling, being able to deal with the shortcut lingo and compact notational forms that shape the modern nuance without losing one's head is a vital trait to develop if we are to keep up. If not anything else, it keeps us from becoming obsolete; and with that, hoping a resurgence.
Language is not a thing. It is not a set of rules cast in stone. It is meaning once removed and represented in abstract symbols. And written language, with the exception of mathematics is meaning twice removed! What 'One' means to me comes to someone else as 'Un'. So does the '1' symbol. But most people would not know the meaning of these symbols removed from the physical quantity. (Using numbers wasn't the problem. The big question was what they were. You can show someone two sheep, two coins, two albatrosses, two galaxies. But can you show them two?) To communicate is to convey - to transfer something intangible from one person to another - we might call it 'meaning'. This, of course, requires as a prerequisite an intention of the two to transact. When this pre-condition is fulfilled, linguistic barriers are torn down.
The lamentable part is, we are taught 'a' language in 'a' form, but not the 'why'. 'Why do we need language?' is something we must discover on our own. The answer, however, is very obvious once found - to do what is called 'communication'. That need or desire to communicate is the raison d'être for any language to exist as a common denominator of such transactions. If someone asks a believer, who created God - one might hear: God created himself (svayambhu). Or if I am to overstep a little - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. But technically, that is a recursive loop (like GNU standing for GNU is Not Unix). I find it hard to express this meta-relation. It is like saying that - this 'desire' to communicate created the language - English, in this case - which named this 'desire' whence it sprang 'communication'. So goes with Hindi, or any language for that matter.
"Man and God met somewhere; Both exclaimed, My Creator!"
This makes language a means and not an end. If it may be agreed that language exists primarily for social intercourse and that everything else - including the seeming permanence of the written word - is only a by-product that enables other forms of jugglery, then keeping the purity of the written word before its meaning is like putting the cart before the horse. However, because we are not really taught this, some of us learn to put not just the cart before the horse but on it! We quibble about pronunciation and grammar. We correct/fume/mock/sigh/ignore/empathize with/stereotype people when they do it wrong. Wrong? By what standard? Language has always been in a state of flux. There was a time when English was looked down upon by the speakers of French and Latin. And look! English is today's most widely spoken language. Larger the number of mouths, larger the variability of language. And larger a cage for the grammar nazis to relent in.
We consult dictionaries to resolve contention on how a word figures. But, dictionaries themselves are not tomes of authority - they never claimed to be. Nevertheless, they tend to become the uncrowned and reluctant kings. For example, regarding the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):
"The English language, spoken now by more than a billion people globally, has entered a period of ferment...The language upon which the lexicographers eavesdrop has become wild and amorphous: a great, swirling, expanding cloud of messaging and speech; newspapers, magazines, pamphlets; menus and business memos; broadcasts and phonograph records. By contrast, the dictionary itself has acquired the status of a monument, definitive and towering. It exerts an influence on the language it tries to observe. It wears its authoritative role reluctantly. The lexicographers may recall Ambrose Bierce's sardoinc century-old definition: "dictionary, a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic." Nowadays they stress that they do not presume (or deign) to disapprove any particular usage or spelling. But they cannot disavow a strong ambiguation: the goal of completeness. They want every word, all the lingo: idioms and euphemisms, sacred or profane, dead or alive, the King's English or the street's...The dictionary ratifies the persistence of the word. It declares that the meanings of words come from other words. It implies that all words, taken together, form an interlocking structure: interlocking, because all words are defined in terms of other words. This could never have been an issue in an oral culture, where language was barely visible. Only when printing - and the dictionary - put the language into separate relief, as an object to be scrutinized, could anyone develop a sense of word meaning as interdependent and even circular...
As hard as the OED tries to embody the language's fluidity, it cannot help but serve as an agent of its crystallization. The problem of spelling poses characteristic difficulties. "Every form in which a word has occurred throughout its history" is meant to be included. So for mackerel the second edition in 1989 listed nineteen alternative spellings. The unearthing of sources never ends, though, so the third edition revised entry in 2002 listed no fewer than thirty: maccarel, mackaral, mackarel, mackarell, mackerell, mackeril, mackreel, mackrel, mackrell, mackril, macquerel, macquerell, macrel, macrell, macrell, macrelle, macril, macril, makarell, makcaral, makarel, makerell, makelelle, makral, makrall, makreill, makrel, makrell, makyrelle, maquerel, and maycril." As lexicographers, the editors would never declare these alternatives to be wrong: misspellings. They do not wish to declare their choice of spelling of the headword, mackerel, to be "correct". They emphasize that they examine the evidence and choose "the most common current spelling."...They know that no matter how often and how firmly they disclaim a prescriptive authority, a reader will turn to the dictionary to find out how a word should be spelled. They cannot escape inconsistencies. They feel obliged to include words that make purists wince. A new entry as of December 2003 memorialized nucular: " = nuclear a. (in various senses)." Yet they refuse to count evident misprints found by way of Internet searches. They do not recognize straight-laced, even though stasitical evidence finds that bastardized form outnumbering strait-laced.
That the dictionaries disclaim any authority of the written word should suffice as an argument against an attack by the grammar Nazi. I once had a friend correct me over the pronunciation of the word `camaraderie`. Despite being sure I had googled and eventually mastered its pronunciation (kama-raa-de-ree), I had to yield to my friend's authority of being adept at English and having worked with/preparing for a career in language forensics. It was cam-a-rod-rie which, my friend having been a school teacher also made me repeat numerous times. We haven't met again (as luck would have it).
An extrapolation of this idea of the language being in a churn would be that the advance of language will only stop when everything that can be known has been known. For only then can exist an exhaustive vocabulary where one thing precisely means just one thing - or if something has fuzziness, the degree of each member is specified - I am 10% sure, 50% confused, 20% in a daze, 5% amused, 7% angry and 8% frustrated. But is that possible?
"It was once thought that a perfect language should have an exact one-to-one correspondence between words and their meanings. There should be no ambiguity, no vagueness, no confusion...'I imagine,' writes the novelist Dexter Palmer, 'that the entries of the dictionary that lies on the desk in God's study must have one-to-one correspondence between the words and their definitions, so that when God sends directives to his angels, they are completely free from ambiguity. Each sentence that He speaks or writes must be perfect, and therefore a miracle.' We know better now. With or without God, there is no perfect language."
For the love of language, why would one want it? Mathematics was once believed to be capable of being a language without ambiguity. However, it was established in the previous century by Godel, and then Turing, that it is not possible to have any language without paradoxes which are a form of ambiguity. This romance for perfection of language hasn't just been pursued in a technical manner. There have been thought experiments that became literature.
"The Library of Babel" is a mythical library that "contains all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and the commentary upon that gospel and the commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel, the minutely detailed history of the future, the interpolations of all books in all other books, the faithful catalogue of the library and the innumerable false catalogues. This library (which others call the universe) enshrines all the information...". Borges tells us, "the first impression was one of extravagant happiness... Then came the lamentations...What good is complete knowledge, in its immobile perfection?... The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms."
To ask for clarification is fine if one does not understand. But unless one is in a classroom environment learning proper usage why does it matter if 'me' is used instead of 'I' as long as the recipient gets the meaning correctly? We are not computers that do not understand context and color of the language. As long as there is imperfection, there will be people pursuing perfection. While some will work diligently, wisely and compassionately - with an aim to make something better and never forgetting the roots - there will be gentry that will squat in an ivory tower with a long nose or sometimes venture out with their derisive attitudes poking the imperfect in its imperfection. However, there is hope.
"Infinite possibility is good, not bad. Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared. Language maps a boundless world of objects and sensations and combinations onto a finite space. The world changes, always mixing the static with the ephemeral, and we know that language changes, not just from edition to edition of the Oxford English Dictionary but from one moment to the next, and from one person to the next. Everyone's language is different. We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened."
I chose to be emboldened. So, while I would like to stick to the expanded, extensive forms of English in writing, I am learning to accommodate the shortened or adulterated variants in my head. Often, these adulterations come from people who I love. Clearly, these people come before their words. So, as long as I can, I understand.