Death of a Language

Vocabulary is on the endangered species list, syntax has been criminally evaded and grammar has taken a back seat in the national curriculum to more important subjects such as Responsibility Evasion and Facebook Friend Harvesting. What happens when a language flounders, chokes and possibly expires?

Words as Tools
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the seminal philosopher of language, had the following to say about language: “Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. The use of words are as diverse as the function of these tools.” The problem, however, is when one does not know what a hammer is for, what a nail looks like or how to apply glue. The construction falls apart. And the same is true for language. Without knowledge of how to use the diverse tools of grammar, tone, register, syntax and structure, sentence construction falls apart. And with it, the ability to impart information, to communicate.

Par for the Present
In my time as a language teacher, I came across some horrendous language use. I don’t mean kids flicking erasers and calling each other chlorinated maggots, I mean jumbled prose and nonsensical tripe. But that is to be expected from the fidgety catechumens. It is not to be expected, however, from students in tertiary education about to embark on a career. And certainly not from those in the field of business that garner salaries larger than most tropical nations’ GDPs.

I lifted this from a random conversation on Facebook, written by students from an unnamed university in South Africa:

“Eish a neva ending debate coz n0bdy iz hapi blck or whte. Cnt we al just get al0ng “

Sadly, one needs a Enigma machine to decipher this. Or R2D2. I guess what the Facebooker meant to say was:

“Eish! This is a never-ending debate, because nobody is happy – black or white. Can’t we all just get along?”

One more, just for fun:

“I loved de show, it ws hot, nd im so neve gone buy steves cds or go 2 hs shows, he must be band out of sa!”

Which, when translated from English to English, means the following:

“I loved the show! It was hot! I will never buy one of Steve’s CDs or go to his shows – he must be banned from SA!”

“Band” is not “banned”. And Mr Hofmeyer uses backtracks, just for the record. Similarly, “too” is not “to”. And “your” is not ”you’re”. The latter two errors slip into many emails that appear in my inbox. The primary problems is not the amount of deciphering needed to understand exactly what is meant, but rather that meaning is completely altered, and not always for the better. Take the following example of accidental rampant sexism:

Woman without her man is nothing.
Woman, without her, man is nothing.

Punctuation could even change the course of history:

Ann Boleyn kept her head up defiantly an hour after she was beheaded.
Ann Boleyn kept her head up defiantly; an hour after, she was beheaded.

Of course, not everyone is a budding Hemingway or Steinbeck. And neither does one need to be, just to send an email to a client. Small mistakes will creep into the most scrutinised of copy, in spite of our best efforts. But language is made for communication, and lack of one will lead to lack of the other. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Need a little bit of clarification?

And just FYI