Language Decay: Reality or Myth

Sophie Bond - Writer

It has been a well-known debate amongst linguists for years as to whether our language is getting worse, often referred to as language decay. You may have heard the comment ‘teenagers are ruining the language’ at least once in your lives; by using slang and abbreviations of the language. But is this just down to this generation of teenagers speaking ‘improper’, or has the language been changing for quite some time; generation after generation?

Let me take you back to the 18th century when a bunch of upper-class men decided their version of English was the proper way to talk and all the peasants with regional dialects are destroying the language. Unlike French and many other languages, we did not have a language academy to determine this for us; just a bunch of aristocrats pushing the concept of standardisation. Standardisation can be defined as the attempt to perfect and then fix a language to prevent it from deteriorating. Crazy, right? I mean it doesn’t take a genius to realise that language is constantly changing, for example 2010 was the year of OMG and LOL. This arose due to the introduction of mobile phones and texting in the 1990s, resulting in text speak. I don’t even want to think back to the time when ‘swag’ was prominent. Yet now we find teenagers using slang like ‘peng’; a synonym of good and great. In addition, we can see through Scottish social media such as Twitter that the written form is bringing out dialectal varieties (which I really struggle to get my head around when reading it). An easy example of this to understand would be ‘a’ for ‘I’.

The stigma attached to teenagers when it comes to language change is extremely derogatory. There have been opinions that it will make the generation struggle to find employment because it sounds ‘uneducated’ which just simply is not true. There is a BBC article from 2013 where a school in Croydon banned their students from using slang to prepare them for jobs and universities; many people in the comment section disagree and say it is wrong. Adrienne Lafrance (2016) states in her article that teenagers are blamed for ‘debasing linguistic standards’ when it has been found that teenagers don’t affect the language as much as is portrayed. She quotes linguist Mary Kohn who found that people of all ages contributed to long lasting language change, not just teens. This ultimately suggests that teenagers are not the only influence on this apparent negative change, so why is the stigma still attached to this generation?


The process of standardisation occurred in the 18th Century, after Caxton brought the printing press to England and Samuel Johnson wrote the first large English dictionary comprised of 40,000 words in 1755. The mass production of texts meant that there had to be a standard to use as guidelines because, unlike before when texts were hand copied, there was no human error. Culpeper (1966) refers to this as the chancery standard which was based on the London dialect that also replaced French in the legal and governmental system after the French reign following the Norman Conquest in 1066. It is likely that the status of this variety, and the class of the people in these official professions who spoke it decided that it was superior to any dialectal variety from the rest of the UK. In present day this variety is known as Received Pronunciation (RP), but the amount of people using it is decreasing. The Queen’s speech is often associated with RP, but studies such as Jonathan Harrington et al (2000) and their study of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts over the decades, suggests that she is converging towards a more southern pronunciation. Even the Queen has acquired regional dialect features, so why is this stigma still embedded in our society?

It seems that our personal prejudices are getting in the way of the way we view different accents, I mean let’s be real, an accent can’t be uneducated and certainly isn’t ‘incorrect’ otherwise no one would use these varieties. It is evident that discrimination does occur based on an individual’s accent and dialect through Emily Bender’s study (2001, 2005) who used a matched guise method of research to see what listeners perceptions of the omission of the form of the verb ‘to BE’ in different instances. This is where participants hear a recording, or someone speaking and then rate the accent in chosen categories. For example, she found that participants who knew African American English well were more likely to give extreme ratings of being uneducated when omitting the form of the verb to BE ‘is’ in the sentence ‘she ΓΈ teaching me piano’. Whereas, when they heard ‘she is teaching me piano’, they rated this as more reliable. This, therefore, suggests that individuals make judgements based on the accent and dialect they hear without knowing anything about the person. This is human nature, we all do it, I’m sure you all have one particular accent you find annoying and one you really love. However, it is so important to not let these opinions cloud our morals and judgement because in reality, there is no accent or dialect better than another and each form is used for communication which is successful no matter which variety you speak.


So, coming back to the ultimate question; is language decay a reality or a myth? Well, I think it is a complete myth because language change is inevitable, no matter how hard people try to fight it. There will always be personal preferences of what you like the sound of and what you dislike but there is no correct and incorrect way of speaking.



Sources:
Culpeper, J. (2005). History of English. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.
Harrington, J., Palethorpe, S. and Watson, C. (2000). Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: an acoustic analysis of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 30(1-2), p.63
Lafrance, A. (2016). ‘Teens aren’t ruining language’. The Atlantic. 27th January. Can be found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/blatantly-budge-and-other-dead-slang/431433/ [accessed 20/02/19]
Meyerhoff, M. (2019). Introducing sociolinguistics. 3rd ed. Abingdon: Routledge, p.75.
‘Pupils banned from using slang words at school’. BBC Newsround. 15th October 2013. Can be found at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/24534663 [accessed 20/02/19]
Photo Credit - Waldemar Brandt - https://unsplash.com/photos/U3Ptj3jafX8


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