A Dialogue on the Decay of English, by Roger McGrath and Thomas Fleming
I received this message from Prof. McGrath in response to my columns on learning foreign languages.
For what it's worth, I took French in high school and Latin in college. I think Latin teaches one a surprising amount about the English language or perhaps reminds one of all those things that we were supposed to learn in the 7th and 8th grade--when English teachers emphasized parts of speech, diagramming sentences, tense, mood, et al.
During my years playing professor I noticed a slow but steady decline in the writing skills of the average student. By my final days of teaching it was embarrassing how poor were the language skills of the average student. I had to point out errors that were something I learned as a kid--at home. A couple of examples that drove me nuts, probably because they are such young kid errors: The difference between lie and lay has been extinguished and impact is used because the distinction between affect and effect is no longer understood. It must be 45 years ago when I heard a bimbo newscaster say to her partner on air when a helicopter was transmitting footage of the crowds on the beach, "Just look at all those people laying on the beach." I thought now we have pornographic nightly news. Mostly, though, I was stunned that someone on TV news, a putative professional, didn't understand lie and lay. Somewhere along the line they didn't have a parent, an older sibling, a teacher who said to them: chickens lay and people lie--and boy do they. The last bit may have a punning addition peculiar to my family, but certainly by the age of 9 or 10 everyone repeated lie, lay, had lain and lay, laid, had laid. That and a hundred other such things were simply what a kid learned growing up and not even a teenager, let alone an adult--especially an adult in the communication business on TV--would make such a little kid mistake.
Several times a day I'll get reminders of the state of grammar. One of several posters circulating today on the Internet is a shot of President Kennedy and in large upper case letters, "IF HE WAS ALIVE TODAY---HE WOULD LEAVE THE DEMOCRAT PARTY." The subjunctive mood is not taught or understood any longer. When I was young, I hadn't heard of the subjunctive mood but I heard adults say, "If I were to . . . I would . . . ." Like all other young kids I simply learned language from my parents and other adults and eventually said things the same way. Then, in the 7th grade, I formally learned--in this case— that I was using the subjunctive.
Moreover, the "other adults" were often on the radio or in newsreels at the theater or documentaries such as Victory at Sea. Guys doing such work were expected to have perfect diction and grammar and everything else. It's embarrassing to compare newscasters and narrators today to guys I grew up on such as Lowell Thomas and Leonard Graves.
Thanks for the response. The decline of literacy among the literate classes is more astonishing than the collapse of English among people who watch daytime TV. The New York Times was never the bastion of correctness people thought it was, but today it is written and edited by ignorant malevolent children.
Partly, of course, the decline is simply what happens when people don’t work at an art, but there is an agenda. A Russian historian once explained to me that the Soviets brutally proletarianized Russian—and the Chinese have gone them one better.
The Greek left has driven out the more formal version of Greek and, almost as bad, insisted on a transliteration of Greek into English, French, etc, that obscures all connection with Ancient Greek and with its survival in modern languages. For example, they transliterate thank you as “evharisto” which obscures the fact that the first syllable =eu, used in English in dozens of words like euphemism, and the next syllable is not recognizable as Charis—grace, thanks, charm. So eucharist is now evharistia, the second letter of the alphabet is vita (veeta).
The objects of linguistic revolution are 1) to eliminate fine distinctions of meaning, 2) cut us off from the past, 3) to reduce us all to the lowest level—and then keep lowering that level. All that new grammar, non-prescriptive teaching, Chomsky’s transformational grammar taught in elementary schools—it all contributes to the process.
The subjunctive has been in decline for centuries, partly because English has a rich vocabulary of modal auxiliaries that have nudged the subjunctive out of place: words like 'ought' and 'should' and 'may' and 'might'. Nonetheless, there remained a fossilized set of subjunctives that have not been replaced--only ignored: "I wish I were dead," "If a man were smart...," "come what may," and many others. Losing the subjunctive means we lose the distinction of meaning between, for example, an impossible wish such as "If only Jack Kennedy were alive" as opposed to "If the sun comes out..." I do not say that this loss of precision was entirely fueled by ideology, but, in a world run by the Kennedys and Clintons and Obamas--to say nothing of Ms Ocasio-Cortez--any distinction between an impossible wish and practical reality is slated for elimination.
This is a world where the lion will lie down with the lamb, not at the end of history but today! The socialists are right about this, of course, but what they don't tell us is that when the lions--party leaders and bureaucrats--lie down with lambs--us ordinary citizens, the lambs get fleeced, first, and then eaten.
Naturally, the teachers and journalists are not even aware of what is happening. Most of them are too stupid. I sometimes think American “intellectuals” should give thanks every day for their autonomous nervous system that keeps their heart beating and their lungs breathing. Because if their survival depended on paying attention, they’d be dead in a few minutes.