The Progressive Degeneration of the English Language
"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words….
Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller."
—George Orwell, 1984
Languages change over time. That much is, in a way, natural. In cultural and political developments over the course of a civilization’s life, sounds undergo changes, as well as shifts in the articulation of vowels and consonants and the orthographic conventions for visually representing them. Consider the following:
Her onginð þæt god-spell þe Iohannes se godspellere ge-wrat on pathmos þam eiglande. On anginne ærest wæs word. & þæt word wæs mid gode. & god wæs þaet word.
The alert reader can certainly identify, “þaet”, “godspell”, “waes”, “word”, and “god” and probably “eigland” (“island”), though “anginne” (beginning), “ærest” (first), and “onginð” (“begins”) might be more of a challenge for some. The language here is Old English, taken from a late-10th/early 11th-century translation of the Gospel of John. The words we moderns can easily identify have changed over the past 1,100 years, and the same is true of samples of written Old French, Old High German, Old Norse, etc., in the last millennium.
This is natural language change, and it happens in all languages over time. Healthy languages coin or adopt new words continually, constantly expanding their lexica to reflect new scientific discoveries. The word “electron,” for example, was coined by Michael Faraday when he needed to describe what he had discovered about the nature of electricity. Then there are words adopted through intercultural contact such as some common words we adopted from Hindi, or the many from German (here are some now), and the many borrowed from French, Italian, and Spanish. Or the language nominalizes verbs (go on strike), verbalizes nouns (paper it over), or substantivized proper nouns (give me that xerox). The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary reports that it added 690 new words to its lexicon that fall into these categories. Lots of them come from gaming and online media, while others are just re-combinations of existing words of older pedigree (doomscroll, edgelord, speedrun), and I confess, the addition of NPC (non-player-character) warmed this 1st-generation D&D-er’s heart. Neither natural language development nor adding new words to the lexicon of a language is cause for concern for anyone but the most uptight of language purists.
What Orwell warned about—the unnatural and deliberate distortion of a language to serve an ideological aim or direct social engineering—that is something to be concerned about.
Attempts to Redefine Reality
It is precisely that kind of deliberate mutilation that we see in another, corrupting set of changes in the Merriam-Webster: changes that aim to advance a set of political biases that are in many cases at war with reality. Cases in point can be seen in the dictionary’s re-definitions of the most basic normative, physical human identity, as identified by Standing for Freedom:
Merriam-Webster, which calls itself “America’s most trusted dictionary,” continues to lose the trust of its readers by changing the long-held definitions of words for political reasons. Most recently, the dictionary re-defined the word “male” to include “having a gender identity that is the opposite of female” and the word “female” to include “having a gender identity the opposite of male.” The words “boy” and “girl” were changed, respectively, to “a child whose gender identity is male” and “a child whose gender identity is female.”
For now, at least, the dictionary left the words “man” and “woman” alone but added the terms “cis-man” and “cis-woman,” as if there were need to use a prefix previously relegated to the fields of chemistry and geography to specify that we are talking about the two normal sexes of humanity.
The real and transparent goal is to normalize the contrasting categories “trans-man” and “trans-woman,” which are both neologisms used to describe men and women afflicted with such severe gender dysphoria that they have had their bodies surgically altered to more resemble the other sex. These are among the changes put into the dictionary in support of a kind of soft totalitarianism that seeks to do exactly what Orwell warned about—make it impossible to talk about or describe reality accurately.
To be direct, the “trans-man” and “trans-woman” are socially constructed neologisms. These are women and men who have through a mental illness rendered their bodies incapable of performing either the male or female reproductive functions naturally and possibly even experiencing orgasm. That is what we are talking about, really. Changing the dictionary to humor them does not help anyone.
Restricting the Range of Expression & Understanding
Then there is the lamentable tendency to restrict the range of expression and understanding available in the lexicon by relegating words which, until recently, were part of the mental landscape of all educated English speakers. One example was the decision by the Oxford Junior Dictionary to remove such common words as “acorn” and “willow,” an arbitrary truncation of the lexicon and therefore the mental landscapes of children, as described in detail by Robert Macfarlane in Orion magazine.
Martin Robbins in The Guardian was quick to jump to the defense of the philistines who somehow thought the language of smartphones and other electronic ephemera more important than words that have real-word referents in growing, living things. Sure, the words are still in the Oxford English Dictionary, and admittedly, this is a children’s dictionary, but we’re not dealing with obscure words like “poltroon” or “trepidated.” The words omitted include common names of flowers, trees, and birds. If young Jane or Tanisha can’t name it, she can’t tell anyone what it was without using some descriptive circumlocution.
It’s as if, absurdly enough, the editors thought the young’uns whose vocabularies they were intentionally truncating were carrying around real, solid books (which do have space limitations) and not looking up words on their Oxford Junior Dictionary App (which, for all practical purposes, does not). It’s not an either/or problem. It’s a decision to blind children’s imaginations to a whole aspect of reality.John D. Martin
is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/linguistic-evolution-natural-unnatural