Sunday, September 18, 2005

Dumbing down the English language

It was C.S. Lewis who commented that the fashion, popular in his day, that writing should be "functional" had robbed writing of half its functions. I wonder what he'd make of the state of English in our day. One has only to read ten pages of Lewis' The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and then ten pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to realize that the English language has undergone a significant decline in the 50 or so years between the publication of these two children's stories.

And J.K. Rowling is not the worst offender. My candidate for the worst influence on the learning of English is: school textbooks. This is fresh in my mind, as I recently took a position as a high school teacher and am trying to come to terms with the new generation of textbooks. Those I learned from in Central Africa in the 1950s and 1960s looked a lot like The Times - simple text laid out in sequential paragraphs, with an occasional headline or line drawing. By contrast, today's textbooks look more like People or USA Today - full of colour, profusely illustrated, and with fact boxes cluttering every page. I wonder how any student ever follows the topic, there are so many interruptions placed in his or her way.

And the English! I find that since I learned mathematics in the 1960s the word "percentage" has become extinct. "Express 3/4 as a percent" says the Grade 8 textbook, a grammatical blunder which would have brought a sharp rebuke from my math teacher had I made it in class. Likewise the word "subtract" has been lost in the mists of time, so that even Grade 12 students are likely to say "You have to minus the constant".

And it isn't just in the sciences that we face this crisis - for that's what it is - of the erosion of our language, which is our only means of expressing ideas to one another. Social studies textbooks talk about dictators being "driven by hate", oblivious to the fact that "hate" is a verb (I hate, you hate, he hates...) and that the noun required here is "hatred". If you use that word in a conversation today, there's a chance that you may be viewed in the same way as those old folks who still talk about a musical "record" instead of a "CD". Or, worse, you may get curious stares from people who think your grasp of English is so poor that you have begun making up your own words.

I think I'll go back and re-read my copy of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" to reaffirm my own sanity!