The Dawn: Jan 8, 2016

Punjab Notes: Social media: Pure language is dead language

Mushtaq Soofi 

Linguists, poets, writers, professors, educated parents and all concerned with socio-cultural mannerism lament ad nauseum the destruction of language at the hands of young people who in their apparently indecent haste to say much with minimum number of words end up with what some literary pundits declare as distortion, or outright degeneration of language. Modern communication technology and gadgets become an easy scapegoat. In an effort to avert the curse of violating the supposed sacredness of linguistic traditions that are guarded as inviolable ritual, some amongst us find it hard to accept the advancement of communication tools as a necessary step in the right direction.

No doubt there may be some truth in what is being exposed and excoriated as a result of fetishism promoted by ever-changing modern technology. But the phenomenon remains buried under the clichés that people are enchanted with, regarding the evolutionary process of language and its development. If development takes a route other than dictated by norms or traditions, which stymie rather enhance it, the development itself is made questionable and denounced as destructive, forgetting the less noticed fact that human mind is simply lazy when it comes to the use of language. It inevitably, by some structural impulse, tends to be brief and economical with words as much as possible to save its energy. It, by its very nature, abhors waste labour that is expressed in words and phrases which can be avoided. All this can be observed in our everyday life. Each person has his proper name, usually consisting of three or more words according the cultural norms of the society he is born in but people very rarely call him by his full name whether he is present or absent.

Even the most formal cultures cannot afford the expenditure of energy which is otherwise avoidable. That’s why people, while not being aware of it, make effort to find shortcuts whenever they engage in the endeavour of communicating something no matter whether it’s serious and banal. Guy Deutscher in his book “The Unfolding of Language” illustrates the point graphically: ‘imagine two buildings with an overgrown field lying directly between them. The only road connecting the buildings winds its way lengthily around the field, so people who have to walk from one building to the other start crossing field as a short-cut….As more and more people cross the field, more and more vegetation is trampled, so that eventually the track turns into a nice clear footpath’.

Laziness, search of easier means and saving of energy all are responsible for bringing about spontaneous changes in language which to the chagrin of the purists, defy rules and ‘corrupt’ language. Such changes make all the purists, small and great, hark back to the good old days to show the ideal form of language which in fact was considered a pale shadow of its more distant and richer past that had been in reality never there.

Lament over unstoppable changes in the use of language is universal. George Orwell wrote in 1946: “most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way”. A hundred years before him linguist August Schleicher said English showed “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink”. Jonathan Swift in 1712 wailed: “…I do hereby----complain that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruption...”

It’s not just English whose degeneration is mourned. Scholars of other languages too denounce the changes as a mark of linguistic deterioration. Jacob Grimm, a German linguist, commenting in 1819 on the language of his day compared with that of previous generations, cries: “six hundred years ago, every peasant knew—perfections and niceties of the German language of which the best language-teachers nowadays can no longer even dream”. So much so that in France the Académie française (The French Academy) ridiculously tries to police the French language and attempts to guard it against the intrusions of foreign languages which are natural outcomes of global cultural interactions. All this is done in the name of maintaining the purity of the French language as if it’s an innocent virgin. Language like history is a whore; it’s never shy of having multiple liaisons, open and secret.

All living languages undergo changes albeit imperceptibly. But in our times the pace of change has been accelerated due to the massive induction of technology in the way we write and communicate. Not that all changes are for the better or to enrich language but nonetheless they are products of technologically mediated communication and influence our use of language, the egregious example of which may be seen on the screens of our computers, tablets and smartphones.

We in this country normally use three languages; English, Urdu and our mother language. The English we use in our internet communication is mostly borrowed from the English speakers who tend to simplify spellings and live surrounded by lot of acronyms, neologisms and abbreviations which may be baffling for the uninitiated. Youngsters prefer to use Roman script while ‘expressing’ themselves in their own language which may have more than one writing script as is evident in the case of Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi.

While resisting the forced and unnecessary changes in language imposed from above, we need not panic in the face of young people’s alacrity to coin new phrases, bend the fixed grammatical rules and create a whole new way of saying and communicating things when confronted by linguistic avalanches triggered by technological innovations. Language shall not die as long as man lives. What language needs is an occasional pumicing in order to get rid of dead skin off its body that keeps it weighed down. Let the young men and women do it. Language is in no danger of being reduced to a grunt as long as we are not brain-dead. —

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