Thursday, May 28, 2020

New Zealand English falls prey to a linguistic pandemic

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on, May 27.)

I’m not sure whether this qualifies as some sort of psychological disorder, but I have become mildly obsessed with the way we use the English language. It’s reached the point where I find myself frequently jotting down newly observed quirks of linguistic usage and pronunciation.

Some of these irritate me because they’re lazy or ignorant, but just as often I’m simply curious about how they originated and fascinated by the speed with which they take hold. They are as virulent as the most rampant pandemic and as invasive as old man’s beard.

One example is the use of “surgeries” in place of “operations”. My Oxford New Zealand Dictionary, published in 2005, doesn’t define “surgery” as an operation and lists no plural form of “surgery” other than doctors’ surgeries – i.e., the premises where GPs work.

But somewhere along the line, “surgeries” has morphed into a synonym for “operations”. The takeover is now so complete that the latter word is rarely used.

How did this come about? Beats me. “She had three surgeries” conveys no more information than “she had three operations”. But someone, somewhere, decided surgeries was the preferable term, and it took off like a fire in the fern.

The pluralisation of “surgery” is consistent with the equally inexplicable fashion of putting an “s” on the end of other nouns that previously didn’t have one, such as “harm” and “behaviour”.

A British language writer perceptively noted recently that people who talk about “harms” and “behaviours” tend to be the same ones who begin statements with the word “so” – another linguistic practice with no obvious purpose.

Academics and bureaucrats are particularly prone to such usages. Linguistically they are early adopters – eager to embrace new trends, presumably to show they are ahead of the game. Language, after all, has always been a potent means of demonstrating exclusivity and superiority. That’s why so many academics take refuge in pretentious, impenetrable gibberish.

Now here’s another weird thing: “pupils” have become “students”. There has always been a sensible and commonly understood distinction between these words. Children are pupils while they’re at primary school and become students when they move on to secondary school and later to university.

But primary school pupils are now routinely referred to in the media as students, and logically it’s only a matter of time before kindergarten-aged children are similarly labelled. This may result from a misapprehension that the word “pupil” is somehow demeaning, in the same way as “actress” and “waitress” are commonly but mistakenly thought to imply inferiority.

Thus language becomes an ideological tool for putting everyone on the same level, theoretically at least. In the process, English is robbed of words that helpfully convey a precise meaning.

But if some changes in the usage of words may be explained by ideology, others can only be attributed to ignorance. Twice recently I’ve heard broadcasting journalists, one quite senior, say “exasperated” when they clearly meant “exacerbated” – a muddling of two words that sound vaguely similar but have completely unrelated meanings. 

Some journalists also confuse “formally” with “formerly” and “incredulous” with “incredible”, and mangle their tenses – for example, using rung instead of rang and shrunk when they should have said shrank. The present generation of journalists may be the most educated ever, in terms of paper qualifications, but their understanding of basic grammar is often poor.

Does it matter? I suspect some journalism tutors would say no, as long as the meaning is clear. But the rules of grammar exist for a reason. Journalism depends on precision and clarity in the way sentences are constructed and words are used. Meaning can be blurred by sloppy writing.

Speaking of grammar, another distinction in danger of being lost is the one between adjectives and adverbs. We’ve all been exhorted recently to “drive safe” and “shop local”.  Apparently that extra “ly” – safely, locally – is just too darned cumbersome.

Harmless? I suppose so. In any case, we have to accept that English is in a constant state of flux. But the puzzling question remains: how and where do these linguistic fashions start? “Bored of”, instead of “bored with”, is another. Do these usages originate in some linguistic equivalent of a Wutan wet market?

Last but not least, there’s the relentless advance of American English. Recently heard Americanisms include grocery store for supermarket, yard for garden, to-go for takeaway and the ridiculous “reached out to” for contacted.

We can expect to see more instances of the conjunction and vanishing, resulting in such phrases as “go see this movie” or “come stay with us”. American pronunciation is gaining ground too; “route” is increasingly pronounced to rhyme with “out” and the emphasis is shifting to the first syllable in “address”. This is especially noticeable among millennials.  

I have nothing against American English; it’s swell in America. But language is a key part of our culture and identity, and we should treasure it as one of the things that sets us apart.

On the other hand, perhaps we should at least be thankful that we’ve been spared some of the more exceptionally unpleasant Americanisms, such as sonofabitch, asshole and mother****er. Long may it stay that way. 


GH said...

At least they are speaking some variety of English.
If you go around some districts in Auckland you'll find entire malls with all the shops sporting signs, products and employees using a foreign language. In some cases they do not even speak English (try ordering food, unless you know what you want!).

Even the invoice (if you chose to request one) comes in a foreign language.

That worries me even more.

Doug Longmire said...

My favourite:- vunnlerbal instead of vulnerable.

homepaddock said...

My pet hate is the use of myself, the reflexive pronoun, when it ought to be the subject pronoun I or object one me. Then there’s gotten instead of got and literally when it ought to be figuratively. Ele Ludemann

Doug Longmire said...

Nar instead of "now"

M&D said...

Thanks Karl, great learnings for me.
You're right across it.

Karl du Fresne said...

Heh heh.

Andy Espersen said...

Ha, Karl - we are old. But a living language by definition is always young, fresh and vibrant

Doug Longmire said...

Cheers Andy :-)

Hilary Taylor said...

Oooohhh... nothing like a good old grizzle about language (mis)use! Joe Bennett did a column some years ago, saying 'pupils' refers to those who are compulsarily in education, as against 'students, who are there voluntarily. I imagine school pupils became students in the tide of political correctness that swept the sounds like they're then in a euphemistic 'learning partnership'. I recall watching an early TV talk show called The Phil Donohue Show..probably 70s. I noted then the use of 'disrespect' as a verb, by his Afroamerican in 'somebody disrespected me'...which then morphed into 'diss', a rather handy neologism. Unlike 'learnings', mentioned above...ugh. I predicted the demise of a distinction between 'historic' & 'historical' some years ago and you can see both used interchangeably these days, sometimes in the same piece...'historic sexual abuse' being very common.

Doug Longmire said...

That is an excellent article Karl, with your points all clearly made.
I can fondly remember my High School (Kapiti Coll) English teacher, Toby Easterbrook-Smith, back in the mid 60's, going on about this type of dereliction of proper English. At that time the main offence was the tendency of "progressive" writers to use nouns as verbs. eg. To "verbify" their writing. We took delight in digging out all the offending passages for Toby. We also dreamed up words of our own. For example, one of our parents had a Pontiac car that we all admired, so us 6th formers of course said that the car should transition its identity. We suggested that we could "Fordify" the car.
I can remember Toby very clearly. The main lesson we learned from him was - always write in clear English. Don't try and be "intellectual" just for the sake of it.

Andy Espersen said...

My hairdresser here in Stoke proudly writes on his sign outside, "Contempary Hair Dresser". He tells me it gets him customers. I have told him he is 100 years ahead of his time.

Unknown said...

Thanks Karl, great learnings for me.

That's the one that annoys me most.

Related, I was proud of my eight-year-old yesterday when she corrected herself on 'Rachel and me. Oops! Rachel and I'.

Neil Keating said...

Yes Karl, I believe it's a psychological disorder that comes with working too long in journalism. :)
I also suffer from it after, especially, five years subbing at Rural News Group.
I'll spare you the details, but I was beginning to worry about my mental health by the time I retired last December. I was becoming hyper-critical about not only the copy, but the people. And it was 'inappropriate'.
But with an eye on George Orwell's rules of English (I think from his essay 'Shooting an Elephant'), I see creepy language abuse increasing. The words grow longer and are often intended to make the writer/speaker sound more erudite.
For example: 'we have established a commitment to deliver significant solutions going forward' is how bureaucrats, politicians and spin-doctors would express 'we plan to do better in future'.
'Invest' often replaces 'spend', etc. I could go on and on.
Readers keen to see this all critiqued may want to read Harold Evans's 'Do I Make Myself Clear?'
thanks for your good work. Neil Keating, Auckland.

transpress nz said...

Language is a fluid, constantly evolving thing and often there is is not right or wrong to it, just personal preference. But it's different when it comes to bureaucrat-speak and corporate-speak in NZ where it gets deliberately distorted and misused. I edited a book published in 2004 called "The New Gobbledygook" by Peter Isaacs which was both a dictionary and guidebook on how to decipher what is really being said. Some wordings are intended as euphemisms, others are deliberately ambiguous where what is being said sounds good, but really is meaningless. The thinking behind it is often "How do we save face?" or "How do we justify the position we have when really it can't be justified?" or "How do we say know what's going to happen when really we don't?" Worth a read.

Max said...

And on pronunciation, how about 'bin' in place of 'been'? Hearing that much?

Unknown said...

Hi Karl
I always enjoy reading your posts. While I appreciate that one of the great features of English is its adaptability, it's very sad to see us losing distinctive words which are used for specific purposes and to provide subtle differences in meaning. What's happened to good sub-editors? For interest, here is something I wrote a few years ago about usage of a few words and phrases in the legal field:
Geoff Adlam, Wellington.