Saturday, December 27, 2014

Using language to mould the perfect society

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 26.)
It’s a truism that the English language is a dynamic thing, constantly re-inventing itself. But the ground is shifting so fast these days that it must be hard for language scholars to keep up.
Consider the word “pupil”. In one of those inexplicable quirks of English usage, it seems suddenly to have been purged from the language.

“Pupil” used to be a handy way of distinguishing children and teenagers of primary and secondary school age from those attending tertiary institutions. But now it seems they’re all students, no matter what their age.
Hence when a primary school is damaged by fire, television reports that the “students” are in shock. Some of these “students” are only five or six years old.

To be consistent, this presumably means that children at kindergarten are now students too.
Changes like these don’t happen spontaneously. They have to start somewhere – but where?

I blame those shadowy figures known collectively as the language police, who are active in academia and the bureaucracy.
These ideologues view language as a means of achieving their vision of an ideal world – one in which all traces of discrimination, real or imagined, are ruthlessly rooted out.

If you view “pupil” as a demeaning word implying subservience, as they presumably do, then it follows that it must be stricken from the language. Impressionable young journalists fall into line and before you know it the word has virtually vanished from the media.
But in the process, the English language has lost another word that helps us express ourselves with precision and clarity – surely the primary object of communication.

“Actress” and “waitress” suffered a similar fate. It’s now considered sexist to distinguish females in these occupations from males; they are all actors and waiters.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the grammarian’s bible, laments that the feminist movement has had a devastating effect on many “-ess” words. In a triumph of ideology over logic, feminist language reformers decided there was something inherently degrading in that “-ess” suffix.
In fact all it does is convey an important and obvious distinction. Acknowledging there is a biological difference between males and females doesn’t mean the sexes are unequal, as the language police would have us believe.
A commonly heard argument is that it doesn’t matter how the language changes, as long as the meaning remains clear. But gender-free English can be ambiguous and misleading. To give an obvious example, to write that a man fancied a waiter in a Courtenay Place bar would create uncertainty as to whether the object of his desire was male or female. For journalists especially, words should be used to avoid ambiguity rather than create it,  
Misguided ideology is responsible for another linguistic absurdity in the form of the word “client”. A client used to be someone who paid for a professional service; now it’s any person who has received a service of any sort, even when someone else is picking up the tab.

The purpose is clear: it’s to make people feel better about themselves. “Client” sounds so much more dignified and deserving than “beneficiary”. It’s probably only a matter of time before imprisoned murderers and rapists become clients of the Corrections Department.  

But ideology can’t be blamed for all the puzzling changes taking place in the usage of English.
A surgery, for example, used to be a place where doctors or dentists administered treatment. Now the word is a synonym for an operation. Hence we hear that an injured sportsman has had a surgery, or that an eye specialist has carried out hundreds of cataract surgeries. “Operation” is bound for extinction.

Then we have nouns being used as verbs and vice-versa. “Impact”, “reference”, “leverage” and “task” used to be nouns. Now we read that a new health policy impacts on sick people, an author references previous works, an entrepreneur leverages his investment and an employee is tasked with increasing sales.
With “reveal” and “disconnect”, it’s the other way around. These are verbs that have morphed into nouns. Kim Dotcom promised “the big reveal” in the Auckland Town Hall and we heard after the election that there was a “disconnect” between Labour and the voters.

Odder still, consider “infringe” and “trespass”. People used to infringe rules; now we hear that a district council has “infringed” someone, meaning it has issued an infringement notice. The usage has been neatly inverted.
Similarly with trespass. You trespass when you illegally enter someone else’s property; all perfectly clear. But police and bureaucrats now talk about troublesome people being “trespassed” from premises such as casinos and ACC offices, meaning they have been banned.

What’s going on here? We can’t blame all these changes on ideologues bent on using language to mould the perfect society. More likely it’s the irrepressible human urge to re-invent things so as to create an illusion of progress.
Either that, or the English language is under the control of bored hobgoblins who keep switching everything around for the sake of pure mischief.

1 comment:

Marc said...

At least 'student' is more acceptable than many politicians use of the term 'kids' in reference to those in the education system. Just slightly better than the execrable 'learners' though, which fortunately a certain Minister has finally realised was a term that defined her special brand of arrogance as she repeatedly tried to demonstrate her superiority.