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... Of Pearls & Palaces
Idiomatic Immunity!
Mar 30, 2006 12:54 PM 2357 Views
(Updated Mar 30, 2006 01:05 PM)



I am no ‘Worrywart or Gloomy Gus’, but let’s face it, English is degenerating! The language the world speaks is slowly dying at the hands of neglectful users who no longer identify with the language, or its ethos.

It’s a matter of great concern that the genesis of this lingual decadence can be traced to the birthplace of the language - England. This is the country that took great pride in the fact that it had given birth to, arguably, the most popular language spoken in the world since the dawn of civilisation.

Sadly, England is also the place where English, as we know it, is dying a slow, suffocating death at the hands of Neo-Brits who have adopted a bohemian approach towards the English language. They nurture an ominous disregard for the language, which their Anglo-Saxon ancestors took immense pride in perfecting it.

Jonathan Swift and Dr. Johnson, the English purists, had decried the degeneration of English and battled hard to purify it in their times. These gentlemen would have been shocked to learn, had they been alive today, that an alien language in the garb of English is increasingly taking control of the senses of the country’s youth. So, what if these purists are dead and buried? There’s no respite for them; gaffes galore make them turn in their grave.

The use of words and phrases that connote a negative or totally opposite meaning to describe something that is good or positive is increasingly becoming fashionable among the youth today. The watchdogs in England admit that what was being regarded as a light-hearted swipe at John Bull’s English has now snowballed into an ignominious imbroglio. Uncharitable words from me, but that’s how I believe the scenario is. The earnestness shown by the youth to discard the traditional English and adopt an increasingly contemptuous attitude towards the language may stem from their desire to be nifty and look cool among their group, or fraternity.

Just as a ruthless murderer receives greater respect among his shady accomplices and prison mates, so also, the callous murderers of the English language get the same kind of appreciation and recognition from the circle they belong. The more crazy their language is, the more ‘kewl’ and acceptable they are. What starts out as harmless fun, soon becomes a habit, a way of life that is difficult to change.

It is heart warming to note that the English language is still spoken and written in true English spirit, by the majority of Indians, though the accents may differ due to ethnic backgrounds. I am convinced that it is India that may well become the unlikely custodian of Queen’s English.

England’s worry should be regarding not how many jobs it is losing out to India through ‘Business Process Outsourcing, but how much its, hitherto undisputed, position as ‘Custodians of the English language’ is being undermined. Certainly, hard times for the ‘prim and propah’ English gentry who take great pride in their ‘Queen’s English’. India’s strength is its burgeoning, technically correct English speaking workforce. Today, more people in India are learning English as a primary language than ever before.

”The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” -- George Orwell.

My niece and nephew, who were born and brought up in England, visit every year. They speak absolutely adorable Urdu/Hindi which I have no difficulty in understanding. But, I find it increasingly difficult to converse with them in English, and it’s not because of their drawl. It’s their choice of words and parsing that makes me look like an utter idiot.

There are new meanings to words I never imagined could ever exist. “Maybe, I’ve got to start learning English all over again”, I thought. And so, I bought this book - The Right Word at the Right Time, A Guide to the English Language and How to Use it, by Reader’s Digest.

Sorry, for the long intro, but I had to flush it out of my system.

TRWTRT, like the ‘REVERSE DICTIONARY’ on which I had already posted a review, is a significant tool in the hands of purists or connoisseurs assisting them in their pursuit towards a more acceptable and gratifying form of the English language. Where the RD helps in finding the right word if you have a thought or an idea, TRWTRT helps if you already have a few words on your mind but are not sure which is the appropriate word that expresses your thoughts the best.

Agreed it’s a free world, and freedom means every one has the right to speak or write the way he or she wishes to. But, let’s not forget that freedom stems from self-discipline and abiding by the rules. If the self-governing system is compromised it can result in chaos, and it almost always does. The situation gets worse when it relates to a language.

Respecting words is just as important as respecting your ideals or principles. If you respect words chances are that you will use the right word at the right time. It also means that you respect the reader. If you don't respect both you may be tempted to use clichés and vogue words such as ‘meaningful dialogue’ instead of ‘serious discussion’. There are words that actually impede communication without aiding the thought flow. Such words are superfluous do we really need them?

“If you have this book, you care about English. Not everyone does: standards are distressingly low in many schools, in much of broadcasting and the press, and in much of public life – so much so that many educationalists are even urging a return to traditional grammar lessons in the school curriculum.”

“ The Dictionary is a great book, it hasn’t got much plot, but the author’s vocabulary is wonderful.” TRWTRT is much the same in this respect, hence there’s not much I can dwell on it. The book deals with usage problems and controversies. It deliberates on words and phrases that can be easily confused. Almost all the words in the English language that can be misunderstood or misused are covered in this book with exhaustive explanations and footnotes. This is the finest reference book of the English language that I have come across.

I conclude by presenting an excerpt from the book itself, which echoes my own thoughts on the subject:

“English today is closer to being a world language than any other language has been in history. It is the international language of science, of pilots and sea-captains, and frequently of diplomatic, sporting, and trade contracts. It is used, and even cherished, by untold millions whose mother tongue is quite different. This should be at once a source of pride to those whose mother tongue is English, and an inducement – perhaps even an obligation – to use the language well.”


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Right Word at the Right Time, The - Reader's Digest