When i posted my first blog, i wasn't expecting to get much response. At least, i wasn't anticipating an interesting, but short, conversation to break out in the comments. They bring up some good questions, as well as some talking points.
Matthew asked how i think language has weakened. This blog is a response to that question.
I feel that the danger we are facing with the breakdown of language isn't so much grammatical. Sure, there is danger in that, simply because the entire purpose of grammar is to enable clear communication. If our grammar if faulty or broken, we cannot effectively communicate with one another. A sentence that is read easily with a properly placed comma becomes a puzzle without one, and who's to say the reader will answer the puzzle correctly.
But what i was really talking about is the loss of imagination in language. One of my teachers at Sac State talked about two different kinds of writers. He said the majority of writers were used by language; that is to say, when they wrote, what they wanted to say was limited by their language because they could not effectively wield it. Then there were writers like Joyce who used language. They were the ones who were able to reimagine language, to not just breathe life into it in a way that allowed them to say exactly what they wanted, but they breathed life into it for the rest of us.
See, language, like the rest of us, changes with time. In one of my favorite books, Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle says, 'Language is a living thing; it does not stay the same; it is hard for me to read the language of Piers Plowman, for instance, so radical have the changes been. But language is its own creature. It evolves on its own. It follows the language of its great artists, such as Chaucer.'
Someone could argue that we have artists today who are reimagining language, breathing life into it yet again. They could toss out names like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, or Thomas Pynchon. They could easily be right. But at the rate we are assaulted with unimaginative language--in everything from television sitcoms to billboard advertisements to text messages--we need all the help we can get. We need more Shakespeares.
By some counts, Shakespeare introduced over 1700 words into the English language. If the Oxford English Dictionary is any reckon, that number can be increased to over 2000. (That's the number of entries that have his work listed as the oldest source.) Language should change with the people, but that change should be driven by good art.
Like all things, left to itself, language falls apart. It ages with time and entropy pulls it apart. Old and rusty clichés become normal, littering the floor of our collective consciousness so that those ideas that once seemed new and novel and helped us see the world in a bright and wonderful way have lost all meaning. We still say 'foot of the hill' but we no longer see the hill as a giant with feet and a head (crown); we see a hill with a base we call a foot.
Since it takes the artists to push language to new territory, to new imagination, everyone else is off the hook, right? Not quite. If Joyce had never been read, and talked about, and grappled with, if Shakespeare had been put on a shelf and forgotten, or never again performed after his death, language would still be floundering. It is up to everyone who speaks the language to continue to grapple with it. The artist is the source, but everybody is the conduit. We, each and every one of us, are part of the solution, part of the reimagination, part of the growth of language.