The dumbing down of English

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 17 June 2022, 02:13 PM
Updated : 17 June 2022, 02:13 PM

Things of a terrible nature have of late been happening to English and not just in it. These days, on almost every electronic media in the West, experts roped in to enlighten the audience with their wisdom invariably begin their responses with the word 'So'.

An instance: "How do you foresee the situation shaping up now that the Ukraine crisis seems to be taking a turn for the worse?"

And the answer: "So, the sanctions are working, hurting Putin . . ."

It is not just that using the word 'so' at the beginning of a verbal response to a query is an aberration on the part of a handful of people. A whole bunch of people are using it, without feeling embarrassed about it. Using 'so' is almost fashionable these days. But it does not make sense, even if you are informed that language is a dynamic thing and keeps pace with the times.

Could we then safely describe the situation as a dumbing down of the English language? For those of us who happily and adamantly remain sticklers for a proper, fully grammatical use of language — and not just English — this climbdown in the lexicon is bad, almost a profanity.

One could of course safely argue that with technology having come in the way of the old-fashioned study and pursuit of language, it is only natural that ailments will seep into the body of English. Imagine a time when people used to read journals and books on a very large, comfortable scale. Imagine the moment when Professor Henry Higgins undertakes the task of educating Eliza Doolittle, in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in a proper use of English.

That moment has passed with the wind. When your friend runs into you or you run into him after a good number of years, he bursts out in sheer excitement: "Long time no see." That is English? Ah, someone just might whisper in your ear, "It's pidgin English." You are rendered speechless.

Well, let's carry on. Almost everyone we know seems to have grown inordinately fond of 'wow'. Anything that takes their fancy elicits, perhaps owing to a poor grasp of vocabulary in them, this word which has come to be an irritant, a cliché. In Bengali, Hindi and Urdu drama, despite the fact that no artiste there is English or American, a ubiquity of 'wow' in the dialogue hits you where it hurts — your eardrums. Your friends and acquaintances — and they are not among those 'wow' artistes — have nevertheless excitedly decided that 'wow' is a sign of modernity, a mark of cultural sophistication.

Well, it is none of that, much as employing 'like' in a sentence — 'I went, like, crazy about that cake. It was, like, too tempting, like, to be left untouched' — is no educated use of English. All grammatical rules collapse in a heap around you. What are the roots of this molestation of the English language across the world?

Ah, we have a suspect — that ubiquitous cell phone in the hand, where text messages get written in all their raw nakedness, meaning that grammar is given short shrift. English has its pants down, or has had them pulled down.

On CNN and BBC, newscasters will invite you to watch a clip on some incident or the other by telling you, ever so brazenly, 'Take a listen.' Since when has 'listen' taken the form of a noun? And there is too that similar refrain, 'Have a listen.' Is all this downgrading of English acceptable in grammar class these days?

Or could we put it about that it is all a downsizing of language, pandering to people who are interested in little more than a 'soundbite'? And there we have it. What should have been a quote or quotation is now a soundbite. How does sound have a bite? Since when have words developed piranha-like teeth?

But let that be, for there are all those other irritations which our martinets of English grammar have been contending with for the past many years. People, indeed quite a good number of them, sometimes tend to go for an improvement over 'wow' through replacing it with 'amazing'.

Everything is 'amazing' — a song, a dress, a painting. The paucity of vocabulary hits you hard, makes a mockery of your romance with good, sensible English.

The wound does not heal, for you will come across men and women who, in post-modern, impoverished grammar, give vent to 'anyways' in their conversations. 'Anyways'? Where has 'anyway' gone fugitive? Yes, that is one more example of the dumbing down English has been going through.

Caught in steamy weather or in a tough situation, your young relative will inform you he needs to 'chill' or 'chill out'. That kind of language certainly has a chilling effect on you, on all ageing grammarians.

To be sure, you might be castigated as old-fashioned, or even a troglodyte, for holding on to your sanity-driven views of English. But that is absolutely no reason for you to forget that your teachers in school taught you that the use of 'the reason' in a sentence is not to be followed by 'is because.'

But look around and you will discover, with not a little righteous indignation, that people today are getting English mangled through sentences that might begin thus, 'The reason he was absent yesterday is because . . .'

Didn't their teachers drill a proper sense of grammar into them? How is it that very few people happen to know that there is nothing called a 'cousin brother' or 'cousin sister'. You either have a cousin or you have a brother or sister.

And before you walk away from all this testy conversation, ask yourself how many people you know have fallen in love with the word 'awesome'. It's just awful the way such people think that everything before them is awesome.

The weather is awesome, the food at a party is awesome, the voice of one who has established a reputation as a good vocalist is awesome.

It is all different from the vocabulary, the meanings and nuances underpinning it, many of us mastered in high school.

But wait! In this era of swiftly sliding English, a whole phalanx of men and women have succumbed to the temptation of replacing 'different from' with 'different to'.

And should we then wait for the wordsmith who might tell us that it is perfectly safe to say 'similar from' rather than 'similar to'?

No one has a father or a mother these days. Everyone — and that includes non-English speakers of English — has a mom and a dad.

We have something called Twitter. But observe the verb of it, 'tweet'. Are those sparrows on the tree beyond my window 'tweeting' or 'twittering'?

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher