This article is a reprint from World Magazine and published in THSC REVIEW May 2014.
Not long ago I overheard a group of young people talking. They spoke a type of dialect-English that is often used by members of their generation.
“She was, like, ‘You’ve got to try this.’ And I was, like, ‘Are you serious?’ And she was, like, ‘You totally won’t believe it.’ And I was, like, ‘I’ve got to get one!’”
It really bothered me to hear good, educated middle class kids talking this way, and maybe that was one of their reasons for doing it. I was the old guy in the group, and maybe they switched over to dialect as a way of asserting their . . . whatever it is that a generation feels it needs to assert: uniqueness, independence, coolness.
America is a land where youth never tire of outraging their elders, and it has been going on for a long time. My sweet sister used Elvis Presley records as an incendiary device on our Bach-loving father, and it worked every time. The louder she cranked up “Jailhouse Rock,” the bigger the explosion.
There was more to my response to the kids than generational sword play. In my depths, I felt that these delightful, intelligent young people were inflicting damage on the language of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible—and they weren’t even aware of it. They were just high school kids, trying to figure out how to hitch a ride on the bullet train of popular culture, trying to fit in and be “normal.”
At their age I too yearned to be normal. Yet, for educated people, being normal must include an instinct to honor and protect the English language. Living languages evolve, but we should be very cautious about the changes we legitimize through constant use. English is our conduit to the founding documents of English-speaking civilization—the body of law, literature, and Scripture that shapes our understanding of what it means to be a God-made, civilized human being. The more we change the language of the present, the more difficult it is for us to retrieve a clear message from the past.
We should also bear in mind the observation of George Orwell as he watched the growing horror of the Nazi conquest of Europe: Political evil begins with the corruption of language. Obscure language provides cover for a scoundrel. Honest language gives us some protection. Honest language can be diagrammed. “Jesus wept” is a perfect sentence that any five-year-old can diagram and understand. We know who did the action and exactly what he did. That is not the case with, “She was, like, ‘You’ve got to try this.’” It is not clear at all what “she” did, and the sentence will confound anyone who tries to diagram it.
Our best defense against tyranny and the loss of cultural memory is a language that maintains honesty, simplicity, and clarity. The corruption of language does not begin with an act of Congress but instead with careless use and quiet neglect by people who should know better.