A Reason For Preserving Current Language

Fæder úre, ðú ðe eart on heofonum,
Sí ðín nama gehálgod.
Tó becume ðín rice.
Gewurde ðín willa
On eorþan swá swá on heofonum.
Urne dægwhamlícan hlaf syle ús tódæg.
And forgyf ús úre gyltas,
Swá swá wé forgyfaþ úrum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd ðu ús on costnunge,
Ac álýs ús of yfele. Sóþlice.

There are several very common mistakes that people make when speaking Hebrew. To take one example, in Hebrew, as in many other languages, every subject is either feminine or masculine, and people tend to confuse between the grammatical genders when counting. I often find myself correcting them when they make those mistakes; the usual reply to such corrections is scorn, followed by the irritated statement, “well, you understood me, didn’t you? There’s no point to these strict rules”.
They are right, of course. I did understand them, and the objection they raise is a strong one: is there really a need to try and maintain the current status of language? Moreover, is there even a chance of doing so?
I will not attempt to go through an in depth discussion of the entire topic here; I think Guy Deutscher’s book, “The Unfolding of Language”, does an excellent job at that. I will summarize, though: language continually evolves, and the linguistic foundations on which we stand changes and sifts under our very legs. The elderly men of our current generation will always say “Oh Liz, look at how these no-good-fellows speak nowadays; all slander and nonsense and rubbish and Internet talk. Now, back when *I* was a boy, those were the good old days, when language had structure, and people spoke like they were supposed to!” This, despite the fact that their grandparents had said exactly the same thing about them, fifty years back.
Words are forever created and destroyed, bashed together and split apart, or borrowed from other languages. Grammar styles and phrases are improvised or taken from worldwide cultures, and in general, the so called “laws” of language, as they are set by official academies, are being broken all the time. This may look imposing, but we need not worry – intelligent as we are, we generally have no trouble at all understanding our peers, assuming the changes are small, and they always are.
This is just the natural course of languages. Is there any reason to try and stop it? I say, there is. For the little changes – dropping a word here, adding a vowel there – accumulate over the years, until, after long enough time, we end up with something very different from what we started. Take a look at the text given at the top of the page. That’s the common Lord’s Prayer in Old English, taken from 11th century records. Here it is in Modern English:

Father of ours, thou who art in heaven,
Be thy name hallowed.
Come thy kingdom,
Manifest thy will
On earth as also in heaven.
Our daily loaf do give to us today,
And forgive us of our guilts
As also we forgive our guilty
And do not lead thou us into temptation,
but release us from evil.

Spot the differences? We can barely read the text at the top, especially the non-Christian among us who do not recognize the origin, and that’s without many grammatical changes.
The fact that we cannot read an English text from one thousand years ago is a good reason to try and stop the constant changing of languages. I look at the millions of books that society has produced throughout history, and think to myself – it would be ever so sad, if one thousand years from now, our descendants would not be able to read them. In order to read Tolkien in his “native language”, they would need a dictionary. An “English – English” dictionary, mind you. Of course, this does not mean that the information stored within those books is lost. We have translated hundreds of thousands of books into hundreds of languages today, and would have no problem doing so in the future, especially with the help of computers. The difference is that the material would not be easily accessible. Much effort would have to be put into preserving what we already have, so that the general public could still read it. [As a side note, I wonder – could this actually prove to be a useful content filter? Only “high quality” books will be rewarded and translated into the languages of the future, while leaving the average bulk left behind and unknown to the future masses]
You might say that the same phenomenon occurs today, when adolescents try, without much success, to read Shakespeare, although the effect is lesser by far than that of the Lord’s Prayer. You could also counter that Israel’s population has no trouble skimming through the Bible, which was written about two thousand years ago. However, one must not forget two central things when concerning the Bible: first, that Hebrew was a half dead language for most of the time since the writing of the Bible, and therefore didn’t change nearly as much as modern, wide-spread languages do; second, that Israeli kids and teenagers indeed do have trouble understanding the Bible, and this is evident to anyone who has ever been to Bible class in non-religious schools.

I’m not saying that this reason – of preserving the current texts for future generations – is strong enough to warrant a massive, explicit resistance to the evolution of language. Against it stand other arguments, such as the wonderful things we can learn about language from its abundance. However, it is one worth contemplating on – if just for the sake of attempting to refute it. So the next time someone comments on your grammar, and you want to lash back in anger, calm yourself – there may be a reason behind grammatical perfection.


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