Saturday, March 19, 2005

The elegance of modern English...

I was walking down a hallway at work one day and crossed paths with two women. As they passed by, I overhead one of them say to the other, "We are so not planning that this year!" We are so not planning that? I thought. Was that equivalent to stating, "We are definitely not planning that"? Mind you, they were not a couple of 14 year old adolescents but were, supposedly, working professionals. Recently I read a mailer from a Christian organization which attempts to reach out to today's youth - the so called Emerging Generation. One of the youth mentors was interviewed in the piece and, despite the interview being only a few paragraphs long, used the word awesome at least four times. Are our 21st century minds truly that limited? I've had colleagues, in their 30's no less, tell me that they "googled" something on the internet. I thought Google was a noun, not a verb. This was, of course, after they addressed me as "dude." These same individuals will respond on an instant message with "k" instead of "OK." I suppose it's important to save that one keystroke (and the "shift" key... to avoid the extra time to enter UPPERCASE letters). Are we really in that much of a hurry? Is there any elegance left in our communication when we resort to using the language of simpletons? In Lelan Ryken's book, The Word of God in English, he refers to the elegance of a translation as applied to beauty and to cadence. While a simpler version may be more readily understandable, he argues that the more complex version is more lasting, and more easily remembered. Consider the following passage from Phillipians, in the King James Version:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. - Phillipians 4:8
Now compare it with the simpler, and more easily understood paraphrase found in The Message:
Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious - the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
While one version is certainly easier to understand, is the more complex version beyond our grasp? p.s. dude, i googled on elegance but way too many hits came up. i was all, like... i am so not going to search through that. dude, it would be so not awesome. y'know what i'm saying? k. Update: I think it's awesome that this post generated so many comments. I was just telling my wife about what an awesome opportunity we have to blog about blogging on our blogs. To see the influence such power can wield is truly an awesome experience. I'm hoping for some more exciting and awesome adventures in the road ahead. (note: I really don't have anything against the word awesome... I simply wish that some people would attempt to spice up their vocabulary with a bit more variety)


Tom said...

Rusty, Rusty, Rusty...chill, Dude.

Imagine what a bore "Huckleberry Finn" or "Catcher In The Rye" would be (and how much would be lost) if they were written in grammar book English.

More simple beauty? Try beating this with elegant, showier prose.

"A girl came into the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as crow's wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek."

Hemingway, of course, from "A Moveable Feast."

(Enjoyed our brief evolution discussion at Broken Masterpieces and wanted to check out your blog. All the best.)

Rusty said...


Thanks for stopping by.

Yes, I should have probably put this post under my Friday Rant. My concern isn't so much that we ignore dialects, drawls, or the parts of language that distinguish certain times and places, but that we don't allow ourselves to be so controlled by fashion. I'll not claim to have never used period phrases (e.g., "awesome!" or "get a grip!") but, at the same time, I wouldn't argue for their use in "serious" situations.

Notice how it's precisely because we understand proper English that we are able to appreciate something like Huckleberry Finn.

LotharBot said...

I'm a big fan of King James for poetry. But if I'm reading the text for understanding, I much prefer a modern English translation (not a paraphrase, of course.)

In general conversation, I don't mind breaking linguistic convention in order to communicate more clearly. Sometimes, calling something "awesome" or even using a swear word is the right thing to do in order to communicate.

Expect "googled", like "blog", to appear in the dictionary next year.

Bonnie said...

It seems that what's been lost is the ability to finesse language. People's vocabularies are so limited that they lack ability to write (or speak) powerfully and descriptively. A sort of "code slang shorthand" has taken over.

Personal correspondence of a few generations ago was much more elegant, as you say, than that of today. By today's standards such writing is probably considered hokey, overly effusive, or way flowery :o). Call me sentimental, but I really think we've lost something.

Showing off used to mean trying to impress others with one's nobleness of intention or character, expressed via well-mastered language. Today, it's all about being, like, way cool, dude, ya know?

Constance said...

I could not give up the word awesome any easier than the word beautiful.
Nouns becoming verbs is a favorite to indicate personal interaction as opposed to second handed information.
I can not say I am fond of shortening words even in contraction.
The words cool and dude, in my humble opinion, shoud remain a temperature indicator and a sandwich item.
I expect most of today's jargon will fade as have the words guy and gal.
Thank You for bringing up this topic. I am having trouble verbalizing what I write on my blog as writing. I say "I am blogging". Even my mother has yet to begin correcting me.

John Dekker said...

Wikkid post, man. ;)

I think it's axiomatic that there is, in principle, no noun that cannot be verbed. "Blog," of course, works as both quite easily.

Verbing does weird language, though.

Paul said...

I used to think the same way (less the religious element), but then I remembered that languages evolve; many of the things you are decrying now will be utterly transparent in the next century. In fact I'd be willing to bet that within your post there are at least two words that would have been considered barbarous neologisms at the turn of the last century.

After all, if such were not the case, and you felt so strongly about it, surely you should be speaking in the language of the King James all the time?!

Tom said...

This is a fun post. Let me respectfully push you a little bit, since I'm the agnostic.

I'll challenge your response to me that "...Notice how it's precisely because we understand proper English that we are able to appreciate something like Huckleberry Finn."

I'll take my other literary reference as an example---"Catcher In The Rye." (Okay, I could have used Huck Finn, but my daughter is studying "Catcher" right now in school.)

I think the beauty of Holden Caulfield's statements (and morality ;-) stands on its own without reference to an overarching "proper English." My favorite moment is when he's half-crazed towards the end of the book, talking to his beloved sister Phoebe, and explaining his moral mission in the world:

"...And I'm standing at the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff-I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have come out of somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd like to be. I know it's crazy...."

It's lovely. In his inelegant teenage language (note the overuse of "crazy," "I know," "and all," and "I mean") he explains his moral system. He combines this great poetry metaphor with street language. This poor, kooky teenager Holden Caulfield, himself teetering on the edge of mental breakdown, still believes it's important that he somehow protect little children (like his little sister Phoebe?) from the dangers they'll face in adolescence. From a great fall. It's Holden's sermon on the mount, er, cliff. :-)

So, no, in my opinion it's not a comparison "proper English" that makes this statement's language great to me. It doesn't make sense or have power if I translate it to proper English. It stands on its own. Both grammatically and morally.

Thanks for an interesting post.