December 22, 2004

A threat to the English language

Advice about English usage -- don't use X; use Y instead -- is often couched in terms of the threat to the language presented by X. The threatening Xs are usually innovative, non-standard, or informal in style, so slang (which is informal, and might also be innovative or non-standard or both) is especially likely to be seen as the ruination of English.

We're used to hearing such cries of panic from people who make some kind of living out of giving advice about English usage. But, probably as a result of the advice-givers' alarms, ordinary people express concern too.

Now it turns out that this concern has spread around the world, as far as Vietnam, or so it would appear from the January 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, in which a column ("Good Question, Vietnam", p. 26) offers selected "questions submitted by Vietnamese people to the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation for its 'FAQ About America' project." Remarkably, the threat of slang finds its way into the list.

The questions cover some basic information ("How many people in the U.S.A. like to drink Coke?" and "What is Hollywood?"), cultural matters ("When did your culture form?" and "Why do many Americans like to be single nowadays?"), and many political issues ("Why are American presidents so bellicose?" -- by the way, I assume the questions are translated from Vietnamese into English -- and ""What do Americans think about Communists?"). And, in question 14 of the 20 listed, a touching concern for our language:

Do you think using an excessive amount of slang will gradually destroy the beauty of the English language?

Note the suggestion that English speakers use an excessive amount of slang. Where might some Vietnamese have picked up that idea?

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 22, 2004 02:40 AM