Languages change all the time, I used to tell my students. But I did my best to keep English from changing. The English I taught them in college for 41 years might be called Standard Mid-20th Century, or Standard-20. It was the spoken and written dialect often called the Queen’s English, with regional variants in the anglophone nations. I had learned it myself both at home and in school.
It’s a dialect, I told my students, and North America alone is full of sub-dialects. Not everyone might speak Standard-20, but they could all read it. It was, like all “standard” dialects, the language of power, the discourse of the elite.
So I taught it to my students because I wanted them to speak and write the language of the elite, so that they might get good jobs and perhaps rise into the elite themselves.
As an old teacher’s joke puts it, “I taught them that, but they didn’t learn it.” The kids in my classes were often the first in their families to enter post-secondary education. They themselves would become a new elite — or at least the managers of the elite’s businesses. They brought their own dialects with them, and most of them hadn’t been formally taught Standard-20. So they wrote the language as they heard it spoken. They might humour me by writing Standard-20 if it meant passing a quiz or getting a decent grade on a term paper. But outside the classroom, they went on making the same mistakes I warned them about.
Of course they weren’t mistakes; they were usage, and as students moved on into jobs and careers, they changed Standard-20 through their own usage into Standard-21.
I try to be a good sport about it, but in some ways this new dialect just doesn’t make sense to me, especially as used in mainstream and social media. Even the academics, scientists and journalists on my Twitter feed seem to follow strange new rules of grammar and usage.
The case of the morphing pronoun
Consider pronouns. Millions of people let us know if they’re he/him, they/them, and so on. No problem (which most people say when they mean “you’re welcome”). Pronoun case, however, is on life support. “He” is in the subjective case, and performs the action of the verb in the sentence: “He writes clearly.” “Him” is in the objective case, and receives the action of the verb: “I wrote him a letter.”
So why do even highly educated people write sentences on social media like “Me and him were the only ones wearing masks at the conference”? They wouldn’t write “Me was the only one” or “Him was the only one,” but when he and I do something as a compound subject, “Me and him” becomes acceptable usage.
The same applies to pronouns in a compound object: “He sent the email to Jack and I” sounds perfectly okay to millions, when “He sent the email to I” is obviously wrong.
Some pronouns have withered away. “Whom” is the objective case form of “who,” but “who” is crowding it out almost everywhere. “Whom did you speak to?” was standard half a century ago (and before that, it was “To whom did you speak?”). Now it’s almost universally “Who did you speak to?” When a new edition of Hemingway’s novel comes out with the title “For Who the Bell Tolls,” the bell will toll for “whom.”
Are y’all Canadians?
In another pronoun problem, Standard-21 seems to be reviving the second person plural: “Y’all” has erupted from Southern American dialects and filled in the gap left when we abandoned “ye” centuries ago. As a regionalism, “y’all” is fine, but Canada is far north of the Mason-Dixon Line. When we use it, it smacks of cultural appropriation — or takeover.
Another grammatical fortress is crumbling: subject-verb agreement, which means using singular verbs with singular subjects (“she walks”) and plural verbs with plural subjects (“they walk”).
Now, Canadian news reports routinely offer sentences like these:
“Ice and water sits in a street in Hay River, N.W.T.”
“Overcrowding, poverty and poor living conditions not only increases the spread of TB but also COVID and superbugs.”
Why add the singular “s” to plural verbs that don’t need them? Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding: the writers think that if we add an “s” to a make a plural noun, we should do the same to pluralize a verb. Or maybe it’s the writer’s decision because it sounds better with an extra sibilant.
But it works the other way too: If a student had written “The madness of Trudeau's vaccine policies foretell the end of his reign,” I’d have dinged him for not realizing that his subject was “madness” and not “policies.” Instead, a journalist got paid to write it wrong.
English is also prone to change the meanings of words without warning. In the 17th century, “fulsome” meant “abundant.” Then it changed to mean “insincere flattery.” Now it’s changing back to something like “complete,” and I shudder every time some politician or official promises a “fulsome investigation.”
Alright is alwrong
To use a completely extinct word, “fulsome” sounds ugsome. And don’t get me going about “lay” taking over the meaning of “lie,” “alot” replacing “a lot,” and “alright” crowding out “all right” — which I still consider alwrong.
But I did tell my students that English as a language always changes. An educated person in, say, 1870 would have thought the English of 1970 was a very crude dialect. (And my 1970s students thought novels written in the 1870s were really hard to read.)
I have some hope for the language I learned at my mother’s knee. With luck, it may survive at least as a literary language, increasingly remote from the English of ordinary speech and writing on social media.
Standard-21 is beginning to blend with other local languages. New Zealand may soon change its name back to Aotearoa, and New Zealand English is already rich in Maori terms.
Perhaps British Columbians, under a new name, will find themselves using Indigenous words and phrases and even adding new letters to the alphabet. Maybe the Lower Mainland would develop Anglo-Salish, while the north end of Vancouver Island would speak 'Namgis-English.
Latin, of course, broke up into regional dialects that grew into powerful languages. When medieval Europeans needed a shared language, they turned to Latin, taught to every educated person from Scotland to Sicily. A few centuries from now, when hundreds of languages are spoken across Turtle Island, perhaps our descendants will share Standard-20 (or even 21) as a common tongue.
And my 41 years of teaching subject-verb agreement and pronoun case will not have been entirely in vain.
Read more: Education