Languages change all the time, I told my students. But I tried my best to keep the English from changing. The English I taught them in college for 41 years could be called Standard Mid-20th Century or Standard-20. It was the spoken and written dialect often referred to as Queen’s English, with regional variations in English-speaking nations. I had learned it myself at home and at school.
It’s a dialect, I told my students, and only North America is full of sub-dialects. Not everyone may speak Standard 20, but they can 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 they could get good jobs and maybe move up into the elite themselves.
As an old teacher jokes, “I taught them that, but they didn’t teach it.” The children in my classes were often the first in their families to go on to post-secondary education. They themselves would become a new elite—or at least the managers of elite enterprises. 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 could please me by writing Standard-20 if it meant passing a quiz or getting a decent grade on an essay. But outside of class, they kept making the same mistakes I warned them about.
Of course, these weren’t mistakes; they were in use, and as students progressed to jobs and careers, they changed standard-20 through their own use to standard-21.
I try to be a good player about it, but in some ways this new dialect just doesn’t make sense to me, especially as it’s used in mainstream and social media. Even the academics, scientists, and journalists on my Twitter feed seem to be following strange new grammar and usage rules.
The case of pronoun morphing
Consider the pronouns. Millions of people let us know if they are him, them, etc. No problem (what 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”. “He” is in the objective case, and receives the action of the verb: “I wrote him a letter.”
So why are even highly educated people posting phrases like “He and I were the only ones wearing masks at the conference” on social media? They wouldn’t write “I was the only one” or “He 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 fine to millions, when “He sent the email to me” is obviously wrong. .
Some pronouns have disappeared. ‘Who’ is the objective case form of ‘who’, but ‘who’ crowds it out almost everywhere. “Who did you talk to?” was the norm half a century ago (and before that it was “Who did you talk to?”). Now it’s almost universally “Who did you talk to?” When a new edition of Hemingway’s novel comes out with the title “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, the bell will ring for “for whom”.
Are you all Canadians?
In another pronoun problem, Standard-21 seems to revive the second person plural: “Y’all” arose from South American dialects and filled the void left when we dropped “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 collapsing: subject-verb agreement, which consists of using singular verbs with singular subjects (“she walks”) and plural verbs with plural subjects (“they walk”) .
Now, Canadian news reports routinely feature phrases like these:
“Ice and water is sitting on a street in Hay River, Northwest Territories »
“Overcrowding, poverty and poor living conditions not only increase the spread of tuberculosis but also of COVID and superbugs.
Why add the singular “s” to plural verbs that don’t need it? Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding: writers think that if you add an “s” to a plural noun, you should do the same thing to pluralize a verb. Or maybe it’s the writer’s decision because it sounds better with an extra sibilance.
But it also works the other way: if a student had written “Trudeau’s vaccine policy madness heralds the end of his reign,” I would have blamed him for not realizing his topic was “madness” and not “politicians”. Instead, a reporter was paid to write it wrong.
English is also prone to changing the meaning of words without warning. In the 17th century, “full” meant “abundant”. Then it changed to mean “insincere flattery”. Now it’s back to something like “full”, and I shudder every time a politician or official promises a “thorough investigation”.
It’s good it’s bad
To use a completely extinct word, “fulsome” sounds ugly. And don’t make me say that ‘secular’ takes on the meaning of ‘lie’, ‘a lot’ replacing ‘a lot’ and ‘agree’ squeezing out ‘agree’ – which I still consider wrong.
But I told my students that English as a language is always changing. A person educated in, say, 1870 would have thought that 1970 English was a very rudimentary 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 on my mother’s lap. With luck, it may survive at least as a literary language, increasingly distant from the English of ordinary speech and writing on social media.
Standard-21 is starting to blend into other local languages. New Zealand may soon change its name 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. Perhaps the Lower Mainland would develop Anglo-Salish, while the northern end of Vancouver Island would speak Namgis-English.
Latin, of course, split into regional dialects which became powerful languages. When medieval Europeans needed a common language, they turned to Latin, taught to every educated person from Scotland to Sicily. In a few centuries, when hundreds of languages are spoken on Turtle Island, perhaps our descendants will share Standard-20 (or even 21) as a common language.
And my 41 years of teaching subject-verb agreement and pronoun case will not have been entirely in vain.