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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Can Books Keep Up With An Ever-Changing English Language?

In 1828 the Webster dictionary was born.  It wasn’t updated until a century later, in 1934, and then a third edition popped up in 1961, causing controversy that’s still debated today and is the focus of an interesting 2012 book, The Story of Ain’t:  America, Its language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner (Harper).

One of the many changes to the dictionary in 1961 was the surprise inclusion of “ain’t.”  The book notes:

“Newspapers lunged at the story of the dictionary’s shockingly liberal treatment of ain’t.  In Chicago, the Tribune and the Sun-Times picked up the same newswire item, announcing, “The word ‘ain’t’ ain’t a grammatical mistake anymore.”  The next day, the Toronto Globe and Mail weighed in.

“A dictionary’s embrace of the word ain’t will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool only of the snob.”  But this was something more than your typical lecture from the union of concerned citizens.

"We live in a world of problems, the newspaper explained, problems that arise from misunderstandings between individuals and even nations.  “Where language is without rules and discipline, there is little understanding, much misunderstanding.  How can we convey precise meanings to the Russians, when we cannot convey them to each other?”

Certainly, a lot changed in the quarter century between editions.  Skinner notes:

“There was the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, all of which left their historical fingerprints on the fast-expanding lexicon.  Movies, radio, and television came to the fore, contributing not only new forms of entertainment but new words to describe them.  The role of women changed, the baby boom started, the Kinsey reports were published, rock ‘n’ roll was invented.  Cars and roads multiplied.  The civil rights movement began.

"The idea of America changed.  American culture became “popular,” and serious culture was popularized.  The language of Americans went from being a source of modesty to a source of pride, and mined for literary and scholarly purposes.  More Americans became more educated and spoke and wrote like educated people speak and write.  Feelings about proper usage changed."

There’s been a long-running debate about dictionaries -- are they to reflect how language is used or to enforce rules that no longer seem to be followed?  Who dictates which changes to impose upon others?  Even the different dictionary-making companies will disagree on the words and rules to include or remove over time.

Shouldn’t a dictionary unify us and agree on a standard for all to attain?  If not, we are left with a system that, without exact rules, will fall apart and lead to misunderstandings and eventually an inability for anyone to understand another.  We will allow language to fall apart and become a puzzle of jumbled images left to wide interpretation and abuse.

“Language is the expression of ideas,” wrote Webster in 1828, "and if the people of one country cannot retain an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.”

Are we already amidst an era of disunity when it comes to proper usage of words in America?  Think about the numerous threats, challenges, and influences on our words and how we communicate with each other.  Here are some to think about:

Spanglish:  As America sees the number of Hispanics rise – now over 60 million – we see an increase in the breakdown of English.

Ebonics:  As America sees the number of African Americans rise- now over 40 million – we see an infusion of new speech patterns and phrases entering the masses by way of pop culture.

Emojis:  Non-words are taking over online communication.

Texting/Emailing:  We see a decrease in word-selection, punctuation, capitalization, proper syntax and the observance of the very rules that used to dictate our communications.

Technology: New terms come out of new inventions at a record pace.

Social Media:  New terms are born daily out of the billions of global postings.

At some point, probably within the next decade, we will see the creation of a new dictionary that radically alters the language.  Not only will it reflect current usage and mass abuse – it will seek to establish and legitimize these changes as a new standard. But such attempts to standardize a constantly evolving and shifting target will prove to be impossible.  English will likely see a change unseen in centuries, similar to how few people understand or value old, Shakespearean English today.

The English of 2028, on the 200th anniversary of Webster’s radical dictionary publication, will be one that is somewhat unrecognizable to anyone who lived before the 21st century (which is only 18 years ago!).

Authors are starting to write books that not only are written in a language and style unfamiliar to the reader of the 20th century, they are potentially writing for a shorter legacy than other writers had enjoyed.  Will someone in 2068 even understand a book from 2018?

Or, is all of this discussion blown out of proportion?  We know language, mores, politics, inventions, ideas, and science have always evolved over time and each has even undergone a revolution -- or several, but one has to wonder if our world of global sharing around the clock is also hurting our ability to understand, appreciate, and value this voluminous amount of communicating.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.


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