A Language Lover’s Lament

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by Clover Carroll

Go ahead—call me a crusty curmudgeon or a fusty old schoolmarm who lives in the past. I confess—I’m a lover of old words, old books, old syntax, even old houses and vintage dancing. Rather than bury the past, I prefer to celebrate its continued influence on the present and to enjoy the time travel and imagination stimulation so-called “obsolete” words and language offer us. David Larrick, my erstwhile linguistics professor at the Curry School—a man lit up by knowledge if ever there was one—called irregular word forms and spellings “fossils” that provide clues to a word’s origins. The language we use today is full of reminders of the history not only of our literature, but of our race(s). Of course, I also know the English language is a living thing and must be allowed to continue growing and changing. I am able to accept that we now say “awesome” to mean “awe-inspiring” and “wicked” to mean “wonderful.” I accept that the March 2011 revision of the Oxford English Dictionary includes such neologisms as LOL, OMG, wassup, and heart used as a verb. But when words start disappearing, that’s when it’s time to fight back. Can’t our language grow without axing the paleologisms to make room for the new ones? Do we have to say goodbye to everything graceful and unique about our language just because it is harder to fit into a tweet or a text message? Why eliminate perfectly good words—doesn’t that impoverish our language, and thus our thought?

What I have noticed with chagrin over the past few years is the increasing tendency to replace the past participle with the simple past tense in contemporary journalism and fiction—especially in the case of irregular verbs. As a fan of old literature, it saddens me when I see this creep of “modernity” invading even the editorial policies of mainstream publications like Time Magazine and The New York Times. For example, let’s take the verb to prove. The simple past tense is proved, and the (irregular) past participle is have proven. But finding the word “proven” in print is more and more rare these days. A recent report from The New York Times states: “… numerous studies on athletes have proved that when it comes to muscular strength, mental acuity, flexibility and the most favorable body temperatures for athletic activity, the most productive time period is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.” My hackles rise! Is “proven” gone with the wind? The NYT sets the standard for English usage throughout the United States, so this represents a death knell. Although this might once have been a question of correct v. incorrect, it has now become one of style—like the debate over whether to use one or two commas in a series of three (or more). Although I am a strong advocate for two (a position eloquently defended in Lynne Truss’ 2003 book Eats, Shoots and Leaves), this battle has been irrevocably lost. In the quote above, note the absence of the comma after flexibility. Truss called herself a “stickler.”

For regular verbs, the simple past and the past participle are the same—for example, rest/rested/have rested or walk/walked/have walked. But as you know, there seem to be as many irregularities in English as regularities, and they give the language both character and musicality. Other favorite disappearing past participles of mine include shine/shone/have shone, light/lit/have lit, weave/ wove/have woven, strive/strove/have striven, show/showed/shown, bereave/bereaved/have been bereft, slayed/slew/have slain, and forget/forgot/have forgotten. In some cases, the simple past itself is being replaced with the regularized version (e.g. using lighted instead of lit). Doesn’t “the chapel was dimly lit” sound much more graceful than “the chapel was dimly lighted”? The origin of the irregular –en endings is our strong roots in Anglo-Saxon, brought to Britain when the Germanic tribes invaded in the 5th century and drove the native Celts to the north and west edges of the island (where some still speak Welsh and Gaelic). The past participle for the German word to give, for example, is gegeben; for to write, geschrieben. Every time you use a word like forgotten (vergessen), think of them!

Here are more Then & Now examples. Which do you prefer?

“His decease would leave [her] utterly bereft and without hope”

–Dickens, Great Expectations, 1860.

“His decease would leave [her] utterly bereaved and without hope.”

–2011 version

(It is only we language lovers who are without hope.)

It was just after dawn…when a pair of pilgrims lit incense on the shore and dropped two coconuts into the sacred waters, otherwise known as Jamaica Bay.

“It was just after dawn … when a pair of pilgrims lighted incense on the shore and dropped two coconuts into the sacred waters, otherwise known as Jamaica Bay.”

–New York Times, April 2011

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”

–Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, before D-Day, 1944

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have strived these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.

–2011 version

In case you have forgotten, people are animals too.

“In case you forgot, people are animals too.“

Time Magazine, April 2011

“The bare vaulting of trees along the Mall was ceiled with lapis lazuli, and arched above snow that shone like splintered crystals.”

–Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1921

The bare vaulting of trees along the Mall was ceiled with lapis lazuli, and arched above snow that shined like splintered crystals.

–2011 version

She wove in and out of the crowd as she raced ahead of me.

I weaved through the throng as I followed, trying to keep her in sight.

NFL owners aren’t taking the players’ request for financial transparency seriously. But by decertifying the union, the players have shown they mean business.

“NFL owners aren’t taking the players’ request for financial transparency seriously. But by decertifying the union, the players have showed they mean business.”

Time Magazine, March 2011

I hope I’ve proven my point that we would be bereft if these verb forms that have shone through the years and lit up the English language were to be forgotten. These publications probably justify their attempts to regularize language as making them easier to read, but as for me, I treasure idiosyncracy and mistrust standardization. Give me the more unusual word every time! Let us preserve the beauty and integrity of our language by continuing to use lovely old words that keep Shakespeare, Dickens, Wharton, and so many others close to our hearts and minds. And if you miss such words as modernicide and primifluous, check out Save the Words at www.savethewords.org.