Bad Grammar or Natural Development

Last week, I was in the train, listing to music on my MP3 player while trying to read the title of the book of the guy next to me. The volume was low enough to hear the consistent buzz of the passengers talking and not loud enough to be able to listen into the conversations. We had just left another stop when a person’s voice started off loud and clearly in a passionate monologue, piercing through my music. Slightly annoyed by this, I turned my MP3 player off and listened in on the speech.

Hun zeggen

The other people must have liked it too because most of the murmuring stopped. (Though, the guy next to me kept on reading.) The lecturer was dismayed about the misuse of Dutch spelling and grammar by youngsters. (OK it was mainly about the incorrect usage of grammar, but she also claimed that children nowadays were too easily labelled as being dyslectic.) I understand her point.

For instance, it’s becoming common in Dutch to use the possessive pronoun instead of the subject pronoun. Sentences such as hun zeggen ‘their say’ can be heard quite often instead of zij zeggen ‘they say’. A similar change is happening with comparisons. The sentence ‘she is taller than he’ should be zij is langer dan hij in Dutch. However, an increasing part of the population nowadays says zij is langer dan hem ‘she is taller than him.’ (Not to mention that many people are misusing the correct conjunctions in comparisons, too.)

Nothing New

The woman’s companion began her counteroffensive – this turned out to be a futile attempt even though her arguments were valid. Languages change all the time, so eventually grammar will also be challenged and might be changed in the long run. The fact is, it has already happened before. Besides the subject pronoun zij; the possessive hun there are the personal pronouns hun (indirect object) and hen (direct objects). Nowadays most people use hun in both cases and this has become acceptable too. A similar development will most likely happen to zij and hun.

Universal Law

The initial monologue had turned into debate and was now changing into an argument. Most people had returned to their own conversations. The guy next to me had stopped reading and looked annoyingly at the direction of the women. Since droning her voice out by listening to music wasn’t a healthy thing to do – I don’t feel like damaging my hearing voluntarily – I went on the internet and found a lovely quote by Ferdinand de Saussure that, had I presented it to the woman, would have fuelled her monologue.

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law ― Ferdinand de Saussure.

Cecile

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3 thoughts on “Bad Grammar or Natural Development

  1. Language fascinates me, as my family lives in three languages, namely Finnish, Swedish and English on an everyday basis. One thing I have certainly learned is that grammar, or rather, notions of what is correct in grammar, irrespective of language, is an interesting study in its own right, but has little in common with the reality of natural language change. I cannot comment on Dutch, as my knowledge of that language is limited to say the least, but I can point the finger at Old English. Even a cursory glance shows it to be, in effect, a foreign tongue, and must be learned as such. Imagine if the grammarians of the past had had their way. I imagine that (Old) English would not now hold its place as a universal language. Would that be such a bad thing, I wonder? World history may well have turned out differently, and New York might well be New Amsterdam.

  2. Being a teacher of English, too, I tend to study the changes happening all the time. One was, say, Present Perfect, not dead yet, but possibly getting round to it. A minute ago I just read an article on the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/for-whom-the-bell-tolls/309266/) about the word “whom.”
    Yours truly sometimes likes to call it “the Internet generation” syndrome… 😉 It’s the clicking embedded in our nervous system – we must click every 4-5 minutes… Thus our attention span gets shorter, thus grammar becomes simpler – which more often than not is clearer….
    Let’s just watch and enjoy! 🙂

  3. I’m an American English teacher in Belgium and we’re doing unit on American slang. The students and I just read an essay yesterday explaining how and why English changed once North America was settled. It’s a natural progression – new influences, exposure to diversity, the attempt for humans from distinct locations to unify and find a common ground. We may not always like the way the ‘new language’ sounds because we often favor certainty, but the way I look at it, it’s inevitable. Just like all change.

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