The Tyee has published my article Is English a Dying Language? Of Course. Excerpt:
The 2016 list of banished words is out, and they certainly deserve banishment. But the English language — at least the English I learned in the mid-20th century — has much graver problems.
Webster’s Third Dictionary came out in 1961 and triggered huge disputes in the print media — not to mention newfangled radio and TV. Webster’s Third was descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it said this is the way people speak and write, instead of saying this is the correct way to speak and write. It even included the expression “ain’t.”
In hindsight, that dictionary may have done more to bring on the 1960s and the “Me Decade” of the 1970s more than LSD or the Vietnam War. The principle of Webster’s was “Do your own thing,” not “Do what I tell you to do.” While it scandalized prescriptivists, it liberated everyone else.
But it didn’t quite liberate me or my generation. We’d gone to school in the 1940s and 1950s, when “correct” English was drilled into us. By Grade 8 or so, I could diagram a sentence on a blackboard like any other junior-high grunt. Breaking down a sentence into its parts was just a necessary skill for a mid-century kid, like dissecting a frog or stripping down a rifle.
But when I stumbled into teaching English in Vancouver’s early community college system in 1967, I found myself at a loss. My students were just a few years younger than I, Canada’s first baby boomers. But they seemed innocent of “correct” English as college students should understand the term.
So I spent the next 40 years or so teaching adults what I’d learned in junior high, and watching their eyes glaze over as I tried to explain pronoun case, subject-verb agreement, and the difference between “lay” and “lie.”
English under siege
I was not alone. Twentieth-century English was under siege from 1970 on. Usage experts like William Safire and Edwin Newman fought side by side on the battlements against the barbarians. I stole their stuff to use as handouts, and it seemed to work.
I also used Chaucer with my students to show how spelling and pronunciation had changed since the 14th century. Chaucer’s English became the standard, I told them, because it was the dialect of London, where the money and power were. Now the money and power were on this side of the Atlantic, and various American dialects were contending to become the standard.
“Correct” English has always been the language of the rulers. Mark Twain shocked the world by writing good fiction in the dialect of small-town Missouri in the 1840s; in effect, like John the Baptist, he was prophesying who the new rulers would be.