Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Altogether, already...“alright” is not all right

This was originally posted in 2010. I am re-presenting it with some editing.

Things I know for certain about my mother tongue, the English language:

It's crazy. Rules are there, but constantly broken.

It's abused and misused constantly.

Milena, a lady from Serbia, told me she had lived in Germany for three years, then moved on to America. I thought her English was excellent, but she was exasperated with the language. She told me, “In Germany they have one word for a thing; in English you can have twenty words mean the same thing.”

Yes, that's true. That's because English is the ultimate thief. We have stolen words from other languages and done it shamelessly. We have screwy spelling and we did it deliberately to confuse people trying to learn English. We like how esoteric our language is and we want to keep it to ourselves. Or if not, it seems that way.

In English we have words that over the years have taken on different meanings. My favorite example is “weird,” which used to mean something supernatural, and now means anything unusual or offbeat. I think the whole handling of “weird” is weird (in the modern sense). A good word with a specific meaning has had all meaning taken from it, reducing its impact. The list of words whose meanings have changed is long. “Decimate” is another example. I see that word in the newspaper all the time: “The Taliban decimated a village,” in modern usage meaning they destroyed it completely. The original meaning of the word came from the Romans, who, when faced with a village they thought unruly, would take all the men and kill one in ten. That was decimating a village. At one point I thought of founding the Anti-Decimation League, sending letters to any publication that used it outside of its original sense. Then I read a dictionary which gave the original “one-in-ten” meaning as a secondary definition of the word. I felt betrayed by the very people I used to support my other arguments.

Before English spelling was standardized it was a free-for-all between writers, and many words were spelled phonetically, even by otherwise smart men. A religious leader, in a tract regarding Egyptian hieroglyphics, used the word "caractors" for "characters". That makes sense to me to have words spelled like they sound, except we can't do that, because, 1. It would put all the dictionaries out of business, and 2. we'd have to interpret each document, each novel or newspaper article trying to figure out what the writer is saying.

Nowadays people don't necessarily go to a dictionary to check on a spelling. They leave it up to the devil, Spellchecker. Spellchecker is the devil because it leads people astray. It does not know if you write a sentence, “The man ran threw the building,” that “threw” is a homonym for “through,” with an entirely different meaning. Spellchecker didn't know, for instance, the difference between “sewn” and “sown” when my local newspaper posted a headline, “Seeds of revolution are sewn.” No, buttons are sewn, seeds are sown.

And those are words it recognizes, at least. If you have a word it doesn't carry in its database it may give you a suggestion, but unless you check the definition the suggestion could be completely off. A friend writing an e-mail to me told me he had a diagnosis of tendentious. Tendentious means having a definite tendency or goal. My friend meant tendinitis, a medical condition, which Spellchecker didn't know. It threw (not through) out a word that sounded close. My friend trustingly hit the button, substituting the word.

There are fads in language, and writing about all of them would take another post, but words pop into usage, especially hyperbole. For the last few years even the most garden variety of things have been “awesome.” “My trip to Walmart was awesome.” It describes people, too. “Man, you are so awesome!” A radio talk show host said once when a caller gushed all over him using that word, “No, Mt. Rushmore is awesome. Me, I'm just okay.” (“Okay” is probably the most widely used English word on the planet, picked up for usage in every language and meaning the same thing as it does to us.)

Another fad is to use multi-syllable words when one syllable will do. I hear “absolutely” used for “yes.” Other words I've heard used for yes are “definitely,” and “affirmative.” Why use more syllables than you need? Go to another country and if you say “yes” or “no” in English people will know what you mean. Say "absolutely" and you’ll get a blank look. It works for English speakers like me, too.

Finally, some words look right to people and may one day be correct, but now they're not. “Alright” is not a word. It looks like a word. As my American Heritage Dictionary says, “It is still not acceptable to write all right as a single word, alright, despite the parallel to words like already and altogether and despite the fact that in casual speech the expression is often pronounced as if it were one word.” I'm thinking of it because a book I'm reading uses that incorrect usage and it bothers me. Even a headline popped out at me in my local newspaper: “The Backstreet Boys are back, alright!”

“Alright” ain’t a word. “Ain’t” also ain’t a word and it ain’t alright to use it.

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