The evolution of words

Amy McNeel

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with that there is.” -Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”

In school we read the classics: books that have stood the test of time and hold words of both eloquence and grace. We read and study these books because they represent the pinnacle of language.

As I have developed and grown to love what is now considered to be the classics, I realize that the writing of then is not the same as the writing of now. Our writing is not as detailed, it is not as complex and it is all-around simpler and plainer. This new simplicity can be considered a good thing or a bad thing, but I personally consider it to be the latter. As a writing major and lover of 18th-century literature, I feel disappointed with the state of our language.

We have gotten to the point that Old English and Early Modern English are almost illegible. Our misunderstanding has led us to the development of cheat sheets and “No Fear Shakespeare” books because what was once regular, everyday English is now too difficult to read, let alone comprehend.

In all four of my English classes in high school, I spent hours upon hours paraphrasing writings of Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte and even more modern works such as those of Hemingway. The paraphrased paragraphs were an attempt to translate the words of old into the words of present day. They were simplified and easier to understand, but overall, they were much less tasteful and vivid.

I started this article with a quote from “The Old Man and the Sea,” which was published in 1952 by Ernest Hemingway. The quote, “Now is no time to think of what you do have. Think of what you can do with that there is,” is brilliantly written. However, Hemingway’s choice of words and order are now quite confusing. Today, in our modern language, his words would be simplified into a shorter, simpler sentence. “Be thankful for what you have” would likely be the translation.

But why has this shift in our language occurred? According to John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, in “The 5-Minute Linguist,” language, like most aspects of our world, is constantly evolving. However, while most things, such as technology, have advanced and progressed throughout the decades, it seems that the evolution of language has had the opposite effect. It appears that there has been an overall “dumbing down” of words.

There are many contributions to this evolution and dumbing down of our language, and it is evident that language shifts with the state of society. Today, there is a new speed. We are constantly moving, racing to get things done and trying to convey messages as fast as possible. With advanced technologies, we have developed a new kind of talking that consists of abbreviations and attempts to make communication more convenient.

Overall, language is constantly evolving, and by no means am I saying that we should attempt to stop that evolution—that would be foolish and unobtainable. I do appreciate the convenience of our modern language and how it represents our present society. I find comfort in short sentences and the ability to quickly and efficiently get a message across.

However, I also appreciate the genuine beauty and passion of our past language. I am excited to see how our language continues to change, and I hope it changes in a way that is valuable to our society, for writers and non-writers alike. It seems to me that there needs to be a balance: We need to learn to write with the efficiency of today and the passion of decades gone by.