Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sliding down or moving sideways

This entry is in response to a reader's thoughtful comment on my previous blog entry "Declining language".

I often wonder if the English language as used in Singapore is sliding down or merely moving sideways. For example, I was taught a long long time ago that one doesn't 'eat dinner' as much as one 'takes dinner'. This applies to breakfast and lunch as well. However, the usage today is to say one 'eats dinner'. I have noticed this both in speech and print. When you consider that one does 'drink tea' (or coffee as the case may be), you understand why the phrase became 'eat' rather than 'take'.

Take another example. People cannot distinguish (or don't do so anymore) the difference between countable and uncountable nouns. As a rule, we do not append an 's' at the end of an uncountable abstract noun (is there such as thing as countable abstract nouns?), such as experience(s), effort(s), etc. But you find that done quite often in writing today. I sometimes wonder if it is not better to simplify the language and accept that a rule which has stood for so long should take a rest in the name of consistency and, yes, less rules.

Is the language sliding? Taking the long term view, linguists would say it is evolving, or moving sideways. Teachers, who are tasked with preserving a standard, would view it as a decline of the language. Each is right, depending on how much and how long society can bear with it. This is the only politically right answer.

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