We should stop idealising the past and appreciate the present. The world is much less violent than it used to beby Steven Pinker / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
My first edict as global overlord would be to impose the following rule on pundits: No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2).
This decree would, first of all, eliminate tedious jeremiads about the decline of the language. The genre has been around for centuries, and if the doomsayers were correct we would now be grunting like Tarzan. But not only do we see vast amounts of clear and competent prose in everyday outlets like Wikipedia and Amazon reviews, but a gusher of superb writing appearing daily, as anyone who has lost a morning to sites like The Browser and Arts and Letters Daily can attest.
Language mavens commonly confuse their own peeves with a worsening of the language. A century ago editors issued fatwas against barbarous innovations such as “standpoint,” “bogus,” “to run a business,” and “to quit smoking.” Decades ago they fulminated against “six people” (as opposed to persons), “fix” (for repair), and the verbs “to contact” and “to finalise.” Today this linguistic contraband is unexceptionable, if not indispensable. Also vilified is the seepage of new technological jargon into the language (leverage, incentivise, synergy). Yet old technological jargon (proportional, placebo, false positive, trade-off) has made it easier for everyone to think about abstract concepts, and may even have contributed to the Flynn effect, the relentless increase in IQ scores during the 20th century.
And speaking of technology, today’s Luddites have a short memory. Parents who lament the iPods and mobile phones soldered onto the ears of teenagers forget that their own parents made the same complaint about them and their bedroom telephones and transistor radios. The abbreviated prose in tweets and instant messages is no more likely to corrupt the language or shorten attention spans than the telegrams, radio ads, and advertising catchphrases of yesteryear. Email can seem like a curse, but who would go back to stamps, phone booths, carbon paper, and piles of phone messages? And now that dinner companions can fact-check any assertion on an iPhone, we are coming to realise how many of our everyday beliefs are false—a valuable lesson in the fallibility of memory.
But nowhere is the confusion of a data point with a trend…