Our Debt to Our Ancestors
Without language and writing it would be much harder for us to communicate. Imagine not being able to talk to others and tell them what you need or what you think or even what you feel towards them. How fortunate we are to have been born at a time after spoken and written languages developed. We owe much to those who came before us and gave us the gift of being able to speak to each other. Most babies born today have someone to start teaching them to talk from the day they enter the world, and they keep learning as long as they live.
Fortunately, our ancestors also recognized the need to communicate in writing and created the symbols and alphabets we use to express our written thoughts. Whereas in the past information and stories had to be passed on orally from generation to generation with, perhaps, omissions and additions or embellishments, now we can write something that can be preserved just as we wrote it.
Though translated works may lose something in translation, today we can still read the words of Plato, St. Paul, Moses, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and other historical figures. We have access to all the world’s great literature. The foundation for all of it is language.
Languages Have Changed
Over the years, languages have changed and new words have been added to our languages. As the world becomes smaller and people communicate often outside their cultures, languages are borrowing words freely from each other. The form and meanings of words change over time, and new words are invented as the need for them arises and new inventions are discovered.
The technology that spreads our words to each other faster has also contributed new words to our language. Now we Google something to find out about it and use text as a verb.
The English language has changed so much that many of today’s young people can no longer understand the King James Bible their grandparents were raised on. Though we speak English, most of us cannot appreciate Beowulf or the Canterbury Tales unless we read a more modern translation. Some teachers don’t even want to teach Shakespeare anymore because they feel the language and themes are no longer relevant to ethnically diverse modern students. Many people who do study Shakespeare today use books with side-by-side original language and modern language on facing pages, so that they get the beauty of the original language without losing the meaning. One of the most popular of these series is Shakespeare Made Easy. Another is Simply Shakespeare.
How We Use Language is Important
Even though our language has changed through the ages, we are still judged by how we use it. The movie My Fair Lady, based on the play, Pygmalion, demonstrates this vividly. No one in the upper classes would have noticed Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl, as long as she spoke like a flower girl. After Professor Higgins spent six month teaching her to speak standard English, she was mistaken for a princess.
Your use of oral language reveals your education level, your attitudes, and maybe even your culture. Some people use standard English in situations where it is expected, and switch to local jargon or slang in situations where that seems more appropriate. You can only make those adjustments when you know how to speak standard English. Speaking non-standard English can limit social and job opportunities.
Today one can buy courses and even find free materials online that will help you learn to speak standard English if you have not mastered it. It would be to your advantage to improve your English skills to expand the opportunities open to you if you never paid attention in English class or grew up speaking a language other than English.
Your written English also helps people form an opinion of you. Poor grammar and usage in written language can limit job opportunities, especially when more jobs than ever require writing reports or sending email. Spell checkers can help when you write on a computer, but they don’t catch mistakes when you use the word here instead of its homophone, hear. (A homophone is a word that sounds like another word but is spelled differently.)
I used to teach English, but even I keep a reference book on grammar and usage on my desk for those senior moments when I can’t remember what I used to know. Even a simple punctuation error can change the entire meaning of a sentence, as you can see below.
Under this tab you will find books about using language in speaking and writing. These books are for reading pleasure, reference, or inspiration for writers. I will review workbooks designed as part of a school curriculum, instead of just for reference, under the education tab.