The more things change

The Baltimore Sun

Commenting on yesterday's post, "Letting down the side," our naturalized Wordvillean Picky had this to say about my remark that the shall/will distinction I was taught in elementary school has largely vanished from American English:

I was going to make an egregiously twittish mock-protest about the shall/will distinction, saying it was part of my idiolect, when I began to wonder if I still apply it consistently, at least the distinction appropriate to the second and third persons.  Perhaps I am starting to succumb.  And how valuable is a valuable distinction when it ceases to be distinct?  As with other auxiliaries, one can find (one is able to find) other ways of expressing modality.  I'm pretty sure I still have the distinction in the first person, though.  Can Americans no longer ask 'Shall we gather at the river?' or be sure that 'We shall not be moved' or, for heaven's sake, 'We shall overcome' without feeling twittish? Shame.

People upset about language change, particularly those who View With Alarm at this site, appear to think that I am careering* along from one innovation and excess to the next. Or, if you want a more sensational metaphor, that we're in a troika and I'm flinging the children to the pursuing barbarian wolves.

Tut-tutting about vogue expressions is misplaced energy. True, many of them are irritating, but most of them fade away. Look at the Words of the Year from the American Dialect Society. The 1992 word, Not!, in the sense of "just kidding," was tiresome from the start and, one the rare occasions that it still crops up, looks shopworn and obvious. Chad, from 2000, and plutoed, from 2006 haven't shown much staying power, and while I suppose that there are still metrosexuals (2003), one doesn't hear much about them these days.

But some things do in fact change for good (nice no longer means "slutty"), and sensible people will recognize and accept reality, as Margaret Fuller resolved to accept the universe. 

What Picky points out in his examples of shall (he left out Shall we dance?), is the obverse of ephemerality; the language is full of survivors. Things do change, but some display tenacity. We've kept the k in knife and knight, though we don't pronounce it as Chaucer did. Mud and blood still mean what they meant in the fifteenth century, and earlier.

The examples of shall that Picky supplies look likely to survive, but as stock phrases, even as will overtakes shall in common use, at least on these shores. Whom is declining in frequency, and proves hard to wield correctly even for highly literate users, but for whom the bell tolls will last as long as we remember Dr. Donne, as will to whom it may concern. Thou, thee, thy, and thine remain on life support in hymnals and those congregations that continue to use the Authorized Version, but I'm not sure that even Quakers continue to use them in common speech.

English is like one of those houses for which succeeding generations have tacked additions onto the original structure. The inhabitants are forever painting and wallpapering and trying out new furniture, but some of them have been hoarders, and the attic and basement are full of all kinds of old stuff that no one uses any longer. Withal, it's a comfortable old pile.


*I'll give it to you this one time.

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