On Vulgar Tongues: The Life Cycle of Latin and the Impending Fate of the English Language

Today I want to talk about the decline, mutation, and probable future of the English language. Like many things making the rounds on the Internet, the death of the two largest Classical Languages in the West, Latin and Ancient Greek, has been reduced for the Facebook masses into a lovely little e-card:


(there’s variant art showing a kid in a dunce cap).

As always, shared content on Facebook works by oversimplifying everything. In fact, I’m tempted to put this curmudgeonly line on a Facebook ecard and share it. In general, though, we are taking our news and our cultural ideas in smaller and smaller bites; if we encounter anything that takes too much chewing, we spit it out and move on to more pictures of cats. Nobody in the privileged world of Facebook news will bother to learn anything about Syria and the Assad regime until some parasitic content recycler like ZergNet or io9.com condenses decades of ideological struggle into a 500-word list of “9 terrifying things you didn’t know about Syria.” Or, as one of my friends on the Facebook said,

 Your responses are so much easier to read when they’re not novels, Luke.

In the interest of full disclosure, my response was about 1,400 words, about half the size of this more developed article. But 1,400 words is a fiftieth of a novel. It’s a five or six page paper, double spaced, and unresearched—still well within the range of what a first-year college student can churn out the night before with good results (I’ve seen it). In the interest of fairness, most people who are on Facebook want to read status updates and small conversational posts—not articles. When somebody posts a response of the size and complexity of a MacLean’s article, it’s ill-received for the same reasons that Jim Carrey’s The Cable Guy was ill-received. It’s not that it was bad, exactly: it just really wasn’t what you were expecting, and that makes it feel all sorts of wrong.

So, I’ve come here, instead, to respond to this Internet image with the leisurely complexity that the issue of linguistic decline deserves. I’m thinking in the future that this could be a good use for this blog: these little viral forwards are texts that need to be written about in complex ways, and won’t be with any permanence or impact on Facebook. And yet, where better to talk about them than the Internet?

So let’s start with the author of this snippy little quote: I have something in common with Joseph Sobran, and that’s that we’re both griping about a “dumbing down” phenomenon—him with the language itself, me with the way in which we are now condensing complex ideas and issues to meet our minds, rather than expanding our minds to confront the issues. I’ve been marking someone else’s Global Studies papers for grocery money this week, so the issues of understanding complex world problems—and the evidence that even our brightest people don’t—are at the forefront of my thoughts to begin with.

One thing I’d grouch about, for example, is that the people who like and share this little e-card don’t even know who Joseph Sobran is, or in what context they should be taking his work. For one thing, he was the man described by Ann Coulter as “the world’s greatest writer”, a claim and a source that speak volumes. For another—and this is the thing that’s really going to rot the socks of the brilliant scholars in English sharing this image online: Sobran was just about the most rampant Oxfordian you’re likely to meet. Not an “Oxonian,” mind you—he never went to Oxford. He was merely convinced—so convinced he wrote one of the least awful books about it—that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Ironically, one of the big (and snobbish) contentions by these infamous conspiracy-theorists is that Shakespare, a clueless country rube from Stratford, would not have had the gentleman’s education required to be so fluent in Latin—an argument as absurd as my counter-contention that the snooty, privately tutored Earl would not have had a strong enough background in fart jokes.

In all probability, young Bill Shakespeare learned his Latin from headmaster Thomas Jenkins, an Oxford-educated Welshman, at the King’s New School in Stratford… but that’s an argument for another day. The point here is that in “olden times” (and indeed right up into the 20th century), high school students like Bill Shakespeare would be properly educated in Latin. When you came to university, that fluency would only deepen. Nowadays, says Sobran, the punks who fill our first-year classrooms can’t even navigate “your/you’re” and “their/there/they’re,” all among the 1,000 most common words in the English language (I checked). And of course he’s right, at least in premise. The implied conclusion, however—that our young people are less literate than they used to be because we’ve debased our teaching of language—is still a long way off base, and touches on some much larger issues. Let me try to explain. I’m going to try to start with Latin, a language whose whole life story we now know, from beginning to end. By looking at the life cycle of one imperial language, we stand a much better chance at figuring out what the heck is going on in another.

As a native, spoken language, Latin had a pretty good run: it started to emerge not long after the Roman Kingdom in the 8th century B.C. (it’s sometimes suggested that Etruscan or Faliscan was the related original language of the fostered Romulus himself—oh, the things you learn storytelling for a LARP). It’s hard to specify a “hard date” for when the native, first-language speaking of Latin ended, especially as this varied all across the former Roman Empire. I think as good a date as any is 813, when the third Council of Tours decided that priests should preach their sermons in the rusticam romanam linguam, or the Vulgar Latin, that was then understood by the people; the crisis coming to a head then was that the “common people” could no longer understand Classical Latin. They still spoke Latin, of course, but it wasn’t “right” anymore; it was a vulgar language, all wrong by the rules of Latin. Eventually the Vulgar Latin spoken in the area of Tours “devolved” (or evolved, depending on how you see it) into French.

Starting to sound like a familiar situation yet?

The language called “Vulgar Latin” was completely different in, say, Constantinople, where it was still an official language but not a majority one: medieval Greek was their “common tongue” at that time. It was more different still in, say, the formerly-Roman country of Romania. In the beginning stages, of course, it wouldn’t be that hard for Vulgar Latin speakers of Paris, Constantinople, and Bucharest to communicate. But of course this got harder as time went on and languages changed the way that languages naturally do. Mario Andrew Pei’s book The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages suggests that the Moorish conquest of Spain in 711 had a lot to do with isolating some of the Romance-language lands from each other, accelerating this change. Call this Maynard’s First Law of Linguistics: anytime people can talk to each other, but don’t, their ability to talk to each other suffers, and suffers more the longer this goes on. This is true on the level of two individuals in the same house, or on the level of two nations on the same continent.

So what happened to Latin? Why were we still teaching it in 1900, if it was already wiped out by the new-fangled Romance languages in everyday use as early as the year 1000? Here’s where the interesting “middle life” of Latin takes over. At first you have the monasteries, and the Christian Church, an organization whose reach continues to cover all the places once held by Rome, and tasked with communicating. When people assembled for the Council at Tours, they came from all over the place; their native languages, too, were diverging. Horace Mann’s Lives of the Popes details that as early as 722, when the Anglo-Saxon Wynfrið, better known as Saint Boniface, met Pope Gregory II face-to-face, they were no longer capable of understanding each other’s Latin. (I imagine that for the Catholic Church, when your Pope and your Saints can no longer make sense of what each other is saying, this is kind of a big deal).

So what was their solution? The same thing that we know from our Wheelock’s textbooks today: provide a rigidly codified Latin, teach all the proper conjugations exactly the same way, and drill the crap out of it, with an eye not toward being really good at your native language for purposes of sheep-buying, but toward having a conversation about important matters with important people, when subtle and complex nuances of ideas are required—in short, a rarefied language of the educated élite, a dead language (even then) preserved for the purpose of idea-sharing between monasteries—and before long, between universities too.

In matter of practice, of course, medieval Latin wasn’t as uniform as could be hoped: it was now a “learned language” for everybody: people fluent in Latin still thought in their native tongues, which affected the character of how the language was used. But that’s a story for another day too. The point is that Latin was the tool enabling a sort of European overmind, in which the greatest thinkers all across Latin Christendom were united in their ability to advance together, not just in history, but in theology, philosophy, even the sciences. On the other side of the big Mediterranean pond, the ancestor of what is now called Modern Standard Arabic was doing the same thing for people whose Quranic Arabic had fractured into the widely variant Arabic languages of the Levantine, the Bedouin, the Uzbeks, the Egyptians, and more nomadic tribal languages than I know anything about. Perhaps the imams of medieval Islam, too, lamented the days when their stupid kids could no longer read and write the language of the Prophet (peace be upon him). We who put only a secular value on basic English grammar can only imagine the sting of a “holy language” being subjected to the same kind of decay that our own language is now suffering.

Speaking of English, where does English come in, you ask? Well let me finish the story of Latin first; we’ve covered about 2,400 of its 2,500 years. Right up until 1900 or so, Latin remains a major language of scholarship, the major language of scholarship, in the West. That starts to be supplanted for a couple of reasons: first, we have the Reformation (a big ball of wax unto itself) and the emergence of Protestant churches, most of whom have a visceral reaction against Latin as a “Popish” language of worship. Second, we have the rise of the British Empire, a world empire in the West whose like has not been seen since—you guessed it—Imperial Rome. The Victorians, of course, loved to play up the resemblance between the two empires and recycled many of the same myths (the élites, after all, were thoroughly educated in Latin and read all the great Romans; the information necessary for idolatry was right there at hand). We have the rise of nationalism, and the institutionalized teaching of the Humanities, and especially the firm foothold English gets on a whole new continent. English began its rise to the prominence it now enjoys, as the chief language of international communication—not just in the West this time, but everywhere. As English rose, of course, the purpose of Latin was supplanted and it became more vestigial to formal scholarship, which was by then the last place it really survived outside the Vatican (note: even in the Vatican, even among the cardinals, it’s a fading art).

At first the language of academics, Latin became the language of old academics—and then the language of nostalgic philologists, dedicated medievalists/antiquarians, and grumpy old curmudgeons like Joe Sobran (and, in fairness, like me) who attest that we’re not teaching young people to read as much or as well as we were taught, all those decades of rapid linguistic change ago.

Today, academic English is the Latin of the whole world. It feels sloppy and cobbled together to us—indeed, it is—but at the same time it’s an incredibly precise vehicle for expression and analysis. It’s full of whos and whoms, thences and thithers, notwithstandings and heretofores and every pronoun a growing child needs. It’s a great language for legal documents, for academic papers, but also for poems—even for graffiti. Like the Playstation 3 of languages, it only does everything; if there’s anything English doesn’t do, it rolls over another language in its path, eats it up, and spits out the new ability or vocabulary.

English reached its apex, of course, by becoming the language of the Internet.

I knew we reached too far, somewhere. Like Icarus, in our inherited vocabulary of Greco-Roman stories, the height of English’s achievement marks the moment of its fall.



In my very first year as a teaching assistant, I had the unforgettable, really difficult task of doing remedial work with a Jamaican exchange student who couldn’t write a passable essay to save her life. I’ll never forget how I agonized over how to help—what she needed wasn’t remedial English. She needed EFL training—English as a foreign language. What was the trouble with this? English was her native language—her only language. It just wasn’t my English…the white privileged centralized dialect that passes for “academic” English. It wasn’t Classical English.

How do you teach English as a Second Language to someone for whom English is a first language? From a certain perspective, that’s one of the most offensively colonialist things you can do. You can’t say, “I’m sorry—we use subjects and verbs differently here, and we avoid fragments and comma splices, and for God’s sake we use apostrophes and we use them right.”

Language is never inherently wrong. It’s too easy for us privileged grammar Nazis (the analogy was never more chilling) to use our positions of power to decide what’s “right” English, to decide that your family, your country, your culture, haven’t taught you to be literate at all. There’s an undertone of privilege, of racism, to this: no language teacher with a conscience could go this route. And yet we have an obligation to train people for academic and professional success. Judgments of “good and bad” English aside, without some kind of correction, this woman was never going to get a paper published in any discipline. Heck, she was never going to get a job with her cover letters.

How do you handle this? You can’t teach someone’s first language back to them as if it was a second language. But this is exactly what I did. And from then on, it’s how I’ve taught English to every first-year student who’s walked into my classroom: as Classical English, a whole other language from Vulgar English. Or, as we would say in Vulgar English, a whole nother.

Is “a whole nother” inherently wrong? If you believe so, dear smug English speaker, I should remind you that “an adder” and “an orange” are also wrong: it was, and should technically be, “a nadder” and “a norange”—the norange, after all, is a fruit that comes from Spain, where it’s called the naranja. There was no way to respect my Jamaican exchange student’s dialect, except to treat every student as a speaker of dialect—an informal, vulgar, deviant dialect—and that’s just what I’ve done ever since. We’ve long known that you don’t write an essay the same way you write an email to your sweetheart, or post a tweet. We chalk up the variance to difference in tone. In some cases, though, they’re completely different dialects—bordering on different languages. The words are different: in the Vulgar English of hip-hop (and it is vulgar in many senses), muthafuckin’  is an adjectival adverb roughly synonymous with very, or an adjective synonymous with…um…maybe “confounded” as a generic intensifier. It is not a word in Classical English. If it showed up in an essay, it would be inappropriate—not just because of tone, but because it’s a needless dialectical loanword.

How do we explain away the student who writes an A-grade English exam, whose first tweet after the exam reads, “L0L Just1n B13ber Sux #YOLO #swag #gotorehab”? Is this a student who has spontaneously lost the ability to speak English? No: just like a 9th-century preacher (the young humanities academic of his earlier time), this student is bilingual—capable of speaking, reading, and writing both Classical and Vulgar English with equal skill.

These many new Englishes aren’t just called “vulgar” because they’re full of swears. The word is a marker of a very specific kind of linguistic change. Likewise, and quite sadly, calling English “Classical” signifies that it’s no longer a “native” language. It signifies a slightly fossilized language, a language that, if not extinct, survives only in captivity. Working-class folks of the 21st century still write their cover letters and résumés in Classical English, even if they don’t speak it, in the same way that some 18th-century Europeans still signed marriage documents written in Latin. It’s more formal, more official. It’s the centralized language—and it’s the one people from different dialects still slip into when they need to be understood by people from other walks of life.

Today, in this globally connected world, our dialects are more culturally-based than regionally based. Live on a certain street in Boston and you’ll sound like Ben Affleck’s Southie caricature accent. Live on another street two blocks away, you’ll sound like a Newfoundlander because you share the same Gaelic roots. Live two more blocks away, and you’ll sound like Kanye West no matter what colour your skin is (though, point of fact, most of the people who live on that block are African-American, and that’s a whole different situation). If you spend a lot of time on the Web, that will affect your dialect too—even small sub-sub-niches of the Internet, such as the World of Warcraft servers, have a dialect of their own. (As far as “sub-sub-niches” go, it’s worth mentioning that at its height Azeroth was home to more than 12 million people—making the fantasy land more populous than major real-world countries such as Ireland, Switzerland, Greece, or Israel).

Sooner or later, believe it or not, these dialects will become their own languages, just like Spanish and Portuguese and Italian did. A farmer from outside Jackson, Mississippi, and a farmer from outside of Glasgow have a lot in common; but they already have an enormous communication barrier, and that barrier may only get bigger over the next 30 years. Dialects change over time and distance; if they change enough, they become whole languages.

It’s easier to see this happening for Cockney or various hip-hop dialects than, say, for LOLCat—but then again, there’s already a full translation of The Bible into LOLCat:

 1An so Happy Cat goed in teh church an a kitteh wuz there an teh kitteh haz difectiv pawz! 2An every1 wacht him to see if he wud pwn on caturday cuz kittehs r suposed to haz teh sleepz on caturday an every1 in teh church want to no if Happy Cat wud brake hiz own rulez. (Mk 3:1-2)

This is the world, I suppose, that Wycliffe and Tyndale were fighting for.

So yes, in the strictest sense, Joe Sobran is right. Latin is gone from our high schools; that’s fine, given that the rise of English has, generally speaking, supplanted it as the language of study. And even then, even in this new Latin, we are witnessing the decline of serious grammar teaching at the high school level. Seriously—who but an English geek like me (or a savvy pirate) would dare use the subjunctive mood in regular speech, except as it be fossilized in idioms? Most don’t even use “whom.” Most use “here” and “there” exclusively, having purged the awesomely sexy “hither” and “hence” with their built-in preposition, as well as the fantastically useful “yon” for an item which, like this aside, is neither here nor there.

Kids today just don’t learn how to speak English the way we used to. This much is fairly factual. But given a little philological knowledge, we can see this another way. They don’t learn how to speak Classical Imperial English until university anymore. And why should they have to? It’s a language that, in this age of tweets and crowdsourced media, is of real significant use only when you enter the field of formal writing or educated study. If you want to go to university, or be an author in any discipline at all, or even read challenging books for your own pleasure, then yes, you need Classical English.  But the majority of young people in the U.S. and Canada can now go about their day functionally illiterate in the proper language of education. They can read road signs and menus, and even the news, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, without having to encounter Classical English. They use vulgar dialects to communicate with their families and peers, and it works just as well or better. The thing they don’t tell you about classical languages is that they stagnate while vulgar languages adapt. This is why “a reader should know their English” will always be grammatically incorrect in Classical English, even while Vulgar English demands, in this century and this culture, a gender-neutral personal pronoun like the singular “they.”

When the Mississippi farmer’s kid goes to a diverse college, meets the Scottish farmer’s kid, and an aspiring rapper from South Central LA, and maybe even a brilliant exchange student from Jamaica—we’re all talking about people who come from English-speaking, or Englishate, households. But they’ll only learn to communicate by picking up the most popular loanwords from each other’s dialects, and by slipping into a Koiné English with shared dialectical features, or into Classical English, the general communicative language that will remain tinged by their dialectical backgrounds in spite of themselves.

At least, I think this is how language is working, and why kids today are “failing” to impress their curmudgeonly old grandparents with their grasp of a classical language few of them need every day. Don’t know how to use “your” and “you’re?” You can either (a)study the declensional differences of Classical English,  or (b)just use the universal word “ur” because it works for both, and rarely leads to misunderstandings:

 “I hear ur not goin 2 college. ur 2 crazy man.”

 Incidentally, the word “2” circumvents another of these problems, saves us from having 2 keep three distinct words straight, and rarely results in semantic uncertainty. We can complain if we want; but vulgar language, like lightning, always takes the path of least effort. I’d call that Maynard’s Second Law of Linguistics, if I weren’t (irregular Classical subjunctive) pretty sure it was already somebody else’s well-known law.

We can lament the slow death (outside captivity) of Classical English, and I do think we should. It’s a great and worthy language, capable not just of grammatical precision, but stark beauty, nuance, and the unprecented richness of its chimeric, insatiable pirate vocabulary. In my opinion, in spite of its distastefully colonialist origins, it’s the greatest language we have, and maybe that we have ever had. It’s a messy patchwork, but it’s surprisingly precise and surprisingly emotive. Lament though we might, however, it’s going the way that is natural for languages to go—and fast enough that we can watch it happen before our very eyes–centuries of linguistic change unfolding like a beautifully hideous time-lapse flower in our own lifetime.

You can call new forms of language a pandemic of “bad habits” if you like. You can, as blogger Ranya/Ronyae Snowden does, call young people out for their ignorance of basic grammar and language even though you feel your cries are “falling on death ears.” (She also pleads, “who’s job is it to ensure our youth learn to talk better?”) And some day, this won’t qualify as illiteracy anymore. In fact, cringe though you will, Snowden’s a freelance writer and publisher. That day is today. Rest in peace, Classical English.

Languages themselves come and go; they change sometimes with surprising swiftness. But the laws of language, the ways in which we use words and sounds, are just the same as they’ve always been. We only need to look backwards to where we’ve been to better understand (vulgar split infinitive) where we’re going.

7 thoughts on “On Vulgar Tongues: The Life Cycle of Latin and the Impending Fate of the English Language

  1. Good piece, Luke. There is a considerable body of academic literature in both adult education and post-colonial studies on the issue of teaching “classical imperial English” as opposed to other Englishes. When I was teaching, I talked to my first-year northern students (Dene English speakers) early in the course about register, and about being bi-dialectal and valuing both dialects in their contexts. The Tlicho have a saying, “Be strong like two people,” that expresses the broader notion of bi-culturalism perfectly in Tlicho English. We had the luxury of using plenty of Aboriginal and other post-colonial literature in non-standard English to reinforce the point. These concepts helped immensely when they later had to study pre-1900 texts such as Wuthering Heights :). I also threw in a short history of the English language and of the book. They weren’t going to get this material elsewhere in our program.

  2. Really, really interesting ideas! I feel like I’m looking at this whole question of the evolution of English another way after reading it. You presume that dialects will continue to drift from one another, but I wonder if that is true in an era of globally consumed media like television, where actors must speak a language that everyone can understand. Will the language of mass-produced and mass-consumed media become a linguistic middle ground between what you call Classical Imperial English and Vulgar English?

    1. That’s a really great question; thanks for asking it! There are so many factors involved in the answer that I don’t think anyone can predict.

      I’m a philologist and an English Land & Lit guy, but even the scholars who specialize in historical linguistics don’t know. On one hand, everything is speeding up: changes are coming faster than ever, so Classical English should fade faster than Latin did. On the other hand, as you point out, there is a huge interconnected world of media, which should slow down the drift of dialects.

      Ultimately, Latin’s “afterlife” as a classical, acquired language of common communication lasted for something like 1,000 years by most people’s counts. Whether we imagine things will go much faster with English, or much slower, we’re still talking something that might not happen in our lifetime. We can only see little signs of it: cultural pressures toward non-sexist language have really accelerated the growing acceptance of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun even in Classical English. It used to be completely unacceptable and “grammatically wrong,” and I imagine within our lifetime or our children’s lifetime that will change completely.

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