Do you believe languages are “simplifying”?

Do you believe languages are “simplifying”?


2013/12: On the demise of tenses

Maarten van LeeuwenSometimes I wonder if I am the only one who notices something strange happening with languages. Tenses are disappearing. This becomes immediately obvious if you watch a program like “Locked up Abroad” or “I should not be alive” or, I guess, any other American program. (This I am not sure, as I do not watch them). In such programs people being interviewed almost invariably describe events – clearly from a sometimes distant past – in ways like: “I am sitting on a beach. It is a nice day. Suddenly two armed guys appear out of nowhere etc.”.

Even if this tendency is, as far as I can tell, the most outspoken in the USA, it is happening in other countries and other languages. In France, for instance, the “simple” past (passé simple, which is by the way far from easy to construct) has all but disappeared. I personally like to use this tense for fun. In my native Dutch language, the conjunctive has simply been cancelled by a language reform in 1949. This is a great pity, as we now have to describe wished for or uncertain events with a long phrase. I believe the form is still very currently used in the German language, but the French subjonctive equivalent seems to have fallen out of favour.

The most blatant example is the Belgian (Dutch speaking) radio news, where they stubbornly refuse to use anything other than the present tense. “A fire is burning in Kortrijk”. “The President of the USA visits our country tomorrow.” They say all this with a little rhythmic music on the background. Here, I think they do this to make it “live” and “current”. It is rather childish and funny, and I cannot take it serious. But in any event, I do not take what they tell us on the news very serious.

We can ask ourselves three questions. Why is this? Where is this leading us to? And, is this good or bad?

On the why, I believe this has to do with a global endeavour that started in the last century to make complex things easy, so that children do not have to study so hard. This is of course a fruitless exercise, as in life some things are easy, and some are difficult. For difficult things many of us will have to work very hard to master them. I guess it is difficult to become a good dentist, and I would not like to be treated by one for whom it was made “easy” to get his certificate.

Where is this leading us to? It seems obvious that in conjunction with other developments – primarily e-mail, twitter and SMS – we are heading for a simplification of the languages. If in addition to this we drop the rules (difficult, these) it could well be that larger languages such as English will – simply – fall apart. This in turn could mean it will be difficult to communicate with someone from another community, as languages will have drifted apart. If you try to read “Clockwork Orange” (I tried, but I can’t decipher it) by Anthony Burgess you will get a good picture of what future English could look like.

Finally, the question is if this is good or bad. If you’re passionate about languages and the very rich tools these contain to express a myriad of things, then probably you will regret this evolution. However, I guess for most human beings, priorities are simply elsewhere, and the whole point is moot. Because if this were not the case, this evolution would not be happening. Or would it?

Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director

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Do you believe languages are “simplifying”?

Do you believe languages are “simplifying”?