DAVE'S LIFE ON HOLD

Modern English 2.0

Assume a second version of the English language had been released by a team of well respected international English professors, linguists, and professional authors. This team has a track record of writing beautiful prose, coined many popular idioms, and wrought an understanding of the language upon many common speakers that inspired them to write millions of eloquent lines of everyday prose. No one would question the expertise of the team, nor their devotion to the English language. But still, over years of study, use, and debate, the team has decided that the English is fundamentally flawed. Among the linguists and the academics, it is well agreed that English orthography is a mess, and makes it difficult for new speakers to learn the language. Many professional authors also lament the ease with which certain spoken words and common phrases can be misconstrued without a sufficient understanding of 400 years of English history. And looking beyond these flaws, some deep seated historical accidents have preserved some highly irregular conjugations and declensions in the very core of the language. Some of the more future looking element on the team, also acknowledge that there exist concepts which can be more easily expressed in other languages, or could possibly not be expressed in English at all! And rather than follow the tradition of the English language to simply acquire and abuse foreign phrases ad nauseum, the team has decided a more thoroughly original approach to the problem of semiotics.

The team, after performing an exhaustive analysis of every spoken language, and several dead ones for good measure, had finally devised a more perfect English that addressed all of their concerns, and many hundreds of the concerns the developed while addressing the concerns that had a priori. To their great joy, their new language was more concise in its descriptions of itself, and Modern English 2.0 could probably even describe Modern English 1.0 more elegantly than the original could, but no one had enough time to try, as Modern English 1.0 had grown organically and was quite squirrelly at times. By every technical characteristic Modern English 2.0 is a better language, capable of supporting foreign concepts transparently, while preserving ME2.0 idioms. Having spent nearly a decade working on ME2.0, the team was rightly proud of their grand achievement, and after announcing it to the general populace, began to be dismayed at the pace of adoption. It seemed that aside from a few new books, and a handful of early adopter types, most people in the general populace had not lifted a finger to rewrite their English prose to ME2.0. The core linguistic concepts and much of the vocabulary are the same they reasoned, why it should be a simple matter to rewrite the sum total of all English texts. After all, the Library of Congress isn’t that large, and Google’s indexed it all anyways! Surely, if we the team stop supporting Modern English 1.0, everyone will make the switch. If we threaten to stop allowing Modern English 1.0 to adopt some of the useful concepts from 2.0, we will drive people to adopt ME2.0, right?

As an English speaker, I use English for more than describing languages or expressing abstract concepts to people on the Internet. In fact, I use English in my everyday life to make money, to communicate ideas to coworkers, and even interface with machines. Most documents are historical in nature, and are written in English, and as my personal knowledge of 2.0 is far weaker than the decades I’ve spent learning 1.0, I see little reason to adopt a whole new way of speaking, especially if 90% of the other English language speakers on the planet won’t have the faintest clue what I’m saying. And while there is a small chance that some ME2.0 phrase may be misconstrued by an 1.0 speaker as something profane, I’m more concerned that by learning ME2.0 my brain may simply cease up and cease functioning any time I read one of the millions of lines of English text scattered about the city. Nothing is worse than walking onto the Subway, and entering into a catatonic state by the mere presence of so much advertising. Simply put, as much as I may respect the individual involved in writing ME2.0, I as a speaker of the language and my co-workers see little to no benefit in not being able to use our imperfect but perfectly passable English. It is more important that we feel confident we are communicating with each other effectively, than introducing new risks of misunderstanding due to a lack of a shared understanding.

A brief aside:

Perl 6 and Python 3 are horrible mistakes of hubris. Like with the allegory above, the language designers attempted to wrest control of a living language from a community of speakers who had grown to love their creation. In a vain attempt to inspire greater enthusiasm for the language and a brighter future, the developers managed to marginalize their base all the while failing to understand the true value of what they had produced. A computer language is not useful to computers, it is useful to the humans who must interact with each other and the computer in concert. The millions of lines of Perl and Python code, the huge community support repositories of modules, the choice of words by each module author, these are the language. The syntax, keywords, and flow control constructs are merely details which provide people with common ground for constructing meaningful works. The myriad ways in which they are used are the meat of the language. The lesson that all would be language designers should learn from these mistakes is that a language is a living thing that evolves through repeated application. A healthy language is one with many native speakers who say meaningful things in it. An dead language is one no one speaks any more. Please don’t kill your older child because you prefer the new one. You’re just a bad parent then.