“From the very beginning — from the first moment, I may almost say — of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”
“I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding — certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of other so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.”
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (all)
Modern translations of the above:
I need to know how you feel about me (text-speak: WTF, bae?)
You’re such a s***head, I would NEVER marry you (text-speak: u suck)
I’m a s***head (text-speak: FML)
Sigh. Disconsolate sigh.
Today, I’d like to rant about words, if I may. Words, words, words, as Hamlet said to Polonius.
Man, but we lose everything in these translations from Austen’s flowing prose into truncated modern-day usage too many of us, alas, employ, don’t you think? Even more so when that illiterate doggerel we call text-speak despoils the occasion (oh, the humanity). It is, methinks, the difference between the lilting cadence of the nightingale and the harsh cawing of a raven. One is gentle on the ear, even when expressing extreme dislike and condemnation; the other is… an assault. An illiterate assault. A barbarous, illiterate assault.
Why? Why must it be this way? Why don’t we talk like Austen’s characters today? Please note, I’m not saying we should all speak in Shakespearean iambic pentameter, by the way, with a doublet full of thee’s and thou’s and enough archaic vocabulary and syntax to sink a battleship. But Austen… read those passages again, I implore you. There is a grace to it; simultaneously elegant formality and yet an easy intimacy so lacking in 21st century English. So… what’s gone wrong?
I think there are three main factors --- and regretfully, none are good:
First of all, we’re in a hurry. And we’re angry. It’s rather like Brooks Hatlen said in The Shawshank Redemption: the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. And when we’re in a constant state of hurry --- which we are nowadays, most of us --- coming up with literate conversation that actually requires some thought beforehand takes waaay too much time and effort. And, as I said, we’re angry. My Lord, what an angry society we live in. The breakdown in civil discourse over the last decade or six --- which seems to have reached new lows this last year --- has most people just about vibrating with barely suppressed rage almost all the time. And when we’re angry, intellect flies out the window, and so does polysyllabic, thoughtful conversation. Angry people say short, stupid, easy things in the heat of the moment, stupid things that later, when they’ve cooled off a little, they regret --- we hope… although grace also seems in lamentably short supply nowadays.
Second, literacy standards are dropping. I’ve been a secondary school teacher for nigh on 33 years, and I can personally attest to this. Even most of my star pupils today don’t have the literacy --- or attention span --- of my students three decades ago. By the way, please don’t blame teachers for this. They didn’t create the system and really don’t have control over curriculum or implementation. In any event, as I have said to more than one parent, schools are nothing more than microcosms of the society in which they exist. If that society does not place a premium on the value of education/literacy for its own sake --- as ours often does not, given statements from leaders and citizens alike, and more importantly, actions both groups undertake --- then children will not value literacy or strive for its mastery. I’ve heard it said by a number of people that humans have finally created a generation less literate than the preceding one, and unfortunately, I’m quite prepared to believe it. (I could say MUCH more about the educational angle --- 33 years’ worth --- but I’m already encroaching on my self-imposed word limit for blog posts, so please don’t push my buttons.)
Finally, there’s a lot of emotional poverty and emotional illiteracy out there. Words like Austen’s require people to think about what they’re actually saying, and to think about the emotions that are giving rise to these situations. People using Austen-speech actually have to listen to each other, to really pay attention to the conversation, and we’re not good at that anymore, either. Austen-speech won’t let people fly off the handle at each other, at least not in the modern sense of our smart-phone world.
Is there any hope? I hear you ask in a small voice. Yes, I think so. (Deep within my pessimistic exterior, there’s an optimist screaming to get out.) But it’s rather like climate change: enough people need to care, and more, be prepared to actually do something about it… before we reach a point of no return.
I’ll end by asking something from Pride and Prejudice… along with your (assumed) reply:
“Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?"
"For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”