Language is Almost Dead & the Blood's on All of Our Hands

"Every thing is quiet here in the Camp. Dear I could not even buy me a sheet of paper in Winchester to write to you. There is none to be bought. The boys are writing on paper that they have captured on the battle field. When ever you write to me you must send me a blank sheet of paper in your letter. The boys say that we shall soon have our pay and if so, I will send you some. Dear I would like to see you, and feel lonesome for you. Give my best respects to mother--and to all the enquiring friends. So nothing more at present but to remain your affectionate husband untill death."

Close your eyes. Imagine Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt reading the above. Sounds like something out of a Hollywood script, right?

It's actually an excerpt from a real letter written by 3rd Sergeant John Garibaldi of the Confederate army to his wife, Sarah, during the Civil War. (You can find the letter in its entirety, along with a number of other letters, at the VMI edu website HERE.) 

Maybe he was a poet, possessed a writer's soul or was overly-educated for the time? Maybe, but there are tons of beautifully written letters from the Civil War era, just like this one. We're talking the 1860s! Now I'm not great at the new math, but that's something like a 150 years ago.

We go from that, to this:

"If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn't have went down like it did. There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, 'OK, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry." Actor Mark Wahlberg, 2012, when asked what he would've done had he been aboard one of the flights on 9/11

Granted, Marky Mark's response was spontaneous. Not something as painstakingly crafted as a precious letter home in a time before phones, much less texting and instant updates. Still, spend one day at a public school (or follow a Hilton, rapper or Kardashian on the FaceTweet thing) and you'll see the point right away:

As a society, our mastery of language has gone into the crapper.

"My Dear Amanda, It has been a long time since I had an opportunity of writing to you, and I gladly avail myself of the present opportunity. I am not certain that I will have a chance of sending this but I will write a few lines any how and try and get it off to let you know that I am among the living--" J.C. Morris, 21st Texas Calvary, 1861

Educators have understood it for years. The ability to articulate complex thoughts and emotions with words (written and verbal) has diminished to the point of decay. Frankly, it has happened at a pretty alarming rate. 150 years isn't all that much time to have passed to get us from the intricate thought choreography of yore to the lolz, OMGs and IDKs of today.

I've heard the argument that there is no longer a need to speak or write in such an elaborate fashion. A claim, I assume, meant to somehow say that we've simply "evolved" and outgrown it. I think that's bunk.

That kind of thinking insinuates that we could do it the old way if we really wanted, or if there were a good reason for it. I don't think we can. I think we no longer know how.

"Another soldier was shot yesterday. The yankees went to jail and brought him while a citizen was standing near. He said the soldier was very poorly clad but his countenance was that of a gentleman. When the guard brought his horse to him (a broken down one from the camp) he asked what they were going to do with them. On being told to "Mount that horse and say no more . . ." he did so remarking that he supposed they were going to shoot him." From the diary of Alice Williamson age 16, Tennessee 1860

The education system has failed, you say? NOT SO FAST MY FRIENDS!

How many modern day sixteen year olds could pen a paragraph like the above? Maybe the best English students. Maybe the top 1-5% of graduating seniors. It was commonplace then. It's simply how they communicated. The only folks who put that much thought into their words these days are likely paid to do so.

So if they could do it then, and we can't do it now, surely our teaching practices have somehow devolved. After all, our brains haven't gotten smaller, right?

Remember, basic enlisted military personnel with little-to-no formal education could string together words and sentences that most would call poetry by today's standards. (There are grammatical errors, sure. But the comprehension/ability was there.) People weren't very educated (in general), and rarely went through twelve years of formal schooling.

Thus my conclusion is that it isn't a failure in our ability to teach and/or learn. If anything, the only real argument would be that we over-educate, or perhaps allocate our education time and resources to other areas. And I think that's a valid argument.

"I am sorry that Masters cow has so little manners as to eat Onions - in the City of Richmond too - well what a disgrace! I wish you to tell her that our Mountain Cows are better trained than that - and that if she will come up here we will learn her to be more genteel and not spoil the Governers milk - Tell My Master I think all the world of him and long once more to see his dignified steps up our hill--" Lethe Jackson, former Virginia slave writing to her mistress, 1838 

Truly, the degradation of language is at the feet of society in general. The Civil War was at the end of the Industrial Revolution, also known as the beginning of the math and science age. We are currently a world run by machines, and those machines are run (we hope) by average people. Average people with analytical skills far surpassing most of the brilliant minds of 150 years ago. In fact, I'd wager most of our seven year olds know more about science than the professionals of that age.

Just think about how something as simple as a keyboard has greatly contributed to the loss of language skills. Most people use a keyboard (or pad) for 99% of our written communicating, and it's a device predicated on speed, not thoughtfulness. That's why we use it! It takes more time to scrawl letters than it does to click them. The mathematics of efficiency, as it were.

In that way, perhaps time has become the greatest enemy of language. The same number of hours exist in a day as there did when General Lee and General Grant were butting heads; however, there can be no argument that much more is expected out of those hours today. Less time for language, I suppose.

We've all contributed to the decline of language in its purest forms. A crime of necessity? Probably. But we are still partially responsible nonetheless. That also means we can help to repair it.

So we're left with some decisions. Do we try to resuscitate language? Do we rally society around the idea that expressing something in a paragraph is more worthwhile than doing so in 140 characters? Can it even be done? 

What do you think? Does language matter outside of esthetics? Are there other factors you see contributing to the depreciation of language skills? Can we stop it? Should we stop it?



  1. You look back to authors and writers even eighty years ago and you can see a big change. I don't always articulate as well as I should, but I do consider every line before I write or type it. (Which is part of the reason I am so slow with both endeavors.)
    Schools used to teach the three R's. Now they teach hundreds of subjects. Perhaps that is the problem?

  2. If I had to classify one of the seven deadly sins as a potential culprit for our dying language, I'd go with sloth. People are just growing too lazy to accomplish even the simplest tasks any longer. They want other people to take care of them and show no gumption toward personal accountability. Perhaps we should hold ourselves and society more accountable for intelligence and cohesive dialogue.

  3. Those letters are charming. I'd read a book written by any of them.

  4. How, how interesting. It is evident how much language has changed. I once edited a book for a publisher who was taking books written 50-100 years ago and revamping them for republication. The book I edited was written by a doctor in the 1930s, and the language was quite different. (To the point where there were times I had to disentangle what he was saying, or words that meant one thing then mean something else today.) Your point that maybe over-education bears consideration, too--maybe we have to learn so much stuff that maybe some things aren't fine-tuned as much. Hmmm. It certainly bears consideration.

  5. Give Marky Mark a break, EJ. It's not easy to speak clearly when you have both feet in your mouth!

  6. Good post as usual. Well, being a mother of five daughters I saw a lot of things change from the oldest to the youngest..being there was a 10 year difference. The older two can cursive write and spell well. The younger three can't spell nor cursive write except for thier signatures. So I believe to some extent our language has been dumbed down.

  7. I like this post because it throws some light on how the written word is evolving. My biggest concern for language is that value seems to be dependent on money. So in order to save something, I think you need to disassociate it from monetary earning power. But that is a tricky thing to do in a capitalist society where money is everything.

  8. Great post, and definitely something to think about! Like Alex, I tend to take a long time formulating what I want to convey when I write with a keyboard. Having taught at secondary school, I can attest to the fact that many children nowadays find bad grammar and slang "cool": a common British teen saying is the replacement of "Yes, I understand." with "Skeen!" N OMG: txtspk on fones juz p me off!

    The solution probably starts at home, by encouraging literacy through nurturing the love of reading.

    P.S.: Found your blog through Lynda's Aussie BBQ event, and realised I've already been following you. Must pop back more often!

  9. I'm going to go against the grain and say that, though there are examples of our language degenerating, it might not be as dire as some believe. The letters that survive from those times are likely to be the eloquent ones, due to the strength of their writing. There were probably plenty of ordinary, unpoetic and bad letters sent as well.

    Yes, kids can write horribly, but others write well. Yes, there are (many) instances where education fails them, but I don't think the art of writing is going anywhere. I've seen the curiosity my students have for learning and utilizing new words. Language still holds some appeal for them and I don't think that is going to go away.

  10. I love to read old letters like this. So haunting and beautiful at the same time.

    I have teacher friends who lament the decline of their schools since they have been forced to focus their teaching on passing standardized tests. It doesn't seem as if any subject, writing and language included, is taught in as much detail as it used to be, as schools live and die by their performances on these tests that really don't measure anything.

    I love the speed of a keyboard and barely write anything with a pen anymore, but I can't deny I make more mistakes and have to double-check all the time before I submit anything.

  11. I love history... LOVE it. And there's such magic in reading someone's words in letter form. New follower here... found you over on the .W.I.P. It BBQ. I'm glad I did! I'm stoked for your future posts :D

  12. It's amazing how language changes and evolves over time. It's not always in a good direction either. I think technology has sped up the changes in our langauge at an alarming rate. I just hope a few people keep the ability to speak and write in ways that are beautiful and interesting.

  13. This is a great post and I think that photography unfortunately adds to the demise of our language skills. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words and in some cases this is a very accurate cliche.

  14. I love the craftmanship of those letters from that era. It does seem like our most basic flair for words seems to be fading away. When I look at comments for a library item particularly favoured by teens, for example, I'm seeing all sorts of evidence that they're spending way too much time texting and short-forming every sentence.

    And Wahlberg realized all too late how much of an ass he ended up looking for that sheer stupidity.

  15. Languages change constantly, and education is becoming the preserve of the rich again.

    While much you say is true, I think I'd interpret it differently. Too bad we can't have coffee and an interesting discussion.

    Thanks for including the letters. Found them interesting.

  16. Language is constantly evolving and so are our tastes and expectations. I find these old letters beautiful — I love the language, the flow of the words and the emotions behind them. It's easy to long for artfully crafted prose like that...but I can't help but wonder how these writers would manage if they had just 140 characters. ;)


“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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