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I was just wondering about this today. I know that language does change over time, but what about the colloquialisms and/or general style of an 'era', make it so 'cool'?

For example I've been reading quite a lot of Victorian books and while the language is still 'English' at its core there are certain aspects of the language, the words, the mechanics that cannot be re-duplicated and are just characteristic of the era. Moreover, I've found that (this isn't based on any hard data, purely anecdotal) the style they cultivated in the 19th century has been very influential and has extended far into the future as well. 'Good/Pompous/Scholarly writing' in the modern era, almost always harks back to the lingo and mannerisms of the Victorian age. While it is possible to be skillful and articulate in any English dialect, most people have stereotyped Victorian style prose a la Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells as being what constitutes stellar writing. And this sentiment isn't just confined to England, but has rather bled into the entire English-speaking world.

So in a sense we've fetishized the era. I'm pretty sure if you went back in time, none of what we've stereotyped to be 'good form' was that special to the Victorians. Also, I'm pretty sure that the Victorians themselves had an inferiority complex of their own since I believe it was them who dug Shakespeare out of the dusty annals history and made him a big deal again. To them I bet they considered their own literature to be piss poor and renaissance literature to be the absolute pinnacle that the English language could hope to reach.

Why is this? Why do we cast our eyes backwards instead of infront? Why do we use large dictionaries to keep the terms of a by-gone era fresh in a newer generation's mind? Why not do away with dictionaries, respecting grammatical rules and/or following precedent altogether so that we can refashion the language, however we see fit, at our own discretion? This would in a sense allow us to masters of our own fates. I sometimes feel that we the newer generation get tyrannized by our past When later generations look at early 21st century English literature, what's going to stand out to them? Are we not merely following precedent? Copying our predecessors?

Does anybody have any thoughts and/or insight on this? It's really quite fascinating.

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closed as not a real question by tchrist, Mitch, choster, StoneyB, Brian Hooper Jun 24 '13 at 5:32

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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If we limit our understanding of language to the last few years (or the last few weeks), can we profit from, or even understand, the "lingo" and culture of the past few hundred years, which serves to deepen and illuminate our culture? If we understand and appreciate the broader scope, it doesn't mean we can't understnad and accept current usage. –  bib Jun 24 '13 at 1:13
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Language is symbolic and an intrinsic element of language is consistency. I use a term and you understand it because there is an agreement between us (and many others) that these made up sounds and symbols stand for particular referents in the real world. But those "realities" or our takes on them shift and grow. But change of meaning and structure threaten that communication. So language becomes a tension between consitency and growth. And, unfortunately I think this all falls within some other forum on linguistics or philosophy, and your question may get shut down. –  bib Jun 24 '13 at 1:41
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I'm pretty sure we have not fetishized Victorian English any more than we have fetishized Shakespearian English. Our fetishes are more like regularized spelling and taboos such as split infinitives which come not from idolizing a bygone era but taking as gospel truth the misguided theories of some 19th century schoolteachers. –  MετάEd Jun 24 '13 at 3:02
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"Why do we cast our eyes backwards instead of in front?" - because it is easier to read things that have already been written. –  Mitch Jun 24 '13 at 3:11
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This question seems to be an invitation to debate, and that's not what the Stack Exchange format is intended for. I'd very much like to be wrong about this, though, since it's likely to be an interesting debate. Can anyone prove that this should be here? –  user867 Jun 24 '13 at 4:33

1 Answer 1

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Language is imitative, pure and simple, and imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. In literary circles it's called plagiarism, but that's beside the point.

Exactly how and why someone grows into adulthood knowing barely how to put two sentences together, while another person develops into a singular talent who achieves immortality through his or her words, is beyond my pay grade. As Salieri said in the film "Amadeus" (in effect), most of us are just mediocrities who can only wish they possessed genius. Hey, not everyone can be a Mozart, or a Hemingway, or a Shakespeare, or a Tolstoy, or an Emily Bronte, or a Rachel Carson, or . . ..

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (forgive me if I butchered the actual quotation). We have a great deal to learn from how previous generations used our common tongue. For that matter, we even have a great deal to learn from virtually every other language, whether past and dead (e.g., Latin or biblical Hebrew and Greek), or present and alive.

The English composer Gustav Holst studied Sanskrit, for goodness' sake! Why? Why not? Even a cursory study of another language that is not your heart language can give you insights into, and appreciation for, another people group and their culture and their ways of thinking and doing.

In other words, we need to be more like Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, and of the rising and setting of the sun. We need to face both forward and backward at the same time. The roots of a given language are just as important (if not more so) than the trunk, branches, and leaves. We all, as great imitators, stand on the shoulders of our progenitors.

Language fads, like disposable pop songs, come and go, thank goodness. "The colloquialisms and/or general style of an 'era'[that] make it . . . 'cool'" can change virtually overnight.

Really useful and seminal words and concepts manage to survive and thrive and sometimes become important building blocks in the social construction of reality. That "reality" is not always good, or beneficial, or life-affirming, but when our better angels take over, we come up with words and phrases such as "empathy," "organ transplants," "carbon footprint," "biopesticides," "hybrid," and "sustainable"; and concepts like the germ theory of disease, antibiotics, anesthesia, cognitive dissonance, global village, and the human genome!

Who knows, perhaps we even need folks who seem to us to be "stuck" in a time warp with their specialized knowledge of, say, medieval and Renaissance English, as was the late Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis of Cambridge University. (He managed to plant his feet firmly in the present, however, by popularizing his theological books and his works of fantasy/fiction--The Narnia Chronicles.)

Likewise, we need folks who really understand how a people group thinks in the present (and not just in esoteric and ultra-specialized fields, as helpful as they might be), but generalists who can influence and, yes, persuade us in the realms of politics, social movements, the arts, cultural bridge-building, and so much more.

In conclusion, we all need an abiding respect for language, no matter the tongue. Rooted in the past, blooming in the present, and planting seeds that will become the roots from which subsequent generations can derive nourishment for the spirit, soul, and body is a perspective I for one can get behind!

With our ability today to have a plethora of information at our fingertips at the speed of light, much of the heavy lifting associated with pre-internet research is slowly being rendered obsolete, though there are still many diehard, "hard-copy" readers and researchers.

Moreover, while it is still true that "the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books [hard or electronic] is wearying to the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12), it is equally true that all languages, including our beloved English, make great servants when we use them in loving, peaceful, and life-affirming ways.

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+1. Good stuff, this. –  Kaiser Octavius Jun 24 '13 at 4:23
    
Thank you, Kaiser Octavius! –  rhetorician Jun 24 '13 at 13:29
    
Loving it!! I'd +1 if I could! –  tuba09 Jun 24 '13 at 16:03
    
Thank you very much! Best wishes to you! –  rhetorician Jun 25 '13 at 1:27

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