34. THE DEMOCRACY OF LANGUAGE
The Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as:
- Government by the people whereby sovereign power
resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them or
by officers elected by them.
- A state or community in which the government is
vested in the people as a whole.
To which I would add - certainly in the light of the past
few decades, the rise of globalisation and the emergence of disinformation and
fake news - a 'bit of a free for all and elastic interpretation'.
- That class of the people which has no hereditary
or special rank or privilege.
Autocrat versus democrat
Of course, the definitions provided by the eminent reference tome, or by any such equivalent, can be questioned - after all, a definition is there to be shot at. Any 'this is how it is' statement is autocratic and therefore a target for the democratic process. In the world of geopolitics, however, there are more than enough examples where the autocrat shoots back, literally. We should praise ourselves fortunate indeed that in most Western countries freedom of speech is fairly well tolerated, and non-verbalised freedom of thought a completely safe haven. Thought crime, in the Orwellian sense, is not yet punishable, unless verbalised.
Free for all
I'm increasingly experiencing a world in chaos, in no small part due to the breakdown of 'democratic' systems where 'elected' representatives of the people seem to take the mandate they are given as a kind of carte blanche to manipulate the people that voted them in. Whether that's partying Boris, non-stick Rutte or tyrannical Trump. No wonder, then, that democracy as a political principle is often called into question. Yet nothing seems to change. So faith in democracy crumbles and what ensues is a kind of free for all from both the us and them sides of the debate. The government says that this or that is prohibited due to the pandemic and the people say, well I've had enough and I'm going to do as I see fit. Anarchy? Or a justified expression of the right to freedom? Whatever it is, trust in the decisions made by the elected officers is at a low ebb.
Evolution of language as democratic process
What does this have to do with (the democracy of) language? Well, I think it can be said that the evolution of language is a fine example of a functioning democratic process. The OED, for all its stiff upper lip, adds to its tome regularly and a good many of the 'new' words are generated by the people. These may be scientists, celebrities, journalists and the regular you and me as a collective. The discovery of a new animal species, dinosaur type, planetoid or mineral - all require naming, and it is often surprising how accessible these names are (such as the toothy carnivorous dinosaurs with crocodile-type skulls that once stalked the riverbanks on England's Isle of Wight to which scientists gave scientific names that translate to 'horned, crocodile-faced hell heron' and 'riverbank hunter').
There are also plenty of additions that simply by weight of the common usage cannot be ignored for current or future inclusion into the OED (fat shaming, counterculture, queerbaiting, aceboy, spin, batter - look them up to see the definitions and origins).
What does it matter?
The flipside, of course, as with political democracy, is
that language becomes so fluid that people flaunt the rules and use language
almost anarchically. Even journalists! How irritatingly often do I come across
'its' (possessive meaning) written as 'it's' (meaning 'it is'). It's as if the
writer feels the need to colour in the gap between 't' and 's'. The apostrophe shop
has been plundered and fallen victim to language rioting! However, since the
reader is also blissfully unaware of the rule, does it matter you may ask? No.
Not in a context where the non-application of the rule has no disastrous
consequences. It's not as if you put a bullet in the barrel of a gun and pull
the trigger. So I guess why make a fuss. It only matters when it matters. The
same as wearing a facemask or keeping a specific distance during the pandemic.
It only matters when it matters. Of course, for the purists amongst us, it
always matters. And when we do an edit or a translation, it absolutely matters.