Of compound words and the doom of English

Have you ever noticed a difference between American and British English when it comes to compound words? Lynne Truss, author of the bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves, argues in her weekly column in The Telegraph that the American tradition of compounding words, such as anymore and everyday, has a negative influence on British English, which ultimately leads to the doom of English.

Lynne Truss connects this development with the falling literacy standards in the UK and furthermore argues that linguists are supposed to act.

“Obviously one hates to be a stick-in-the-mud about English. But occasionally it’s important to speak as you find. When I was deeply mired in linguistic debate a few years ago (for which I was seriously unqualified), it became clear to me that the academic study of the English language (and this includes the lexicographers) was entirely concerned with looking cool and broad-minded and “descriptive”, when what was required was some positive action to remedy literacy levels, and so on.”

Lynne Truss

There is no doubt that the prescriptivism and descriptivism debate has been on-going, but Truss seems to step up the game. She argues that there is no prescriptive approach to language, but that descriptive linguists are supposed to monitor language. By calling the term ‘prescriptive’ a “powerful juju word used against bad people who model themselves on King Canute”, she removes one side of the debate and assigns a new role to descriptive linguists which so far has been part of the prescriptive tradition.

Whether it is just a matter of incorrect spacing, saving time, or spell-checkers needing a thorough revision, the compounding issue seems to have struck a chord with those who are looking for a panacea to save the English language. I doubt that compounding words is going to be the doom of English as similar techniques have been used in txting, which with its numerous abbreviations has also been blamed for the falling literacy levels and ultimately for the end of the English language. But the debate is still open…

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About Carmen Ebner

Carmen Ebner is a PhD candidate at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics and currently investigates attitudes towards British English Usage. Carmen is part of the project Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public, which is supervised by Prof Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
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