Monday, March 12, 2012

Losing the Language Hurts

I realize that language changes and must change. Having said that, though, I also realize that there is a price in terms of ambiguity when language changes. Eventually some mechanism will have to be invented to correct potential misunderstandings, but these could be avoided by not changing the language in the first place.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. Many, many people are dropping the distinction between "fewer" and "less." Traditionally, "fewer" refers to individual items like carrots or even people, while "less" goes with collective nouns like water or oil. So it should be "fewer carrots" but "less water." Lately, however, people have begun to say "less carrots" and "less people." (They continue to say "less water"; the word "fewer" is not being switched with "less" but, rather, seems to be disappearing.)

How can this cause amibiguity? Well, the other night I heard someone say, "The less people know, the better." At first, I thought he meant, "The less information that people have about this, the better things will be." But then, from the context, I realized that what the person meant was, "The fewer people who know anything at all about this, the better things will be."

The first meaning leaves open the possibility that many people will know something about the matter under discussion, but they simply won't know very much. The second meaning holds out the possiblity that the speaker will feel better if an extremely small number of people have any knowledge about the matter, while the rest of the world remains completely ignorant.
That is a big difference in meaning.

Achieving that kind of distinction, that kind of clarity, is one of the reasons for the traditional distinction between "less" and "fewer." Coming up with a new way to clarify this ambiguity is going to be a waste of energy and ingenuity when the traditional way of making the distinction--the good old word "fewer"--is quite handy. No need to reinvent the wheel. It already exists. The alternative is to continue to make English more difficult to understand just because some people cannot understand a simple distinction.

It is odd that speakers who are eliminating the traditional distinction between "fewer" and "less" do not seem to be erasing the difference between "many" and "much," which are the equivalents, respectively, of "fewer" and "less" when the number and amounts of things increase instead of decrease. Nobody who speaks English as a native language would say "much people" instead of "many people." So the change that is taking place is not consistent. But it does not appear that anyone is trying to be consistent about these lingusitic changes. They just happen, and once they catch on, they continue to spread, but there is no logical extention from dropping "fewer" to dropping "many," as well.