Maybe I missed the memo, but when oh when did “had went” and “would have went” become so popular? Perhaps when teachers quit writing verb conjugations on the blackboard?
I realize I live in the boonies in the back of beyond, and I know the local school system, erm, needs work (there’s a reason we home school, you know — and that we have a blackboard in the kitchen, which I’m not afraid to use).
This is, after all, rural midwestern Canada, a place where it’s not uncommon to hear people you know, old and young, say things such as “Her and I went shopping together”, “Me and her can’t make it that day”, “I seen him at the store, ” and, “Me and her seen them at the store.” Even from provincial politicians and cabinet members, and 4H public speaking events, where the judges don’t say anything because a) their knowledge of grammar is just as limited or b) they don’t want to damage anyone’s self-esteem*. There are even people around here who say “tooken” when they mean “taken”, and believe me when I tell you it takes all my inner strength to find a spot on the horizon and stare at it hard.
But all of a sudden not too long ago I realized that I was hearing adults who should know better — some of whom live in big cities back East and have jobs on the radio and television and some of whom are supposed to be, oh say, broadcast professionals — saying things such as, “I had went to the doctor”, or “We would have went along if it had been possible.” I heard one example on CBC Radio this week.
I also realize that there are those who say that the English language is a fluid, ever-changing living thing, and invoke Shakespeare when discussing that fact that it has been standardized for a relatively short period of time, and call those of us who find the changes upsetting or grating old-fashioned. This is more than just the pet peeve of a curmudgeon. George Orwell began his landmark 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” so:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
Read that last sentence again.
In America, Richard Hofstadter in 1963, John Taylor Gatto, and most recently Susan Jacoby in her Age of American Unreason (which easily could be The Age of North American Unreason) have famously and variously written about anti-intellectualism in modern Society. Todd Gitlin wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education after the American election of 2000,
Thirty-seven years have passed since the appearance of the last substantial book to take seriously, in the words of its title, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Richard Hofstadter’s tour de force, appearing in 1963, is actually a product of the 1950’s. Like many intellectuals, Hofstadter was disturbed by the general disdain for “eggheads,” haunted by Joseph McCarthy’s thuggish assault on Dean Acheson and his Anglophilic ways, and dismayed by Eisenhower’s taste for Western novels and his tangled syntax (which was not yet understood to be, at least sometimes, not simply incompetent but deliberately evasive). Had not Eisenhower himself in 1954 (no doubt in words written for him by another hand) cited a definition of an intellectual as “a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows”? (How much more congenial was Stevenson, who once cracked: “Eggheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks!”)
Probing for historical roots of a mood that was sweeping (if somewhat exaggerated by intellectuals), Hofstadter found that “our anti-intellectualism is, in fact, older than our national identity.” He cited, among others, the Puritan John Cotton, who wrote in 1642, “The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee”; and Baynard R. Hall, who wrote in 1843 of frontier Indiana: “We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness.”
Yet, according to the historian Lawrence W. Levine, the illiterate Rocky Mountain scout Jim Bridger could recite long passages from Shakespeare, which he learned by hiring someone to read the plays to him. “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare,” Alexis de Tocqueville found on his trip through America in 1831-32. Here lay a supremely American paradox: The same Americans who valued the literacy of commoners were suspicious of experts and tricksters.
By the way, it occurs to me that Gitlin’s Media Unlimited (originally published in 2002 and revised last year, and which seems to have come out of the Chronicle article) ties in with the conversation over at Sippican Cottage, which is all of a very large piece.
I have to wrap this up to try out my repaired clothes dryer, so I’ll get back to grammar and quote Jacoby from American Unreason,
It is all reminiscent of the exchange among Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare tells Alice. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.” The Hatter chimes in, “Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’.” In an ignorant and anti-intellectual culture, people eat mainly what they see.
That explains a lot. I must have sympathetic indigestion.
* That strong sense of self-esteem no doubt will come in handy as an adult when you find yourself reporting the national news on live television: “The President would have went to Camp David but the helicopter was broken.” Because there will be a few of us who notice.