The ‘olden days’ are a magical place which hold a special place in people’s hearts. We all instinctively know that things were better in the ‘olden days’; life was simpler, people were kinder, children were better behaved and most importantly, everyone knew how to use language properly. The problem with this magical era is that it never existed. In sceptical circles this is known as ‘the golden age fallacy.’
And how do we know it never existed? If you try to pinpoint this glorious period of pristine shiny English, you’ll quickly run into problems. We know it’s not now, or even ten years ago, so when exactly was it?
Obviously old English is too far back:
Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come
If English hadn’t changed, we’d still be speaking the language of Beowulf. Or, if you like we could go back to proto-germanic, or right back to proto-European. This may seem silly but why not? if we think language is ‘getting worse’ then surely ‘original’ version is the one we want to go for, but oddly no one is advocating that.
In fact, language can only be said to be getting ‘worse’, if there is some objective measurable value we can hold it up to but this isn’t the case. Dropped aitches may seem lazy to us, but they’re all the rage in French. ‘you was great’ may seem sloppy, but Chinese verbs never conjugate at (I am, you am, he am, they am etc) so are the Chinese just very lazy people? Without objective value we’re left with ‘subjective’ ideas of what makes a particular language at a particular time ‘good’.
This period was not only a supposed linguistic high-point but also the height of the British empire. Children were seen and not heard, everyone knew their place and for every social activity and occasion there were prescriptive books of rules listing dos and don’ts in exquisite detail:
In crossing the street, a lady raises her dress a little above the ankle, holding together the folds of her gown and drawing them toward the right. Raising the dress with both hands exposes too much ankle, and is most vulgar.(source)
When we really get down to it, these aren’t really complaints about language at all but about morals. People don’t speak properly anymore and this is not because language has changed but because they are feckless and lazy. They drop aitches and swear, not because everyone in their peer group does and they want to fit in or because their parents do, but because they just can’t be bothered to put any effort into it. They no doubt do it on purpose! If only they’d get a job.