The Evolution of Language

I was recently in a conversation with my friend, Bunny, about how the language of novels has changed over the last century or more. It started because we both enjoy the quality of language used by the classic writers. I wondered why I don’t produce the same depth of sentence structure. Off the top of my head I can think of three reasons.

First, the pace of life is faster now. People don’t want to spend time decoding witty lines and complicated verbiage. We like enough description to imagine what’s going on, but we want dialogue to cut to the chase and action verbs that keep the pace moving. I admit that many times the language of Dickens can become tedious when I really want the story to move ahead faster.

Second, books have to compete with other media. People won’t spend hours and hours on something that doesn’t hold their attention. They have e-mail to answer and television to watch, after all. That forces the language of the books to be streamlined, not creative.

Finally, the medium the author physically writes on makes a difference. If you have to dip a quill pen in an ink well between every few words and each piece of paper is fairly expensive by comparison, you tend to take your time and think very carefully before every sentence. Now writers can just bang away at the keyboard, shooting out draft after draft at fifty words a minute until they get a bead on where they want to go. It’s extremely easy to go back and rewrite things, too. And we can all lean heavily on the spell and grammar checkers.

I’ve heard authors say they went back to hand writing first drafts because it helped them use better language. But I’m certainly not in a position where I have the time to do that. I have a day job, after all.


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