A commenter writes,
Of course language evolves. It is so ironic that the apologists for standardless vulgarization should parade this undeniable reality as though it were a justification or motivation for rushing headlond to a modern Tower of Babel.
Language must serve as a medium for exchange of information, a store of data, and a structure for thought. If it is so spare of vocabulary and bereft of precision that it fails of these functions, its bearers are at a competitive disadvantage, and the language, like any other living thing, adapts or goes under.
Of course we see this happening about us, in the real world, almost as we speak, as surpassed languages go under, one after another. When the guardians of language, the learned professions default in our duty to act as a brake on simplistic vulgarization, we do our neighbors no favor. Orwell alerted us to this process, and I recommend his afterword to the fictional 1984 as a grave warning of its consequences
A blog comment is not the place for a complete exposition of these points: a hefty volume would hardly be adequate. Let it suffice if we point out that one whose mind has but a single form of the verb “to be” is less well equipped to grasp being and to communicate that concept than one whose vocabulary encompasses every variation of meaning.
A few thoughts:
1. Many surpassed languages have gone under, in the sense of not being used at all. But to my knowledge not a single one has fallen prey to “standardless vulgarization.” Rather, they were the languages of indigenous ethnic groups whose cultures had been in various ways defeated by a dominant culture. These defeats have stemmed from military, cultural, economic, and epidemiological reasons; but I don’t know of any in which the supposed “standardless vulgarization” of the rejected language has played a role.
2. Some languages have been surpassed in the sense of no longer being dominant languages for international discourse. French and Latin are examples. They have been surpassed by English, a language that has probably been subject to more “vulgarization” — and that has been less within the guardianship of some prescriptivist elite — than either French or Latin.
3. Let’s look at the example that the commenter thinks should suffice to demonstrate his point. First, my first language, Russian, uses no present-tense form of “to be” at all, at least in normal usage. You wouldn’t say “the dog is big”; you’d say, more or less, “dog big.” (“Est’” is the closest to “to be,” but it is not used the same way “to be” is in English.) I’m pretty sure this did not leave me ill-equipped to grasp being and to communicate that concept, nor did learning English equip me better along those lines.
4. Standard English is not actually losing its present-tense forms of “to be.” Some dialects use locutions such as “you is” instead of “you are,” but I don’t think this change has made its way into the standard dialect, nor do I think it’s likely. But if it does happen, and somehow (for instance) “are” is entirely replaced by “is” — again, not something I suspect will happen — I can’t see how this would make us less well-equipped to grasp or communicate being.
5. If English lost the past tense of “to be,” so people said “he is” to mean either “he is” or “he was,” that would make the language more ambiguous (though I doubt it would really make it harder for English speakers to grasp or communicate being; they’d just need more words to make themselves clear). But to my knowledge there is no trend at all along these lines. Nothing like this is “happening about us, in the real world.”
Without doubt, we can hypothesize some linguistic change that would be bad — how about replacing all words with grunts? Wouldn’t that be a shame? But it turns out that such a change isn’t happening, and neither is the loss of useful forms of “to be.” Is this just a fortunate coincidence? Or a sign that what some call “standardless vulgarization” actually generally does not interfere with people’s ability to grasp or communicate being or other fundamental concepts?
6. I’m pretty sure that Orwell’s 1984 isn’t terribly instructive on this point (though it is on others). But if you really want to use that an analogy, recall that Orwell’s Newspeak was a prescriptivist attempt by the self-appointed guardians of language to mold the language to be more useful for their purposes. The evolving English that I defend is the very opposite. And, unsurprisingly, its actual simplifications generally do not yield the result that Orwell was describing.