The Fall of the English Language

I’ve always found reading English texts from before a century or so ago more difficult than reading those written today.  Sentences seem longer and more precise vocabulary is used.  There have been changes in style that have made the language different but I can’t help but thinking that English has objectively become less and less complex.

Take the first sentence from Thomas Jefferson’s first State of the Union in 1801.

It is a circumstance of sincere gratification to me that on meeting the great council of our nation I am able to announce to them on grounds of reasonable certainty that the wars and troubles which have for so many years afflicted our sister nations have at length come to an end, and that the communications of peace and commerce are once more opening among them. 

A President today would say,

I am glad to say as I stand before you here today that I am sure that the troubles of our allies are over.  We can now live and trade with them in peace.

There’s a way to test my theory.  The State of the Union has been given every year since 1790.  The Flesh-Kincaid readability test measures text complexity based on words per sentence and syllables per word.  While it was designed with modern English in mind there’s never been a time when shorter sentences and words haven’t been easier to understand than the opposite.  According to Wikipedia,

Reader’s Digest magazine has a readability index of about 65, Time magazine scores about 52, an average year 7 student’s (eleven years old) written assignment has a readability test of 60-70 (and a reading grade level of 6-7) and the Harvard Law Review has a general readability score in the low 30s. The highest (easiest) readability score possible is around 120 (e.g. every sentence consisting of only two one-syllable words); there is no theoretical lower bound on the score—this sentence, for example, taken as a reading passage unto itself, has a readability score of about 48.23. This paragraph has a readability score of about 50.91.  

I decided to take the SOTUs of our first president, two presidents who won at least two terms from 1800-1850, two of the same from 1850-1900, two from 1900-1950, two from 1950-2000, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and put them into a program that measures readability.  I average the scores for each president.

Years in Office   President Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score
1789-1797  George Washington 28.7
1801-1809 Thomas Jefferson 32.6
1829-1937 Andrew Jackson 28.8
1861-1865 Abraham Lincoln 43.8
1869-1877 Ulysses S. Grant 37.2
1913-1921 Woodrow Wilson 41.9
1933-1945 Franklin D. Roosevelt  48.1
1953-1961 Dwight Eisenhower  41.7
1981-1989 Ronald Reagan 55.8
2001-2009 George W. Bush 56.7
2009-Present Barack Obama 61.5

 

This is why the Flynn Effect, which says IQ has been increasing over the last century, seems so implausible.  

The rise in IQ has mostly occurred at the bottom of society.  Those at the top were well nourished and constantly intellectually stimulated even at the birth of this country.  So the Founding Fathers should’ve come close to realizing their full potential and lived before generations of dysgenics.  If the genotypic IQ has only dropped by five points within the last hundred years then the percentage of supergeniuses has taken a serious fall.  In a population with an IQ of 100 and an SD of 15 one on 2,330 people has an IQ of 150+.  In a population with an IQ of 105 it’s one in 740.  But any losses should’ve been dwarfed by the much larger modern population.  

It’s also doubtful that the best and brightest were more likely to become leaders centuries ago.  One of the main lessons of The Bell Curve is that society has been becoming more and more meritocratic.  So today’s world has a greater selection of geniuses and gives them a better chance to rise to the top.  In that case, why do present day leaders seem so much dumber than those of the past?  There doesn’t seem to be a genetic explanation, so we must look to culture.  

Perhaps general literacy killed rhetoric and writing, as Nietzsche predicted it would.  “That everyone may learn to read, in the long run corrupts not only writing but thinking.  Once the spirit was God, then he became man, and now he even becomes rabble.”  Egalitarian ideology seems the only plausible explanation of what has happened.  As status becomes more tied to adhering to PC ideology and less based on learning and erudition people don’t try as hard to refine their skills with the spoken and written word.  I suppose I’m not one to talk as the readability of this website is in the 50s.  

Things seem to have taken a fall between the time of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln and then stayed the same for the next century up to the sixties.  This supports the egalitarian hypothesis.  

In the end I think technology is the best explanation.  There’s now a lot more oral and visual stimulation that competes with speeches and writing.   People in the past made rhetoric into an art form because there wasn’t much else.  We today are more visual.  This may not be a bad thing.

14 Comments

  1. Steve :

    Feb 9, 2010 1:45 pm |

    That’s interesting. It seems also that emphasis on writing and grammar, and literary education generally, have decreased considerably since 1950 throughout the educational ladder. The emphasis has shifted so much in the direction of technical subjects, which are of limited utility in general life, to the exclusion of reading and writing. Nothing raises the verbal IQ and general intelligence like wrestling with great literature or philosophy. As such, you just don’t have the erudite, classics educated types like Revilo Oliver around anymore.

    I went to a fanatically strict Jesuit high school, where everyone took 4 years of latin and greek. I remember standing in the printer queque at college reading the papers of English majors and finding dramatic comma splices in the very first sentence. One just can’t imagine what might pass in second and third tier schools.

  2. Sheila :

    Feb 9, 2010 1:49 pm |

    Interesting entry regarding our decreasing language and literacy. Back when I still considered reading such things a worthwhile end in itself, I read Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police.” She assessed a number of typical reading textbooks and compared their entries, with particular attention to Greek and Latin root words. Not surprisingly, she found that specifically Christian school textbooks utilized the most advanced vocabulary (and the most traditionally American, or classic Western literature). If memory serves, her analysis found that the Bob Jones University Press books were the best – this is borne out by my experience with two children of vastly different abilities and a variety of public and private schools. While I despise the alien mulatto currently inhabiting the White House, and while I most definitely make errors of grammar and syntax myself, I still find it extremely ironic (and eternally irritating) to read blog comments excoriating Obama’s ignorance in mispronouncing “corpsman” by people who have yet to learn the difference between a possessive pronoun and a contraction. People’s understandable contempt for self-proclaimed “elites” does not, and should not, automatically conflate with ignorance of one’s native language. Any attempt to correct common and blatant errors meets with cries of “language police.” On the contrary, clear written communication requires a basic grasp of grammar and vocabulary as well as a modicum of intelligence (see a recent, hilarious blog exchange between myself and another reader who mistook my use of “g” and my comments on the hereditary nature of intelligence with the argument that homosexual behavior is genetically based). There is a difference between a large vocabulary acquired through reading and usage with today’s “purple patches of prose” that instead attempt to express to impress, such as typical college essays and semi-educated black speech.

  3. Carolus Obscurus :

    Feb 9, 2010 1:50 pm |

    Richard,

    Top marks as usual.

    Here’s my tentative answer to your question. You ask:

    So today’s world has a greater selection of geniuses and gives them a better chance to rise to the top. In that case, why do present day leaders seem so much dumber than those of the past?

    Possibly because today’s leaders are smart enough to know that the dumber you sound and the plainer your English the more likely you are to win voter support. That’s what the spin doctors claim: in politics, it pays not to sound too bright. And as Schumpeter famously said:

    “The typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes primitive again.”

    [Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy]

    Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps you are simply over-estimating the number of geniuses around today as compared with the past (which depends of course on the extent to which the population growth effect offsets dysgenics):

    The Downing effect describes the tendency of people with below average intelligence quotients (IQs) to overestimate their intelligence, and of people with above average intelligence to underestimate their intelligence. An individual’s predictable propensity to misjudge their own intelligence was first noted by C. L. Downing who conducted the first cross cultural studies on perceived intelligence.

    His studies also evidenced that an individual’s ability to estimate others’ intelligence accurately was proportional to their own intelligence. This means the lower the IQ score of an individual, the less capably he or she can appreciate and accurately appraise others’ intelligence. The lower someone’s IQ, the more likely he is to rate himself as more intelligent than those around him. Conversely, people with a high IQ, while better at appraising others’ intelligence overall, are still likely to rate people of similar intelligence to themselves as having higher IQs.

    [italics mine]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downing_effect

  4. Dennis :

    Feb 9, 2010 2:40 pm |

    Great post. As an aside, one of the greatest of 19th century prose stylists was U.S. Grant. For instance, his “Personal Memoirs” has this, from the prologue: “In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental, and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.”

  5. Rob S. :

    Feb 9, 2010 2:59 pm |

    > But any losses should’ve been dwarfed by the much larger modern population.

    Plus increased assortiveness in mating.

    I didn’t know that about Grant. Jefferson was also a superior writer, and very readable.

  6. A Race Against Time :

    Feb 9, 2010 5:42 pm |

    I tested some of the articles on my blog, and most of them are between 45 and 65. Surprisingly, an article I wrote on the BNP came back 24.9, meaning it’s ostensibly more difficult to comprehend than Washington’s State of the Union addresses.

    http://araceagainsttime.blogspot.com/2009/11/bnp-is-only-party-that-will-remedy.html

    The low score is probably the result of all the ridiculously long job titles I used in the article. For example, “Conservative community cohesion and social action spokesman Sayeeda Hussain Warsi.” (Yes, the Conservatives in Britain have appointed a Pakistani-Muslim as their spokesman for community cohesion).

  7. Lover of Wisdom :

    Feb 9, 2010 5:50 pm |

    I just plugged in an old paper (one that well represents my writing) for one of my philosophy seminars. It clocked in at 23.9.

  8. ben tillman :

    Feb 9, 2010 6:34 pm |

    It’s also doubtful that the best and brightest were more likely to become leaders centuries ago. One of the main lessons of The Bell Curve is that society has been becoming more and more meritocratic.

    To the contrary, our society has been becoming less and less meritocratic. Whites merit a much larger representation among the Harvard student body, for instance, and in other positions of power and influence. No, the white elite — which in one sense is the only group that can “merit” anything in this society — is deliberately held down.

  9. ben tillman :

    Feb 9, 2010 7:57 pm |

    Let me fix that:

    It’s also doubtful that the best and brightest were more likely to become leaders centuries ago. One of the main lessons of The Bell Curve is that society has been becoming more and more meritocratic.

    To the contrary, our society has been becoming less and less meritocratic. Whites merit a much larger representation among the Harvard student body, for instance, and in other positions of power and influence. No, the white elite — which in one sense is the only group that can “merit” anything in this society — is deliberately held down.

  10. mr. tomatohead :

    Feb 9, 2010 9:57 pm |

    Bah. What you see as a dumbing down I see as a clearing up. If this really is so important to you then you should begin to write your posts in the manner of TJ.

  11. j :

    Feb 10, 2010 7:27 am |

    Disagree.

    Jefferson et al were speaking to a very small elite of highly cultured men, and they made an effort to sound rarified.
    They used many classic references to show off their education, they used words known only to scholars. The people expected their leaders to be cultured men, they would have been shocked if they used common street expressions.

    Obama is speaking to a very different audience. His words are transmitted to the masses, so he uses words and concepts accessible to the dumbest of his audience. The people today expects their leaders be at their own level, to use Ebonics or whatever ignorant lingo they speak, they would be shocked to discover that an elite person is talking down to them. Obama, who is not my idol, is nonetheless a professor in constitutional law that can write correct English. The readability of his books is rather low.

    Once cultured people spoke Latin among themselves and doctors wrote their recommendations in Latin and in unreadable handwriting. Today they are required by law to explain what they are doing. Times have changed. Oh tempora, oh mores!

    You should compare Jefferson’s speeches with an academic lecture on constitutional law.

  12. lonegranger :

    Feb 10, 2010 11:03 am |

    Chaucer anyone?

  13. mnuez :

    Feb 10, 2010 7:05 pm |

    There’s also the issue of who is being addressed. Consider who GW’s audience was for his SOTU and who Obama’s was for his.

    And for some middle ground, consider who Lincoln’s audience was. (Hint: Lincoln knew his audience was a lot vaster than Grant’s.)

    None of which is to say that I’m convinced that this test demonstrates what people believe it does, particularly when comparing such disparate dialects as those of GW’s and GWB’s.

    It’s definitely a pleasure though to read works (and even letters) by intelligent people from a century or two back, before stupid people diluted the reading market through their insolence to become semi-literate.

    (It would also be awesome if atupid people weren’t allowed to watch TV and thus dilute THAT market. Arrested Development would still be on and It’s Always Sunny wouldn’t have to define stigmatta or explain to their audience why their ironic jokes are funny.)

  14. Chris :

    Feb 11, 2010 1:28 am |

    J, Obama was never a professor. He was some non-tenure-track lecturer of some sort. Not even adjunct faculty. Hardly more prestigous a position than a grad student with responsibilites instructing undergrads.

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