Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

Let’s start with four hard truths:

  1. Language changes.
    Language is used by living, changeable people who are constantly being gradually replaced by new people who learn it in different circumstances and get different ideas about it. It’s a part of a society that is in constant flux. Nothing else stays the same; why would language?
  2. We take part in that change.
    You and I are among language’s users – and editors have extra influence in what makes it into print.
  3. We can’t always predict or control how it will change.
    We’re still only individual players in a very large game.
  4. We are usually unaware of how it has changed in the past.
    We have less of an idea of how our language has changed than we have of how our clothing and décor have changed. Most of us don’t know that a sentence such as The suspect planned to use a car to raid the warehouse would have been “bad English” in 1900 for its use of suspect as a noun, plan and raid as verbs, and car to mean automobile, while every “awful new error” in Hopefully, gifting generously will impact our decimated morale has been established usage for much longer.

Change always happens, but it happens at different speeds in different ways in different places. Teenagers embrace and create change; certain areas of publishing resist it obdurately. Some new words catch on slowly, others quickly, and some don’t last (zowie!). We change language for four basic reasons:

  1. To make life easier.
    We reduce the effort in saying a word or we reduce the number of words in a sentence: give incentive to becomes incent. We cut down the complexity of a language system: more than a dozen different forms of the definite article have been merged into the. We avoid social awkwardness: we now always use you so we never have to decide if someone is a thou. We add clarity and reduce ambiguity: some dialects now have a you all. Sometimes making life easier means increasing effort in order to avoid confusion.
  2. To feel better.
    We do it for fun: wordplay, clever slang, cute turns of phrase. We do it for art, for example metaphor. We do it for culture, using new words for food, artifacts, and so on. And we do it for in-group identity: teen slang, technical jargon, the pervasive in-house acronyms of the business world.
  3. To control.
    Some change happens because some people want to exert power over others. And some change happens because some people want their world to be tidy. These two impulses often work in concert, as when we impose a standard version of the language with specific rules and exceptions and make it a badge of membership in a certain social set. Words, phrasings, or pronunciations are deprecated because they’re associated with lower-status groups, even if they’re the product of the same kinds of processes used in the standard dialect.
  4. Things slip.
    We actively change language for the three preceding reasons. But sometimes we also change it through accident and the gradual slippage inevitable in centuries of use and transmission. The word ask started out as acs and now some dialects are taking it back to that; throw used to mean “twist” and warp used to mean “throw”; an adder eating an orange and some peas used to be a nadder eating a norange and some pease.

 The most insidious kind of change is imposition of rules that claim to be guarding against change. All of the big “rules” that some people get so exercised about were introduced in the last two or three centuries: don’t split infinitives, don’t end a sentence with a preposition or start one with a conjunction, don’t use double negatives or double superlatives… If you ignore these “rules” there will always be people who claim you are changing the language (and making an illiterate mess of it – see reason 3, above), but you will in truth have more historical basis.

So what do we do about all this? Since we’re all active participants in language change, and since we editors have some influence and have to make conscious decisions about what change to accept and what to resist, we need some criteria on which to base our decisions. I recommend asking the following five questions:

  1. What is the change? Really?
    Make sure you know what’s newer: the “new” thing or the “rule” against it. Hopefully, you can look it up.
  2. Where did it come from? When?
    Dictionary sites such as Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com and language-focused sites such as World Wide Words, Language Log, and several others (including my own) can give useful details.
  3. Where is it used? By whom?
    Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and other tools such as Google ngrams can be very useful to find out when, where, and by whom a word has been used.
  4. Who is your text for?
    It’s up to you to know as much as possible about the demographics of your readership and the general expectations for the kind of writing you’re editing – some genres and audiences are more conservative (or stuck on schoolhouse “rules”) than others.
  5. What are the gains and losses?
    This is the real point of decision on any usage or rule. If it adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping: subtle differences of tone, emphasis, and signification. (That doesn’t mean use slang freely in formal documents – it might make the slang lose its casual tone!) But anything that mainly serves to limit what you can do with the language – whether it be a blurring of a semantic distinction or a rigid rule against a certain construction – will do more harm than good and is best put aside… if it can be.

One response to “Our strange language, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love language change

  1. Yes, thanks for this! Love the title too. The more folks learn about the realities of language change, the better. The second half of one of my recent posts deals with this as well (https://linguamonium.com/2018/02/11/literally-cray-a-linguists-attitude-toward-speech-errors-and-slang/), but I plan to write even more on it in the future, because it’s such a misunderstood topic! Also great how the end of your post addresses the issue from an editing perspective.

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