IS THE ENGLISH

LANGUAGE CHANGING?

 

 

 

 Yes, and so is every other  human language..Language is always  changing, evolving  and adapting  to the needs of its  users. This isn’t a bad thing; if English hadn’t changed  since, say, a950, we woudn’t have words to refer to modems, fax machines, or cable TV. As long as the needs of language  users  continue  to change , so will the language. The change is so slow that from year to year we  hardly  notice it (except to grumble every so often about the “poor English” being  used by  the younger generation!). But reading  Shakespeare’s writing  from the sixteenth century  can be difficult . If you go back a couple more centuries , Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales are very  tough  sledding , and  if  you went  back  another  500 years to try  to read Beowulf , it would be like reading a different language.

 Beowulf:

Hwae twe Gar-dena ingeardagum…”

-“ Yes, we (of) Spear-danes in days of yore…”

 Canterbury Tales:

“Whan that Aprille with  his shoures soote..”

“When April with its sweet showers…” 

Why does language change ?

Language changes for several reasons. First, it changes because the needs of its speakers change. New technologies, new products, and new experiences require new words to refer to them clearly and efficiently. Consider the fax machine : Originally, it was called a facsimile machine because it allowed one person  to send another a copy,  facsimile , of a document. As the machine became more common , people began  using the shorter form fax to refer to both  the machine and the documents; from there, it was just  a short step   to  using the word fax  as a verb ( as in  I’ll fax this over to  you  ).

 Another reason for change  is that no  two people have had the same exactly language experience. We all know a  slightly  different set of words  and constructions, depending on our  age, job, education level, region of the country  and so on. . We pick  up new words and phrases from  all the different  people we  talk  with, and this combine to  make something and unlike any other  person’s particular way of speaking. At  the same time,  various  groups in society use language as a way  of marking their  group identity- showing who is and isn’t member  of the group.

    Many of the changes that occur in language begin with teens and young adults: As young people interact with others their own age, their language grows to include  word, phrases  and constructions that are  different from  the older  generation. Some have a short life  span but others stick  around to affect the language as a  whole.

  We get new words from many  different places. We borrow them from other  languages (sushi, chutzpah), we  create them  by  shortening longer  words (gym  from gymnasium )  or by  combining words ( brunch  from breakfast   and lunch ) , and we  make them  out of proper names (Levis,  Fahrenheit ).

   Sometimes we even create a new  word by  being wrong about the analysis of an  existing word. That’s how the word pea was created : Four hundred years ago  , the word pease was used to refer to either  a single pea  or a buch of them. But over time, people assumed the pease was a plural form, for which pea  must be the singular , and a new word  -pea– was born . (The same thing  would happen if  people began to think  of the word cheese  as referring to more than one chee ).

 Word order also changes, though  this process is much slower. Old English word order was much more ‘free’  than that of Modern English, and even comparing the  Early Modern English  of the King James Bible with  today’s English sows differences in  word order. For example,  the King  James bible translates Matthew 6:28 as “ Consider the lilies  of the field how to grow ; they toil not.”  In a more recent  translation , the last phrase is translated  as “they do not toil.”  English no longer places not after  the verb in a sentence .

   Finally,  the sounds of a language  change over time , too. About 500 years ago English began  to undergo a major change in the way its vowels were pronounced. Before that, geese would have rhymed  with today’s pronunciation of  face , while mice would have  rhymed with today’s peace. But then a ‘Great  Vowel Shift’ began to occur , during  which the  ay sound (as in pay)  changed to  ee (as in fee) in all the words  containing it , while the ee sound  changed  to i  (as in pie ) . In all, seven  different vowel sounds were affected. If you’ve ever  wondered  why most other European languages spell the sound ay  with an e  (as in fiancé ) and the sound ee with an i  (as in aria) it’s because those languages  didn’t undergo  the  Great Vowel Shift  . Only English  did.  

Wasn’t English  more elegant  in Shakespeare’s day ?

  People tend to think  that older  forms of language  are more elegant , logical or  correct than modern  forms , but it’s just not  true. The  fact that  language is  always changing  doesn’t  mean  it’s getting  worse; it’s just becoming  different.

  In old English , a small winged creature  with  feathers was known as a  brid. Over time, the pronunciation    changed  to  bird . Although it’s not hard to imagine  children in the 1400’s being scolded  for ‘ slurring’ brid into bird ,it’s clear that  bird  won out. Nobody  today  would suggest that  bird is an incorrect  word or a  sloppy  pronunciation.

  The speech patterns  of young people tend   to grate on the ears  of adults  because they’re unfamiliar . Also, new words and phrases are  used in spoken  or informal language  sooner than  in formal , written language , so it’s true  that the phrases you hear  teenagers using may not yet be  appropriate for business letters. But that doesn’t mean  they’re worse- just newer.

   For years  English teachers and   newspaper  editors  argued that the word hopefully  shoudn’t be used  to mean”I hope”  as in  “Hopefully it won’t  rain today”, even  though  people  frequently  used it that  way  in informal  speech. (And , of course,  nobody  complained  about other  ‘sentence  adverbs’  such  as frankly  and actually ).  Now the battle against  hopefully  is all but lost and it appears at the beginning of sentences  even in formal  documents.

   If you listen carefully,  you can hear language change in progress. For example, anymore  used to  occur   only in negative sentences : I don’t eat pizza anymore. But now, in many  areas  of the country, it’s being used in positive sentences : I’ve been eating a lot of pizza  anymore.  In this use , anymore means something like ‘lately’. If that   sounds  odd to  you  now,  keep listening : you may be hearing it in your neighbourhood   before long. 

Why can’t people  just use correct English?

  By  ‘correct English’, people usually mean  Standard English .Most languages have a standard form; it’s the form of the language used in government , education and other  formal  contexts.  But Standard English  is just  one dialect of English.

  What’s important to  realize  is that there’s no  such thing as  a ‘sloppy’  or ‘lazy’ dialect. Every  dialect of every language  has rules- not ‘schoolroom’ rules like ‘don’t split your infinitives’  but rather the sorts of rules  that tell us that  the cat  slept  is  a sentence of English  but slept cat the  isn’t.  These rules  tell us what language is like  rather than  what it should be like.

   Different dialects have different rules . For example :

(1)   I didn’t eat any  dinner

(2)   I didn’t eat no dinner

   Sentence (1)  follows the rules of Standard English; sentence (2) follows a set of rules  present in several other  dialects. But neither is  sloppier than the other; they just differ  in the rule for making a negative sentence. In (1) , dinner is marked as negative with  any; in (2) , it’s marked as negative with no.

  The rules are different , but neither is more logical or elegant than  the other. In fact ,  Old English regularly used  ‘double negatives’  parallel to  what  we see in (2) , and many modern languages, including Italian  and Spanish , either  allow or require more than one negative word in a sentence . Sentences like (2)  only sound ‘bad’  if you didn’t happen to  grow up speaking   a dialect  that  use them. 

Split infinitives.

   You may have been taught  to  avoid  ‘split infinitives’ as in (3) :

(3)   I was asked to thoroughly water the garden

This is said to  be ‘ungrammatical’  because  thoroughly  splits the infinitive to water. Why  are split infinitives  so bad? Here’s why : Seventeenth –century  grammarians  believed Latin was the ideal language, so they  thought English  should be as much  like Latin possible. In Latin  , an infinitive like to  water is a single word; it’s impossible to  split it up. So today,  300 years later, we’re still being taught  that  sentences like (3)  are wrong, all because someone in  the 1600’s  thought  English  should be more like Latin.

   Here’s one last example . Over the past  few decades, three new  ways of reporting  speech have appeared :

(4)   So Karen goes, “”Wow, I wish I’d been there !”

(5)   So Karen  is like , “”Wow, I wish I’d been there !”

(6)   So Karen is all ,   “”Wow, I wish I’d been there !”

In (4) , goes means pretty much the same thing as  said; it’s used for reporting  Karen’s actual  words.   In (5)  is like means  the speaker is telling us more  or less what  Karen  said . If Karen had used different words  for the same basic idea , (5) would be appropriate ,but (4)  would not. Finally, is all in (6)  is a fairly new  construction . In most of the areas where it’s used , it means something similar  to is like , but with  extra emotion.  If Karen  had simply  been reporting  the time,  it would be okay  to  say She’s like , “It’s five o’clock” , but odd to say She’s all , “It’s five  o’clock” –unless there was something exciting about it being five o’clock.

    A lazy way of talking ? Not at all; the younger generation has made a  useful three-way distinction where we previously  only had the word  said. Language will never stop  changing; it will continue to respond to the needs of the people who  use it. So the next time you hear  a new phrase that grates on your ears , remember that,  like everything else in nature , the  English  language is a work in progress.

 

The 'Globish' Language

Breaking the Language Barrier

Greek as International Lingua Franca

Languages in Extinction

Is the English Language Changing

The Barriers to Educating Girls

English–the universal language

on the Internet ?

Language News

Indigo Children

International Phonetic Association  

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Xenophon Zolotas on Economy

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Translation Problems

Language and the Brain

Language and the Internet

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