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Language Transformation

People evolve. Technology evolves. Art evolves. And language certainly evolves.

This is a tricky topic. There are pundits who criticize speech as being riddled with “errors” and “incorrect grammar”. I’m often one of them. We say people are lazy or uneducated if they cannot speak “properly”. But who are we to decide what “proper” is? It used to be “proper” to have sentences with scads of commas, like so:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

I cringe. Comma splicing is just one of the many reasons that I cannot stand Dickens. This is just a personal defect – many people love this crazy comma-man; I am not one of them.

So we know that language changes (a lot) over time. Slang terms change, come into popularity, and drift away. Examples: airhead (80s), as if! (90s), far out (70s), groovy (60s), Nowheresville (50s), niftic (40s), the bee’s knees (20s). We might be familiar with these words, but we don’t really use them much anymore.

Let’s get more drastic. Try comparing Old English and Modern English (Beowolf, opening lines):

[1] Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum, (What! We [of] Gar-Danes (lit. spear-danes) in yore-days,)
[2] þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, ([of] people-kings, trim (glory) afrained (have learned of by asking),)

Hwaet! They are like two different languages. Some words are similar, but it’s kind of like comparing German and English:

  • Der alte Mann hat mir heute das Buch gegeben. (The old man has given me the book today.)

Actually, sometimes German and English seem closer than Old English and Modern English do.

I think the most important thing to remember is this (in the words of one of my favorite linguists, John McWhorter):

Language change is not decay.

I had a lot more to say on this, but now I’m beginning to ramble, so I will stop now and continue later. I believe that language change is not always decay, but I do appreciate a good grasp of grammar and proper writing. There’s a difference between beautiful new language conventions and laziness. It’s a hard distinction to make, though. I love ending sentences with prepositions, and I love the Oxford comma (red, white, and blue instead of red, white and blue). (Confession: sometimes I add Oxford commas to books… even library books.)

What language quirks (new or old) do you love or hate?


4 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I DESPISE the oxford/serial comma! I never use it and when I edit others’ work that has them, I always remove them.In my mind it is wrong! Haha :)

  2. 2

    YES!!!! I too am in love with the Oxford comma. I find it helps clarify lists. For example:

    I love to eat spinach, peanut butter and tuna.

    vs.

    I love to eat spinach, peanut butter, and tuna.

    Without the Oxford comma it sounds to me like you would be eating them together like peanut butter and jelly, which is gross.

    At the beginning of your post I feared your disdain of commas, since I adore them. I love that they can clarify clauses, or can be used to indicate breath. To me, good writing has a rhythm to it and commas help indicate beats. However, since you respect the Oxford comma, I can let it go.

    Vampire Weekend actually has a song called Oxford Comma… unfortunately it is less than flattering toward it.

  3. 3

    Oh goodness I need the Oxford comma to be able to read lists. Otherwise, everything looks like it needs semicolons.

    Anyway, a good expansion on “language change is not decay” is the exploration of “register.” For instance, no one writes academic essays the way they talk to their friends, family, or even colleagues (unless you’re giving a talk – then it’s questionable).

    In fact, those three groups I just mentioned also elicit three other, different registers. You might not say “Dude! That was sick!” to your family or colleagues, and I doubt you’d say, “Aw, c’mon, Professor. I d’wanna go ta class today.” And while you might try to use technical jargon with your friends (especially if they’re in the same field as you), it’s generally considered poor form to be sesquipedalian in bars or at parties.

    For more on the use of register, and switching between registers, see William Labov’s work on language change, sociolinguistics and *especially* his NYC “Fourth Floor” study (briefly summarized here: http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~anth383/unit4.html ).

  4. caitlin #
    4

    I have always been confused (and annoyed) by sentences ending in “already”. — “let’s go already”. . .


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