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The Evolution of English

January 12, 2010

Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love my language, with all its faults

English, as a language, is evolving. You know this already just from everyday conversation. 200 years ago, there was no “internet” and so the word itself never existed. When the internet came about, we coined a word. As a book I just read (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the Untold History of English, by John McWhorter) argues, English grammar has also changed a lot over the years. So if it’s happened before, why are we so afraid (and resistant) of it happening again?

The Vikings are coming!

McWhorter cites the Viking invasion of England in the late 1st century A.D. He notes that the Vikings, especially the adults, learned English as it suited them, i.e. only as much as they needed to communicate. As a result, English took a beating and the grammar changed forever. Reflecting on this situation, I don’t feel pity or sympathy for the language “losing” parts of its grammar. I prefer to think of it as evolving.

So why is it that many people, in response to English grammar and spellings changing today, feel revulsion or fear? Language is and always has been about communicating, not necessarily communicating in a polished way that simply adds difficulty.

The internet (among other things) strikes again

I think part of the reason for the worry is how often we see people writing things down in ways deemed “wrong.” In the past, as McWhorter makes clear, there was always a large disconnect between the way people spoke and the way people wrote. Nowadays, with a significantly larger amount of casual writing, such as texting, e-mailing and IMing, people feel much stronger about how English is evolving.

Here are two examples of interesting things in English, one that people barely think of as strange (if they think of it at all) and one that many find absolutely wrong.

1. Saying “John and me went to the store” rather than “John and I…” It’s completely, grammatically, wrong. No editor worth his or her salt would let you print that without special consideration (such as having a narrator who doesn’t know English very well). Regardless of it’s correctness, many (I’m guilty of this too) use “John and me” in speech, even if the speaker is aware that it is incorrect.

2. Did you know that you pronounce “have” in two ways? It’s the same word with the same spelling, but in two different contexts it’s very likely that you use two pronunciations. Say these sentences:

  • I have to go
  • I have a cat

Did the two haves sound different? The first one sounds more like “haf” than “have.” If I started writing “I haf to go” instead of “I have to go,” I don’t think people would be appreciative of my simplifying the language. I would get pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables everywhere I went. But if I continue to say “haf” instead of “have” and never write it, nobody will notice or mention the difference. (I only realized it after reading Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought
over the summer.)

English is more like the tortoise than the hare

For the sake of this analogy, imagine that the race of The Tortoise and the Hare has no finish line. English doesn’t stop and take a nap for a little while, as the strict grammar police want it to. (Look, I ended a sentence with a preposition! Don’t tell the grammar police.) It’s more like the tortoise: always (if slowly) walking forward. There’s no reason to believe that the tortoise will spontaneously combust or step on a land mine and become unusable. We’ll never miraculously stop understanding it as long as it’s a spoken language.

So why worry?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2010 8:54 pm

    This is a very insightful post, Mr. Gordon! You’re taking concepts we’ve recently learned and applied them to what many see as an imminent threat.

    Another disconnect in which I’m interested is those opposed to language changing, and those butchering it altogether. I’m almost positive those two spheres intersect, as many Twitter users or bloggers or–in the most essential form–people who use fragmented sentences are also those who fear the breakdown of the language. But not in ALL cases, I suppose.

    I do sense a hint of hypocrisy in some forums on the internet, especially when users call out anyone who uses fragmented or altered words and sentences. In many of these call-outs, the user him or herself makes mistakes, whether due to insufficient knowledge of mechanics, poor editing/proofreading, or a complete lack thereof.

    If more people opened up to the possibility of our language changing, it would not only give us a wider range of expression, but also even more ways in which to interact with each other. The next step after that, I suppose, would be to ensure everyone could have a working knowledge of this “evolved” dialect…

    • January 12, 2010 9:36 pm

      Hypocrisy and ignorance in forums on the internet? I never would have guessed!

      • January 12, 2010 10:03 pm

        Okay, sorry for the Captain Obvious moment…

  2. Sarah permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:34 pm

    The English language is certainly shifting, and it been doing so for hundreds of years, as you suggest; how else could we have gotten past Chaucer’s Middle English? What I discovered in one of Bill Bryson’s books was that Shakespeare, in fact, never actually spelled his name the way we all currently do. He spelled it “Shakespeer,” “Shakespear,” and many other ways. Thank God for standarization!

    And at least the evolution toward compression, i.e. lol, lmao, brb, ttyl, imo, etc… takes us back to Zipf’s Law, which suggests that we’re going to get our message across in the shortest amount of time possible, and that our most common words are the one- and two-letter ones. I guess that is natural, but as I learned while studying for the GREs, I use only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of words available to me. And that’s something that could be changed.

    • February 1, 2010 6:26 pm

      But is it a bad thing that you (and I) only use a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of words available? Many words that don’t see everyday use are either very specific (scientific terms like nanoparticle, for example), archaic or simply not generally known (like words you play in Scrabble).

      If language is first and foremost a communcation tool, it’s not the end of the world that we lose some words here and there to unuse. It’s not a new phenomenon, as your example of Chaucer’s Middle English brings up (it’s not much like our English at all), so why worry about it?

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