The Ever-Morphing English Language
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was a philosopher, astronomer, bureaucrat, courtier, and diplomat, but he is best remembered today as the author of The Canterbury Tales. For most, his work would not be easy to read as in this example from The Summoner’s Tale:
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder. (Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.)
English, as with all languages, is in a constant state of change in five principal areas: vocabulary, spelling, definition, pronunciation, and word order or sentence structure. Understanding the causes of these changes can help to recognize language shifts which affect the way we communicate.
Our language is evolving.
Vocabulary is rapidly changing. We need new words to describe technology (buffer, digitize) and products (jeggings). Words like unfriend and tweet weren’t used in the same way fifteen years ago as they are today. Jargon, such as in business (micromanage), and slang (woke – being aware, specifically about current events and cultural issues) introduce many new words.
Spelling has changed most notably over a more extended period. In the 13th to 16th centuries, the word doubt was spelled dout, and connection was spelled connexion in the 17th to mid-20th centuries. Today’s misspellings may well predict spelling changes of the future, such as in curiosity (misspelling – curiousity) or gist (misspelling – jist).
Enter: Slang Words
We are seeing word definitions change today, especially in slang usage. For example, wicked used to mean something evil, but now it can mean something good. Meat in Old English used to signify solid food, but now it refers to the flesh of animals. Egregious used to mean something remarkably good, but it has changed to indicate something terrible or shocking, possibly due to an ironic use of the word.
Pronunciation shifts are not as easy to identify over the last few years, but looking back about 500 years, we recognize the Great Vowel Shift where about seven significant changes in vowel pronunciation occurred, principally in the long vowels. Many words have had a pronunciation shift over the last few hundred years. Cognizance used to be pronounced without the “g,” and tomb was pronounced with the “b.” Sometimes word sounds get switched around as in wasp (previously waps) or bird (previously brid).
Even sentence structure is changing.
The last central area of change is in word order and sentence structure. In the past, the word not was placed after the verb as in “She likes me not.” Today that sentence would be “She doesn’t like me.” However, a recent change puts a pause into the old order of words and puts the word not at the end again as in “She likes me – NOT!”, a sarcastic comment. If you look at the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare, you’ll see many odd (for today) arrangements of words. Shakespeare, in particular, liked to play with the order of words, so instead of the usual subject-verb-object order, he would mix things up.
Why all the changes?
The causes of language change are several. Recently, I heard White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders say “gonna” repeatedly in a press conference. I don’t doubt that soon, “gonna” will be an acceptable spoken and written word, replacing “going to.” There is a need for efficiency in language, and people take shortcuts frequently, as in dropping the “g” sound from many “-ing” words or substituting “a” for the words have or to in words like coulda, shoulda, wanna, etc.
Borrowing words from other languages is common. For example, English has borrowed the words emoji, sushi, and honcho from Japanese. Environment affects language; things like invasions, colonization, and migration bring change. Rules that are difficult to remember cause change. For example, lie vs. lay and who vs. whom are so difficult that the usage rules may change. There still is a rule about not splitting an infinitive (e.g. putting an adverb between the infinitive to and its verb as in “to thoroughly disagree”), but it seems archaic because it came from a time when people wanted English to be more like Latin, where it’s impossible to split its single word infinitives.
There are countries such as France and Malaysia which have language academies to prescribe how the language should be. Even they have to acknowledge some change because language change is inevitable. Perhaps a better way to look at such changes is that they are invigorating; people are looking for new and better ways to express themselves. Recognizing and accepting that language is in flux can aid in efforts to communicate most effectively and efficiently.
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.