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Devolution/Evolution: What's Up With U.S. English, Anyway?

One thing that makes the human species so unique is the complexity of our communication. We like to think of language as a fixed, reliable system, and while it may seem that way in our own lifetime, any living language will evolve over the longer term. I think we're seeing an accelerated evolution right now. It would certainly explain the widespread complaints about business-speak, the truncated vocabulary of texting and tweeting, and whatever crazy things the kids are saying this year. But while it may be happening faster (and therefore more visibly) in the 21st century, this process isn't new. For literary evidence of how the English language has changed over the years, compare the differences between Chaucer and Shakespeare, Austen and Woolf, Fitzgerald and Salinger.

But let's start with a widescreen look at some dramatic examples of linguistic change.

Photo by Moritz Schmidt on Unsplash

Watch Your Language

You've heard Latin referred to as a dead language, but calling it cloistered would be more accurate. As Imperial Rome's language of literacy, Classical Latin was reserved for orators, poets, and historians. It fell out of usage once the Roman Empire waned, it evolved into the rarefied New Latin that was the basis of Western Europe's written culture through the 17th century, and it can still be found as an obscure subject taught in some schools. Meanwhile, the everyday version, dismissively called Vulgar Latin, remained in use and spawned the Romance languages including Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian.

Hebrew is a once-dead language that came back to life. It mostly vanished as a spoken medium by 400 CE, surviving the Diaspora as a liturgical language. Then, as Zionists focused on Palestine as a future Jewish homeland in the late 19th century, linguists made a concerted effort to adapt this archaic language for modern use. Ancient Judeans lacked some of the concepts and vocabulary necessary in the industrial age, so Hebrew was rebuilt with elements borrowed from active languages such as Arabic, Yiddish, and English.

Modern Turkish is the product of state-sponsored language reform in the 1930s as a new republic attempted to reconcile the considerable differences between Ottoman Turkish (a long-hybridized state and commercial language) and "rough" Turkish (spoken by uneducated and rural populations). Imported words were banned from official and media usage, and old Turkic words were reintroduced. This abrupt change in national language, and the mandated adjustments that followed, resulted in a few wide linguistic generation gaps in Turkey throughout the 20th century.

Indonesia, a huge archipelago with over 700 spoken languages and dialects, adopted Indonesian Malay as its official language upon gaining independence in 1945. Even though 48% of the population spoke Javanese and another 15% spoke Sundanese as their primary languages, Malay was the language of travel and commerce, understood by the vast majority of Indonesians and structurally easy to learn. (Unlike neighboring Malaysia, where the British colonials widely taught English, the Dutch left only a small linguistic imprint on Indonesia after three centuries of influence. Other than the civil servant class, 98% of Indonesians possibly had no idea what their colonizers were saying.)

But so much for the dramatic sweep of history. Here on the ground, the changes in language tend to be more organic.

Snapshots of Evolution

As we watch our own familiar American English devolve/evolve at an accelerated pace, we may be too close to understand what's happening. Let's consider three factors: the meaning of adjectives, the fluidity between parts of speech, and the problem of volume. (Yes, I'm massively oversimplifying, but this is a blog post, not a doctoral thesis!)

1) Adjectives. I'll give you three: awesome, epic, and disruptive.

• Traditionally, something awesome inspired feelings of awe, an overpowering state of wonder that language could barely capture. In current vernacular, something that's awesome is cool, pretty darn good, and gets a general thumbs up.

• Until recently, the word epic generally functioned as a noun. An epic was a long poem or some other narrative work about the adventures of a mythic or historical hero. The adjective epic suggested those qualities. Today, however, people of a certain age will use it to mean -- well -- something that's cool, pretty darn good, and gets a general thumbs up. Depending on context, this usage might be spiced with a dash of sarcasm or irony.

Disruptive hasn't really changed its meaning. It's still about breaking apart and throwing into disorder. What has changed, at least in the biz and tech sectors, is the perceived value of disturbance and interruption. Disruption is now equated with innovation instead of that kid in the back row who won't stop talking.

2) Fluid parts of speech. There's actually a word for this: anthimeria. It means repurposing one part of speech to function as another part of speech. See what I just did there with repurposing? Purpose is a noun, not a verb, and yet that new verb probably sounded normal to your mind's ear. For people who complain about anthimeria undermining the purity of our grammar, the favorite example is access, a noun that's now widely established as a verb thanks to the proliferation of techspeak. We could also point to the new verbs hashtag, adult, and gift. While other parts of speech are breaking out of their old parameters with equal vigor, verbs are the easiest to track and explain. Indeed, as a self-defining example of this trend, anthimeria is more commonly called verbing.

3) Volume. This word can refer to either noise level or physical quantity, and I'm using it in both senses. Thanks to the explosion of electronic media, we have a glut of 24/7 information, much of it expressed through language. I believe this is why we're seeing the accelerated standardizing of abbreviations, acronyms, and cultural shorthand. We're hungry for vivid words and phrases to express ideas in ways that are still compelling. We're also struggling to hear ourselves and make sense of each other amidst a perpetual state of chatter. When humans chatter, it implies foolish or purposeless talk -- and in the intelligence community has come to mean the background environment from which critical information can be sifted. When a machine is said to chatter, it's producing an excess of vibration that can interfere with the efficiency or accuracy of whatever mechanized task it's supposed to be doing. And in the animal kingdom, chattering is a range of quick, repetitive sound resembling human speech while lacking human meaning. It comes from the Middle English chateren, which is also the root of twitter. Wait! Do you suppose...? Nah! Pure coincidence, I'm sure.

So there you have it according to your humble Village Wordsmith. Language appears to be devolving, but it's probably just evolving. And we'd probably be happier about the changes if we stopped regarding them as a slide into Vulgar Latin and started reframing them as the rise of a Romance language.


© 2018 by Alan K. Lipton
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The Village Wordsmith