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When Language Changes

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Grant Barrett & Martha Barnette. Photo credit: Website A Way with Words

Grant Barrett & Martha Barnette. Photo credit: Website A Way with Words

The podcast has become my primary form of cultural enlightenment, and lately I’ve been listening to A Way With Words where Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette answer questions about words and phrases in the English language—or, according to the official description, “A Way with Words is a call-in public radio show about language. It’s heard across the country and around the world by broadcast and podcast.” The subject is apparently inexhaustible, and the hosts are enthusiastic researchers and conversationalists. Besides making me laugh a lot, they’ve taught me a thing or two about this language I’m always going on about, and forced me to look at the reasons behind some of my raving reactions. It turns out I am not alone in my rage over some new turns of the English screw—for instance, using nouns as verbs, such as turning the honorable journal into a self-help regimen (to journal), or overuse of trendy phrases (going forward tagged onto the end of anything with a future, no matter how distant or vague).

Actually, those aren’t the best examples, since I’ll probably always loathe and refuse to use them. The place where I need to loosen up is in adapting to change, understanding that language is a dynamic phenomenon that evolves along with the speaking species. Failure to adapt might, in fact, be seen as failure to evolve. It turns out that much of what we take for granted as gospel already differs from its original usage, only we don’t always know it since the changes occurred before we paid attention, or even eons before we were born. Linguistic change has probably been a part of culture since the first cave dweller uttered his first hello to his cave mate, and they both burst into astonished laughter—or so I imagine the scenario.

As I’ve learned from Grant and Martha, it’s the transitional stage, shortly after a word begins its long, slow journey from one meaning or nuance to another, that’s so hard for some people. It’s during this period that I and others with my sensitivities cringe at the new. The first time I heard the word impact used as a verb it was by a favorite disk jockey on the radio (“We’ll have to see how this development impacts the community”). I was alarmed; I assumed he’d used it incorrectly, and I’d have to re-evaluate my respect for the guy. But soon I was hearing how things impacted other things all the time, and with every utterance I cringed. I know I’m showing my age here; to impact went viral a long time ago, way before the Internet even, and I no longer blink much less cringe at it anymore. I myself have never, however, used impact as a verb. Or journaling. Nor do I say we’re going forward. I absolutely refuse to jump on these linguistic tropes. Oops! I just did it with trope! I remember when that term went viral: I was at a weekend conference with someone who used it repeatedly, until I bluntly asked her what was up. She apologized and said it was indeed a virus she’d caught. How about we ruminate on that for a while, on the word virus, its literal meaning and its YouTube meaning. Look it up. I especially like Definition #3: any corrupting or infecting influence.

As you can no doubt tell by my tone and my avowed “refusal to jump on linguistic tropes,” I have yet to integrate my new awareness of language as a changing phenomenon with my gut reactions. What can I say? I’m working on it. Evolving. I think I’ll go journal write in my journal about it. Maybe I’ll change going forward someday. On second thought, maybe I won’t.


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3 responses »

  1. Oh, this sounds like a great podcast. Thank you for writing about it. When I got my Master’s in Teaching English as a 2nd Language, we had to take a couple of linguistics courses, as well as grammar courses. They were my very favorite classes, particularly the bits about how language has evolved and changed.

    I know exactly what you mean about new phraseology that irks you. The one that comes to mind for me is when I hear “in relationship,” rather than “in a relationship.” I also dislike proactive. There are more, but they don’t come to mind as I right, which I guess is a good thing. 🙂

    Still, you are right. Language is ever changing and dynamic, so we must embrace change to a certain extent.

    Again, thanks for highlighting the podcasts. I will definitely tune in.

  2. oops….as I WRITE…not right. LOL

  3. Christina Brown

    This is one of my favorite topics! Over time, I’ve come to accept and appreciate (even embrace) the way language evolves. I think this change coincided with my general love of studying evolutionary psychology. Steven Pinker has a great book, “The Language Instinct,” on the evolution of the mental capacity for language. Language–as an ability–evolved to allow us to communicate with one another, so it will change as our communication needs change.

    One of my favorite parts of his book is about how children create language. There’s a case study of deaf children in Nicaragua who naturally developed a common signing language between themselves. (Similar to how a “creole” develops when children are exposed to a “pidgin.”) So not only do we all have the human instinct to acquire and use language, we even have the capacity to create language on our own. This has made me see the way we turn nouns into verbs (like what’s happened with “google”) as evidence of incredible instinctual mental ability, rather than an assault on language.

    That being said… Spelling errors drive me nuts. 🙂 Creating new words and ignoring “rules” irrelevant to our ability to convey meaning (like the rule “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”) make sense because both of those allow us to communicate better. Word spelling, on the other hand, is important because spelling identifies the specific word (and therefore the intended meaning) the person is using. (Although that could just be a justification for my own arbitrary preferences. :))

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