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The changing English language: Evolution or dumbing down?
The times and the English language are changing
It happens every so often. Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary announce the addition of new words to the English canon. My husband groans and I giggle. He thinks it's a sign of a society in decline -- the dumbing down of the human race. I think it's reflective of today's culture as language adapts to the current times -- a form of linguistic evolution. (And yet, our marriage seems to work).
No matter your opinion on the subject, the English language is changing. And it's happening fast!
With the internet age shattering geographic barriers, a wide array of slang, jargon and colloquialisms seem to find quickly infiltrate everyday conversations, texts, emails and social networks all over the world.
Some 21st Century additions to the dictionary
Use new words in a conversation with your parents or grandparents and you'll probably be met with a blank stare. Use them in an IM with your teenage niece and you may actually gain some "Cool Aunt or Uncle" points. Here are a few examples:
- Derpy: Someone who is awkward or accident-prone. Also a character on "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic."
- Totes: An abbreviated version of totally. According to Urban Dictionary, "The average time saved by using the word totes ... 26.6 seconds a day! Over the course of a year that adds up to 2.7 hours!!"
- Selfie: A picture you take of yourself with the intention of sharing with your social networks. Selfie was named Oxford's word of the year.
- Woot: A shout of joy or victory.
- Retweet: To share someone else's message on twitter.
- Jeggings: Leggings designed to resemble jeans.
- Sexting: Sending sexually explicit photos, images, text messages, or emails via cell phone or mobile device.
- Cyberbullying: Using the internet to harm other people, in a deliberate, repeated, and hostile manner.
- Bromance: A close friendship between men that is non-sexual.
How do you feel about new words like jeggings, retweet and sexting?
Yes, it's actually English (even if it's old)
The English language is in a constant state of flux. Just look at 13th Century Old English and 14th Century Middle English. It's like trying to read Japanese (unless, of course, you speak Japanese, in which case it's nothing like that).
Have you ever tried to read Geoffrey Chaucher's "The Canterbury Tales"? It's doable, but it's tough!
Here's an excerpt:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
It's difficult to decipher. And yes, it's English. I even took an entire college literature course devoted to reading Chaucer's work.
It's all about the conTEXT
How would Chaucer feel now trying to interpret the changing lexicon. With the prevalence of smart phones, just about everyone in texting these days (even your mom). The younger generation in particular has taken advantage of this new form of communication. Take a quick look at Urban Dictionary or even a text dialogue between two teens:
Any idea what these text abbreviation mean? Neither did I. Let me enlighten you:
A: How are you?
B: Alive and kicking.
A: Down for sex?
Key to English
Newscientist.com writes that a time capsule buried in 1938 in New York City included a printed "key to English" that describes 20th-century American English in order to help discoverers 5000 years in the future understand the language.
Here we are just under 75 years later, and language has already changed dramatically. It's safe to say that in 6938, the English language as we know it will most definitely be a foreign language
According to an article in the New York Times, the American Dialect Society's Brice Russ claims that the 200 million+ messages posted daily on twitter may provide valuable information to linguists about geographic speech differences.
Many teachers are reporting that the texting language common on Facebook, twitter, IM and other social media sites is polluting students' essays and homework assignments.
The implications of the changing language have been debated widely by scientists, linguists and even Hubbers:
- Dramatic changes are detrimental and put the English language in jeopardy: The Future of the English Language.
- A prolific look at changing language: The History of the English language.
- Some of the oddities of the English language.
- Some of the reasons why the English language is important.
As a writer I enjoy the growing lexicon. It's an opportunity to embrace new words and expand my writing horizon.
I know some people worry that these changes are making society stupid, but I would argue there has always been a portion of society that's simply that: Stupid. Or, as our teen friends might text, "AYSOS*?" I guess it depends who you ask.
*Are you stupid or something?