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So, she goes, “cringe” and I was all like, “whatever.” Good words, bad words or just words?

Language is constantly changing. The two teenagers in my house are a good reminder of that for me. Recent dinnertime discussions have introduced ‘capping’ (lying), ‘genzies’ (members of Gen-Z) and ‘peak’ (annoying) to my lexicon. Not that I’m allowed to say them, of course. In fact, I was only allowed an explanation of what they meant on the promise I wouldn’t ever try and use them. That’s the point of these words: they show you below to an exclusive group to which I definitely don’t have membership.

An unprecedented year of words

You might notice language evolving most starkly when listening to teens, but it’s not something exclusively done by the under 20s. Many of the changes that occur in language begin with young adults and filter through to the mainstream, but there are other sources of language revolution. Societal change being one of them. ‘Lockdown’, ‘quarantine’, ‘bubble’, ‘super-spreader’, ‘circuit breaker’… had you used any of those words in the context we now do on a daily basis, before 2020? In fact, last year saw the creation of so many new words and new usages for old words that for the first time in its history, the Oxford dictionary had to name 47 ‘Words of the Year’ in place of its usual one.

Language needs to adapt to keep pace with changes in our world. We wouldn’t have the right words for the environment we find ourselves in otherwise, as the coronavirus pandemic has neatly demonstrated. Today we ‘binge-watch’, obsess over being ‘unfriended’, and worry about ‘Big Data’ and ‘Frankenfood’, all of which tell us something about how we live.

So, despite there being a million or so English words already at our disposal, we continue to blend, repurpose and cut-and-shut new words into existence at a rate of around 5,400 a year. Although only 1,000 or so go on to be used in such a widespread way that they make it into the dictionary.

Why thou no talk like a real poet?

If you tried reading Beowulf (I haven’t) you’d quickly discover how far language has migrated since the 11th century. Even Shakespeare’s plays, written a mere (in language terms) 450 years ago, are pretty incomprehensible for most of us without the aid of a SparkNotes translation.

But instead of seeing language evolution as something interesting to be observed, it’s most often remarked upon as something to be resisted and even be ashamed of. Take this, sent to the Merriam-Webster dictionary team.

“We get a lot of hate mail from people who think slang doesn’t belong in the dictionary. Comments on our definition for OMG include ‘I am a high school English teacher and heard that this was added to the dictionary and hoped that I heard incorrectly.” and “The human race is heading somewhere very sad.’”

We often hear that older forms of language are more ‘correct’ than modern forms. That if only children spoke properly, society wouldn’t be doomed.

In actual fact, there’s never been a time when language was done and dusted and fully fit for purpose. And the moral panic over how it is used is nothing new either. Even Shakespeare, a prolific creator of new vocabulary (‘puking’, ‘obscene’, ‘newfangled’, ‘cold-blooded’, ‘addiction’, ‘assassination’, ‘bedazzled’, to name just a few of the hundreds) was accused of doing it wrong. His use of ‘kitchen diction’ (slang) made him unpopular with critics who felt that poetry should be limited to ‘special’ and ‘elevated’ language, and should certainly never include what were considered ‘common’ words.

The response from the team at Merriam-Webster to the criticism, by the way, was, “These people are barking up the wrong tree: We follow language and delight in tracking its changes.”

Speaking proper

So, if Shakespeare did it and the dictionary people say it’s a good thing, it’s ok, right? Well, yes and no.

As with all writing, it depends on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. By convention, we use more formal, standardised language for writing than we do for speech so a lot of the changes we hear spoken won’t be reflected in the written word for some time to come, if ever at all.

For most of us, in a professional setting, it would be entirely inappropriate to start replacing ‘close working relationship’ with ‘bromance’, or ‘impressive performance’ with ‘you slayed that’. But think how easily you probably now use the words ‘Brexit’, ‘selfie’ or ‘hashtag’, despite their newness. It might be a bit early to add ‘whatevs’ and ‘chillax’ to an email, but once upon a time ‘kids’, ‘fake’ and ‘awful’ were considered taboo. Even ‘won’t’ was described as ‘vulgar’ not so long ago and now, it’s taught in schools. Who’s to say ‘fave’ and ‘vacay’ won’t follow suit?

What’s more, changes to the way we talk and write are far less top-down now than they once were. It isn’t just scholars and playwrights who get to create new and influential ways of conversing, as it once was. We’re all now able to contribute to language change: it just takes one viral tweet.

Changes to grammar and punctuation used to happen far more slowly than changes to vocabulary, although interestingly, social media might be speeding things up here too. Just ask a teenager about the difference in tone between the following three text messages:

“It’s fine” (It’s fine)

“It’s fine.” (Attitude. It’s not fine)

“It’s fine…” (Don’t darken my door again)

Apparently, full stops are passive-aggressive and if there’s an ellipsis at the end, you’re really in trouble.

The bit at the end

What the history of language change teaches us, is that trying to enforce the one version of language that you think is ‘correct’ is ultimately pretty futile. Does that mean anything goes? Of course not. There are still rules and conventions that, if you’re writing for others, it’s important to follow because your audience will be expecting them. And knowing your audience is the number one rule of communication.

TL;DR (Too long, didn’t read)

Language isn’t a static thing; it evolves, it always has done and that’s not a bad thing. Unless it’s the modern use of the word ‘literally’; that’s bad. Don’t get me started on that one. I’ll literally explode.

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