“Language change is not a disease, any more than adolescence, or autumn are illnesses.”
― Language Change: Progress or Decay?
“It’s hard to see what the problem is. Language speakers and writers have always been inventive, and texting is just one further example of human creativity. As David Crystal has expressed it: ‘it..is the latest manifestation of the human ability to be linguistically creative… In texting, we are seeing, in a small way, language in evolution…”
― Language Change: Progress or Decay?
I was writing to a friend that you could see language change in progress with the appearance (maybe 15-20 years ago) of hone in on, replacing home in on in speech and even in print..
From a descriptive point of view, there is, in cases of conflicting usages by native speakers, no inherent “right” and “wrong” independent of other factors — situation, audience, etc. I prefer the terms “traditional” (what we said until recently) and transitional, a recent variation that’s fading out, winning out, or co-existing with the traditional form — creeped/crept, sneaked/snuck, leaped/leapt…but only slept (not sleeped).
People forget the “homing” aspect of home in on. Home and hone sound alike. And hone suggests sharpness or focus.
My friend replied that he uses hone, and he’s 15 years younger. This reinforces my hunch that hone was around 15 years old.
That’s language change up close.
The two are in competition. The transitional form has a lot going for it. So now, I told my friend, you see the dynamics of language change first-hand. You use the transitional form; I use the traditional one. Variation is change is progress.
A language (which I’ll define roughly as a mutually-intelligible speech form with a community of speakers) is in perpetual flux. In the case of English, new words flood in from all over the world and from every specialized field and professional or social in-group. New meanings arise from usage, chance, and social circumstance. That has always been the case, much more so today, with worldwide inter-connectivity.
As it used to be
All we know of English before audio recording is written. To see how much the language has changed, read something from Shakespeare or his era. Four-hundred-year-old English is very difficult for modern people to understand, When movies set in the Middle Ages have the actors talking modern British or Scots, it’s bogus (but convenient). If they really spoke in the English of 1200 AD, we’d need subtitles.
Speech on the bridge of The Enterprise
(Digression: A similar fiction exists with respect to language of the future. In time-travel movies or stories set in the future, characters always talk just like people today! But why should that be? Look at all the changes in the last few decades, all the new words, meanings, abbreviations, and expressions.. Who could have predicted that -gate would get transplanted as a suffix connoting scandal or malfeasance [latest: pizzagate, applied to a conspiracy that didn’t even exist]? Why should we think we would understand Kirk, Spock, Sulu, and the rest of the crew of The Enterprise? We have no idea what their language would be like.)
This year my wife gave me a page-a-day calendar of “Forgotten English words.” Monday’s word was forjuts, ‘the pieces running up between the fingers of gloves’. Who knew? Or how about levanter (July 2), ‘someone who leaves a race track without paying his lost bets.’ Now there’s a word we can use!
English neology was just as freewheeling in the past as it is now. We’ve buried thousands and thousands of words (including, no doubt, many for which we have no written record).
But over the years, English prose has gotten simpler (a couple of exception; see below). Try reading something from the 18th century. Apparently they had longer attention spans.
For a shorter perspective, look at the last 20 years. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, the language is exposed to a vast array of influences, among the most powerful of which is now the world-wide cyber-interconnected managerial/infotech culture, source of a tsunami of technical terms that morph into buzzwords (e.g., bandwidth).
Same for the proliferation of acronyms, abbreviations, slang terms, idioms, and conversational devices. Acronyms and abbreviations can become metaphors. DOA, in addition to its medical meaning, can now mean ‘will get no social/political support.’
A thought experiment: Say you were living on the moon for ten years, totally out of touch information-wise, and returned to Earth. Imagine reading a contemporary news article or hearing commentary or conversation — and how much of it would be unintelligible. This year, I was a bit late learning what PPE is and missed the point of a lot of the early comments on it..
Recent changes; possible explanations
An old Wall Street Journal cartoon has a boss saying to an underling, “You’ll never get anywhere around here, Fassler, until you start using impact as a verb.” Now I hear and see it all the time. And why not? It’s a solution to the problem of affect/effect, each of which has two meanings. One of the more frequent ones — to affect = ‘to influence’ — got attached to verbal impact. Problem solved.
Some changes are done deals. Shifting only to the front, for example: I only want to talk to you. If the only really attached to want, it might mean something like ‘I only want, as opposed to insisting or demanding…’ But that’s not what it means; it’s ‘I want only to…” Preposing only is functional: it emphasizes the reasonableness or limited nature of what follows.
Till recently, transpire meant ‘become known’ (trans = ‘across’; ‘spire’ = ‘breathe’); not it “happened,’ a recent development — It transpired that he has innocent (here, ‘it turned out that…”).
OK, fine, and similar words, formerly used in an objective sense — It’s OK with me — has added a subjective meaning: I’m OK with it.
My stepson and I, plus a handful of grammarians, are the only ones holding the line on proverbial. There has to be a proverb, e.g., “He’s like the proverbial fox and the grapes.” Now it means “as we know all too well,’ e.g., “She’s a proverbial micro-manager.”
Sometimes we lose useful words, e.g., erstwhile (‘earliest’ + ‘time’). Now, instead of My erstwhile colleague…, we need clumsy circumlocutions like My colleague from way back.
But we also get “vogue words” that appear alongside perfectly adequate words but show that the speaker/writer is really cool for using them — optics (what we in PR used to call “appearances” or “perceptions”), double-down (‘repeat an assertion, even if absurd’), walk back (‘restate in less controversial terms’), pushback (= ‘resistance‘).
And we’ve added some words that report discourse: He goes…I’m like… . The former comes from a broadening of go, which used to apply only to animal sounds (Pigs go ‘oink.’). The latter signals an unwillingness to commit to an exact quote, one of many uses of like to express, like. non-commitment. These are age-defined, though I’m not sure of the minimal age for not using them.
Sometimes association by taboo intervenes. I wouldn’t be surprised if niggardly becomes obsolete, even though it’s a Scandinavian word that has nothing to do with blackness or Black people.
Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but primarily by catchwords. — Robert Louis Stevenson
And OMG, have we got a flood of new locutions and abbreviations arising from the worldwide texting community. U no what i mean. And catch-words — whatever, Duh, tell me about it, at the end of the day, I could(n’t)care less, long story short, hello?, get a life, trust me.
Since most texts are so short, people get less and less practice in producing whole sentences, connected sentences, longer texts like articles and books.
At the same time, some people profit and succeed by pushing language in the opposite direction. Legislators learn to write 1,000-page bills that no one reads – or can read. Financial institutions create opaque investment products that allow them to make mountains of money.
And let’s not forget attempts to change the language by speakers themselves. This includes all censorship in the interests of political correctness. Some people are trying to make language more gender-sensitive, but you can’t add pronouns. Any everyone struggles with what to write after an indefinite (A person should take care of his/her/their teeth.). These will be the subjects of future posts. Prediction: they/their/them/themselves will win out.
Hone in on will triumph when all the home in on people are dead. Human mortality is underrated as a factor in language change. Language is above all a vehicle for our humanness, and all the messiness associated with it. No speakers, no language. Speakers are what make a language happen; they are what makes it change.
Does anybody out there till say home in on? Leave a comment here or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will tabulate results and respond to comments.