4 Fascinating Ways in which the English Language is Changing
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching an MA in English Literature.
It might surprise you to learn that all living languages change, all the time.
In fact, part of what defines a language as ‘living’ is a constant state of slow metamorphosis, as it absorbs new words and phrases and others become obsolete; as colloquial patterns of speech and slang come to shape standard grammar and syntax. Linguists can detect tiny and subtle changes in language every single time speakers come into contact with each other. No two people speak identically: even within communities of people sharing an accent or dialect, there will be variation according to age, gender, social background, education and ethnicity. Ever heard your grandma say ‘courting’ for going out, that she ‘ought’ to do something, or that she’d been to the ‘pictures’?
For centuries, dominant academic opinion resisted and even derided language change, seeing it as a process of degradation and ruin. The preface to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755) articulates its writer’s exasperation at the ‘energetic’ unruliness of the English tongue. Johnson asserts that the English language is in a mess, and needs to be ordered and disciplined with rules and structure: ‘wherever I turned my view’, he laments, ‘there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated’. Finally, though, he reluctantly conceded, the undesirable process of language change was impossible to resist. 50 years later, the preface to the 1847 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary argues in even more severe and disapproving terms, detecting: ‘a boldness of innovation on this subject (i.e. inventing new words), which amounts to absolute licentiousness. A hasty introduction into our dictionaries of new terms, under such circumstances, is greatly to be deprecated’.
Yes, as we introduce our innits, our selfies and our hashtags into spoken and written English, the language might indeed grow steadily further from what the lexicographers perceived to be its most perfect state: the majestic heights of Shakespearean eloquence. But changes in language affirm that it’s alive, and that it’s human – its contours shaped by our thoughts, imagination, and mistakes. This article will deal with four of the most interesting ways in which the English language is changing at the moment, and the sources of that change.
Perhaps one of the quaintest and most charming reasons for language change is human error – mistakes in the way we pronounce or order our words, or in what we mean by them, that catch on and eventually come to shape the language itself. When you think about it, the idea that mistakes and mispronunciations can drive changes in language is actually quite an empowering one: it offers us a sense of English as somehow in the process of being reclaimed from a dry world of rules, grammar and syntax, and then reshaped to fit the needs of the people who speak it.
The errors that can influence language tend to fall into one of two groups. The first is malapropism – the use of an incorrect word instead of one with a similar sound, such as when people say that something that failed or fell flat was a ‘damp squid’ (when what they really mean is a damp squib), or that a point that adds nothing to an argument is a ‘mute point’ rather than ‘moot’. The king of the malapropism is, of course, that well-known genius the former president of the USA, George W. Bush. Some of his finest offerings to the world of language confusion were the declarations that ‘we need an energy bill that encourages consumption’, and ‘it will take time to restore chaos and order’.
Despite reliably getting a giggle at the expense of the ex-presidential buffoon, malapropisms drive language change less frequently than the second type of error, mispronunciation – or, when someone pronounces a word wrong. Linguists have a detailed vocabulary to categorise the different forms of mispronunciation – many of which have made the English language what it is today. Here are a few of my favourites:
Metathesis – or, when sounds swap places
Did you know that bird used to be brid, wasp used to be waps, and horse hros? Through continuous mispronunciation, the consonant sounds in each medieval word swapped places to give us the words we’re familiar with today. And some examples of metathesis have spanned the centuries to persist to the present: next time you hear someone moaning about the mispronunciation of ask as arks, common in many parts of England, you can inform them that the debate over the way to pronounce the word stretches back to Chaucer, who spelled the word ‘ax’ in his manuscripts. The standard modern pronunciation actually descends from a Northern version of the verb.
Even now, English is continually changing as a result of metathesis – consider, for example, the frequency with which you hear the word iron pronounced as ‘iern’ or comfortable as ‘comfterble’. Today’s lazy pronunciation might well end up being tomorrow’s standard version!
My personal favourite type of mispronunciation, folk etymology, occurs when a word is borrowed from another language, but the borrowers of the word don’t understand much about the foreign tongue – so they come up with a new word that sounds like the foreign word, and makes some sort of sense in terms of meaning.
The modern word ‘dormouse’ comes from the Anglo-Norman word dormeus, which means ‘sleepy one’ – but the word was altered by folk etymology to resemble the word for mouse. Similarly, our word crayfish is an approximation of the French écrevisse – the creature isn’t actually a fish at all, but a kind of lobster. Delightfully, in some English dialects, asparagus used to be known as ‘sparrow grass’ – and finally, our word female doesn’t actually derive from the word male, but rather from the old French female meaning woman.
No, this term doesn’t refer to the sort of ‘l’ word that creates a sense of unease and foreboding, like lurk or lour or leer or Lindsay Lohan. Rather, a dark ‘l’ is one that’s pronounced like a ‘w’. In words like ‘folk’, ‘chalk’, ‘talk’ and ‘walk’, the l sound used to be pronounced – but modern English speakers essentially say ‘fowk’, ‘chawk’, ‘tawk’ and ‘wawk’. And experts believe other words are also on their way to losing their hard l-sound – how do you say the words ‘pool’ or ‘fall’, for example?
Another fascinating engine of language change is human invention – and the example I’d like to discuss here is that of the internet. The most obvious impact upon language of the technological revolution that has defined life for our generation is the need for words to describe its new inventions, like blog, broadband or modem. But the internet has also prompted a second, and in my opinion more interesting shift in the English language.
English is becoming the main language of online communication. Of course, at the moment there are millions of websites out there in Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish – but some linguists predict that within ten years English will dominate the internet. Its form, however, will be very different to the language we know today. This is because people who speak English as a second language already outnumber native speakers – and more and more, these non-natives use English to communicate with other non-natives, especially on the internet where there is less pressure on spelling, grammar and accent. As Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University in Washington DC, put it, ‘The internet enfranchises people who are not native speakers to use English in significant and meaningful ways’.
These new users of English bring their own dialects onto the internet: whether it’s Spanish English (Spanglish), Indian English (Hinglish) or Singaporean English (Singlish). As the languages are published online, they gain status and social standing. There’s a utopian, optimistic sense that perfect grammar and punctuation don’t matter – the point is to be understood, and there’s a joy in creating new words that reflect the culture in which English is being spoken as a second language.
Hinglish is a blend of Punjabi, Urdu, English and Hindi, and its use is so widespread in India that it’s even being taught to diplomats. Indeed, it’s used across a number of popular and intellectual media, lending it authorisation and a sense of being official. The Indian columnist Karan Kumawat frequently uses Hinglish in her work. Salman Rushdie used it extensively in his novel Midnight’s Children. Hinglish is distinctively Indian-sounding in that it usually prefers the present continuous tense to the simple present (‘On Thursdays I am working’, rather than ‘I work on Thursdays’) and tends to dispense with articles like ‘the’ and ‘a’. A person with a headache speaking Hinglish, for example, would say ‘head is paining’. What’s more, Hinglish has altered a number of English words to make its own distinctive vocabulary, including ‘badmash’ for a hooligan, ‘airdash’ meaning to go somewhere in a hurry, and ‘pre-pone’, the opposite of postpone. As speakers of Hinglish use their dialect on the internet, it mingles with those of other non-native English speakers, and the pigeon languages influence one another, and finally come to change English itself in ways that carry the distinctive stamp of the different cultures in which the language is spoken.
In England, Hinglish is also being absorbed into standard English in school playgrounds. Baljinder Mahal, in her dictionary of the hybrid language, records how the word innit, stuck on the ends of sentences by young people all over the country, came from the word haina, appended to sentences in Hindi and translating as ‘is no?’. Mahal has also observed white children on multicultural playgrounds using Asian words, such as ‘kati’ meaning ‘I’m not your friend any more’.
It probably won’t surprise you that one group of people in particular have shaped our language through the ages, fashioning figurative nooks and crannies through the action of their imagination: writers. The most-cited example of a writer who has added multitudes of words and phrases to our language is, of course, William Shakespeare. The Oxford English Dictionary records over 2,000 words newly created by the bard, either by ‘changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes and devising words wholly original’. Some of these words in common usage today include:
- Auspicious: favourable, promising
- Baseless: without a foundation
- Dwindle: to get smaller or diminish
- Multitudinous: a great number
- Sanctimonious: pretending to be very religious or righteous
What’s more, when you use a number of everyday phrases or sayings, you might be quoting Shakespeare without knowing it! Some of my favourites include:
- ‘It’s all Greek to me’ (I don’t understand it) – Julius Caesar
- ‘Break the ice’ (make a new social situation less awkward) – The Taming of the Shrew
- ‘Green-eyed monster’ (to refer to someone who is jealous) – used in both Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
- ‘In stitches’ (laughing very hard) – Twelfth Night
- ‘In a pickle’ (in a difficult situation) – The Tempest
Now, these are just a few of the thousands of words and hundreds of phrases Shakespeare bequeathed to the English language. But too often in discussions of this topic, we focus solely on the mythologised playwright, and ignore the equally interesting and charming contributions of other authors. ‘Cool as a cucumber’ sounds distinctively modern-day, but in reality first appeared in the poetry of John Gay in 1732: ‘I… cool as a cucumber could see / The rest of womankind’. And ‘busy as a bee’ was coined even deeper in our literary past by Chaucer, in ‘The Squire’s Tale’, around the end of the fourteenth century. Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, is thought to have invented the phrase ‘a sight for sore eyes’ in his Complete collection of genteel and ingenious conversation (1738) with the line ‘The Sight of you is good for sore Eyes’, and John Lyly, a prominent sixteenth century Humanist wit, gave us ‘two peas in a pod’ when he referred to the twins of Hipporates ‘who wer as lyke as one pease is to an other’. In the last century, Rudyard Kipling invented the proverb ‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male’ in his 1911 poem of the same name, and the first instance of ‘with bells on’ occurs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned (1922): ‘All-ll-ll righty. I’ll be there with bells!’
Over the past 20 years, researchers at Cambridge University have conducted a study in which they’ve assembled thousands of hours of voice recordings and a database of over two billion words. The project is ongoing (in fact, you can have a look at some of the cool stuff they’ve found here) but their main conclusion so far seems to be that standards are slipping. Modern children are five times as likely to insert the word ‘like’ into every sentence than their grandparents, for example, and we dramatically overuse the word ‘love’, using it to describe everything from art to beanbags. And of course, even politicians are getting in on the act: remember the bowel-curlingly cringey moment in which the chancellor George Osborne appeared on our televisions complete with a shiny new mockney accent, to tell a group of Morrisons workers that he wanted to ‘back the Briddish who wanna work’?
Standard English continues to change in fascinating ways that reflect the personalities, imaginations, needs and cultures of the millions of people who know it all over the world. Know any interesting English facts we’ve not discussed here? Post them in the Comments section below!
 These terms are drawn from the Guardian article 8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today. Accessed 09.09.2014
 “Words Shakespeare Invented”. Shakespeare-online.com. 20 August 2000. Accessed 09.09.2014.