Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Dynamic nature of language

It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I speak the queen’s English”. It’s often used when one is correcting another for some egregious misuse of the English language; or when someone is being defensive about their unconventional use of the language. Though the expression is more commonly heard in the UK and its former colonies, it is sometimes used in the US. Sometimes it’s said with such emphasis you’d think the queen invented the language. The thing is, sticklers for “The queen’s English” treat the language as if it is static and often forget its dynamic nature. The English language changes as cultures, customs and technologies change.

A recent article on CNN reminded me of the dynamic nature language. It was the unveiling of Oxford dictionary’s new word for 2009: UNFRIEND. It means to remove someone as a 'friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook. I could only imagine my junior high school English teacher’s reaction had I dared use such a word. She was a stickler for the “Queen’s English” and would probably mark a huge red X through the word with a little note beneath in her neat handwriting, “no such word exists”. Webster’s dictionary came out with quite a few others: hashtag, sexting, netbook, … This is a clear indication that the English language is changing. It is after all, a spoken language.

Even the meanings of words change. I recall when the word gay meant happy. The connotations have since changed. In fact, at University of Virginia football games, whenever a touchdown is scored the spectators would join hands and sing “The good old song”. A line in the song says, “We come from old Virginia where all is bright and gay”. That came from a time where the word meant happy. Students however, when they sing that line would shout immediately after “Not gay”. While I was a grad student there, an advocacy group took offense to the shouting “not gay’, labeling it as homophobic. The students were admonished and the practice was abolished, at least for one season.

In a social context, words that were once acceptable or even legal jargon, can change and become “bad words” or at least socially uncomfortable words. The acronym “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, a legal term of a past century is now an expletive. When I was growing up, we were comfortable referring to a male fowl as a cock and a pussycat as a pussy. Now people are more comfortable saying rooster and kitty or cat for obvious reasons.

My six year recently reminded me of how easy it is for language to change. She is afraid of tornadoes, even though they are relatively rare where we live. A few weeks ago we were watching “The Wizard of Oz” and we were discussing the tornado. She said to me, “Mommy, let’s make tornado a bad word, that way we can’t say it.” The next time I said the word tornado she said, “Mommy you said a bad word.” Of course my husband not privy to our new bad word later mentioned it as we discussed the movie and she accused him of saying a bad word. You can imagine how perplexed he was. So now tornado is the “T-word.” Imagine if she was an influential figure.

So the next time someone adamantly insists that they speak “The queen’s English,” ask them “which version?" Because, like computer programs, the language is forever changing.

Since we're so close to the New Year, I'd like to wish everyone a bright and prosperous 2010. May all your writing dreams (and other dreams) come true.


Phyllis Bourne said...

I am so uncool. I've been "deleting" people. I'll have to start "unfriending" them.

Jewel Amethyst said...

lol. Has that become a new word yet? I haven't been on facebook long enough to unfriend anyone as yet, but don't you just love how language changes.

Liane Spicer said...

That cartoon hit close to home, Jewel! I can only imagine how much damage roadside signs have done to my blood pressure.

Ours is a living language. When I want to remind myself of this I pull up an Old English epic poem to give myself a reality check. Even my beloved Shakespeare seemed almost unintelligible back in high school - in the beginning anyway. Given the current pace of change, some day soon the version we speak will seem equally strange.

Steven Thompson said...

Can I have the email address for Mark Parrisi? I would like to use this image for an presentation I am doing on grammar at Uni?