Why We Should All Just Chill Out About Language Change
As I’ve said many times on this blog: language changes. English evolves over time. That’s why the Beowulf poet wrote stuff like this:
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon hú ðá æþelingas ellen fremedon¹.
While Chaucer wrote this kind of English:
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…²
And Shakespeare wrote like this:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Beowulf is an example of Old English, Chaucer of Middle English, and Shakespeare of modern English, though of an earlier period than today. It’s clear from these examples that English transforms over the centuries.
Words grow archaic and obsolete. We no longer use words like thee and thou, puissant, contumelious, or welkin. Is this tragic? I don’t think so. We’ve simply replaced them with other words.
Words change in meaning. In the 14th century, awful meant “inspiring awe.” Husband once meant only “home or land owner.” And until quite recently gay had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
And words are created. The last decade has brought us words like carjack, flash mob, hashtag, and Google. These are, of course, only a tiny handful of the words that are entering the lexicon almost daily. Some words we embrace without complaint. Others are stubbornly resisted, especially by older generations.
We are all, of course, free to like some words and despise others. We are free to refrain from using them and even free to disdain those who do. But I find it strange that so many fight language evolution as though it is a sure sign of societal decay.
I recently came across an article on MentalFloss.com that lists twelve words we use habitually that, when introduced, were considered atrocious barbarisms by the linguistic gatekeepers of the day. Please read the article for the full story and the arguments against these one-time neologisms. Here are the words:
I’m pretty sure no one’s undies get bunched when these words are spoken today, yet purists (yes, I did that) pushed back hard when people first started using them. I hope that brings some perspective.
¹Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore, of those clan-kings, heard of their glory.
²When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower
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