Are We Damaging the English Language?

Pascale Chauvot

19 May 2015

How precious is the English language?  Should it be formal, where new words that don’t conform to the established rules be banished before they take hold?  Should it be static, accepting new words only when something new has been created, such as a technological innovation or if a new product has been invented, such as the mobile phone?  And how do we add such words?

For example, in other languages, mobile phones are known as a handy or a portable.  Even in the English language, many native speakers prefer to refer to their mobile as a cell phone.  Why did we adopt one description and not another?

The English Language: in Constant Evolution?

Throughout history, English has absorbed new words from languages as diverse as Spanish and Hindi as well as accepting newly created words.  English’s ability to absorb ‘bad words’ has been an issue with many linguists and language purists throughout history.  In an article published on the MPR News website, the evolution of the English language has been explored in further detail.

The English language and English speakers are renowned for making up new words from other words that already exist.  The author uses the example of the word ‘irregardless’, which is in popular use in the USA but is not currently officially recognised.  The English language is also good at absorbing words from another language and changing their meaning at the same time.  The American word in common use for a main course of a meal – entrée – is a good example.  Someone ordering an entrée in the US who expects a starter will be in for a surprise.

Annoying Verbal Ticks

Some words are often hijacked and used in ways not seen or envisaged before.  Some may be used almost as verbal ticks, such as the word ‘literally’, a current favourite amongst many young Americans.  Of course, their British cousins do a good job with the word ‘random’.  Both meanings in current use are very different from what is found in the Oxford English dictionary.  In some instances, the online Urban Dictionary may actually be more useful, ‘actually’.

Verbal ticks are explored in further detail and are recognised as nothing new across the generations.  American youth may start many conversations with the word ‘like’.  Their grandparents probably started their conversations with the word ‘well’.  British youngsters may pepper their conversations mid-sentence with the phrase ‘you know what I mean’ and end it with ‘innit’.

Use of Slang

Slang is another way of communicating that is particularly contextual.  It has the ability to peg a person to a particular era, which can be cool and groovy, and it can include or exclude, which is awesome and sick.

Nouns Become Verbs

Finally, the English language is very good at turning nouns into verbs, especially in the US.  How many people in the corporate world have been incentivised recently?  And if we are incentivised to an acceptable level, will our achievements be rewarded by being monetised?

Purists may be frustrated by these examples of ‘morphed’ English, another word that is being used outside its cinematic origins.  But English has been changing for centuries, as anyone trying to read Middle English can see.  Shakespeare didn’t have a problem with new words, either.

 



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