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Language is Always Changing


Yesterday I read a great article from Mental Floss, “4 Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”

Language is indeed always changing.  That’s how we got modern English from middle English, and, before that, old English.  It’s a significant part of why writers like Shakespeare are often difficult for readers today to understand. The language, including both vocabulary and grammatical constructions, changed over time.  And it’s still changing.  (I’ve taught this to my 2nd graders, too, and it gives me great delight that they know this.)

Language change isn’t inherently good or bad; it just is.  Many people decry the increasing casualness of our language, etc. etc., as if it were a moral fault.  I admit, I have also been known to chide people for mixing up “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”  I like to think that I correct people only on actual errors, though, and not on things that are just “different.”  (People who know me might object to that assessment.)

But back to the Mental Floss article.  When the author, Arika Okrent, mentioned the great vowel shift in the introductory paragraph, being a word-nerd and amateur linguist, I was predisposed to like it.  And it did not disappoint.

The first change listed is the replacement of infinitives with gerunds.  For example, instead of saying “They started to walk,” we would say “They started walking.”  “To walk” is the infinitive form of the verb “walk.”

This got me thinking of the naughty split infinitive.  It’s a made-up rule in English that you’re not supposed to split an infinitive.  Instead of saying “to slowly walk” you must say “to walk slowly,” with the adverb coming after the verb instead of between “to” and the verb.  This rule was invented to make English more like Latin, which cannot have split infinitives because a Latin infinitive, just like in Spanish, is one word, and cannot actually be split.  Since English is a Germanic language and not a Romance, this rule is nonsense and can be ignored.

Then I realized that I actually haven’t heard many complaints about split infinitives.  This isn’t because all the grammar nazis have chilled out.  Rather, it’s because using infinitive is becoming rarer, replaced by the gerund.

The second change is that we are using the progressive form of verbs more often.  These are the verbs with “be” constructions and “-ing” endings, such as “I’m being serious” instead of “I’m serious,” or “I should be going” instead of “I should go.”  Personally, I think the progressive verb lacks punch.  I think people would take you more seriously if you say “I’m serious” instead of “I’m being serious.”  The progressive verb lacks sincerity.  Or maybe that’s just me.

The third change is related to the second one.  The helping verbs “shall” and “ought” are hardly used any more, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are being used more than ever.  I think this is tied to our greater use of the progressive.  We use ever more intensifiers, which actually results in watering down our language.

The last one is replacing the “was” in passive sentences with “got.”  Passive voice is when something happens to the subject, rather than the subject being the doer, for example, “The tourist was robbed.”  This type of construction is now frequently “The tourist got robbed.”

A friend of mine commented that she doesn’t like the use of “got” since it sounds too casual.  I had an English teacher in high school who hated the word, and never let us use it.  Naturally, since then, I have no problem with using it, and, on occasion, even encourage it.  Generally in written language, however, there is another word choice that sounds better (to me, anyway).

None of these changes are “errors.”  They’re just different ways of using the language.  Different constructions rise and fall in popularity over time, and sometimes new ones are invented.  What fascinates me more than anything else is how organic the process is.  No one can control it.  It’s like what Mr. Universe says in Serenity: “You can’t stop the signal.”


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