Is English changing?


By Betty Birner

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Yes, and so is every other human languageLanguage is always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of its users. This isn't a bad thing; if English hadn't changed since, say, 1950, we wouldn't have words to refer to modems, fax machines, or cable TV. As long as the needs of language users continue to change, so will the language. The change is so slow that from year to year we hardly notice it, except to grumble every so often about the ‘poor English’ being used by the younger generation! However, reading Shakespeare's writings from the sixteenth century can be difficult. If you go back a couple more centuries, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are very tough sledding, and if you went back another 500 years to try to read Beowulf, it would be like reading a different language.

Why does language change?

Language changes for several reasons. First, it changes because the needs of its speakers change. New technologies, new products, and new experiences require new words to refer to them clearly and efficiently. Consider texting: originally it was called text messaging, because it allowed one person to send another text rather than voice messages by phone. As that became more common, people began using the shorter form text to refer to both the message and the process, as in I just got a text or I'll text Sylvia right now.


Another reason for change is that no two people have had exactly the same language experience. We all know a slightly different set of words and constructions, depending on our age, job, education level, region of the country, and so on. We pick up new words and phrases from all the different people we talk with, and these combine to make something new and unlike any other person's particular way of speaking. At the same time, various groups in society use language as a way of marking their group identity; showing who is and isn't a member of the group.

Many of the changes that occur in language begin with teens and young adults. As young people interact with others their own age, their language grows to include words, phrases, and constructions that are different from those of the older generation. Some have a short life span (heard groovy lately?), but others stick around to affect the language as a whole.

We get new words from many different places. We borrow them from other languages (sushi, chutzpah), we create them by shortening longer words (gym from gymnasium) or by combining words (brunch from breakfast and lunch), and we make them out of proper names (Levisfahrenheit). Sometimes we even create a new word by being wrong about the analysis of an existing word, like how the word pea was created. Four hundred years ago, the word pease was used to refer to either a single pea or a bunch of them, but over time, people assumed                                                                                                                                     Excerpt from Beowulf

that pease was a plural form, for which pea must be the singular. Therefore, a new word, pea, was born. The same thing would happen if people began to think of the word cheese as referring to more than one chee.

Word order also changes, though this process is much slower. Old English word order was much more 'free' than that of Modern English, and even comparing the Early Modern English of the King James Bible with today's English shows differences in word order. For example, the King James Bible translates Matthew 6:28 as "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not." In a more recent translation, the last phrase is translated as "they do not toil,” because English no longer places not after the verb in a sentence.

The sounds of a language change over time, too. About 500 years ago, English began to undergo a major change in the way its vowels were pronounced. Before that, geese would have rhymed with today's pronunciation of face, while mice would have rhymed with today's peace. However, a 'Great Vowel Shift' began to occur, during which the ay sound (as in pay) changed to ee (as in fee) in all the words containing it, while the ee sound changed to i (as in pie). Overall, seven different vowel sounds were affected. If you've ever wondered why most other European languages spell the sound ay with an ‘e’ (as in fiancé), and the sound ee with an ‘i’ (as in aria), it's because those languages didn't undergo the Great Vowel Shift, only English did.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Wasn't English more elegant in Shakespeare's day?

People tend to think that older forms of languages are more elegant, logical, or ‘correct’ than modern forms, but it's just not true. The fact that language is always changing doesn't mean it's getting worse; it's just becoming different.

Shakespeare sonnet

In Old English, a small winged creature with feathers was known as a brid. Over time, the pronunciation changed to bird. Although it's not hard to imagine children in the 1400's being scolded for 'slurring' brid into bird, it's clear that bird won out. Nobody today would suggest that bird is an incorrect word or a sloppy pronunciation.

The speech patterns of young people tend to grate on the ears of adults because they're unfamiliar. Also, new words and phrases are used in spoken or informal language sooner than in formal, written language, so it's true that the phrases you may hear a teenager use may not yet be appropriate for business letters. But that doesn't mean they're worse - just newer. For years, English teachers and newspaper editors argued that the word hopefully shouldn't be used to mean 'I hope', as in hopefully it won't rain today, even though people frequently used it that way in informal speech. (Of course nobody complained about other 'sentence adverbs' such as frankly and actually.) The battle against hopefully is now all but lost, and it appears at the beginnings of sentences, even in formal documents.

If you listen carefully, you can hear language change in progress. For example, anymore is a word that used to only occur in negative sentences, such as I don't eat pizza anymore. Now, in many areas of the country, it's being used in positive sentences, like I've been eating a lot of pizza anymore. In this use, anymore means something like 'lately'. If that sounds odd to you now, keep listening; you may be hearing it in your neighborhood before long.

Why can't people just use correct English?

By 'correct English', people usually mean Standard English. Most languages have a standard form; it's the form of the language used in government, education, and other formal contexts. But Standard English is actually just one dialect of English.

What's important to realize is that there's no such thing as a 'sloppy' or 'lazy' dialect. Every dialect of every language has rules - not 'schoolroom' rules, like 'don't split your infinitives', but rather the sorts of rules that tell us that the cat slept is a sentence of English, but slept cat the isn't. These rules tell us what language is like rather than what it should be like.

Different dialects have different rules. For example:

(l) I didn't eat any dinner.

(2) I didn't eat no dinner.

Sentence (l) follows the rules of Standard English; sentence (2) follows a set of rules present in several other dialects. Neither is sloppier than the other, they just differ in the rule for making a negative sentence. In (l), dinner is marked as negative with any; in (2), it's marked as negative with no. The rules are different, but neither is more logical or elegant than the other. In fact, Old English regularly used 'double negatives', parallel to what we see in (2). Many modern languages, including Italian and Spanish, either allow or require more than one negative word in a sentence. Sentences like (2) only sound 'bad' if you didn't happen to grow up speaking a dialect that uses them.

You may have been taught to avoid 'split infinitives', as in (3):

(3) I was asked to thoroughly water the garden.

This is said to be 'ungrammatical' because thoroughly splits the infinitive to water. Why are split infinitives so bad? Here's why: seventeenth-century grammarians believed Latin was the ideal language, so they thought English should be as much like Latin as possible. In Latin, an infinitive like to water is a single word; it's impossible to split it up. So today, 300 years later, we're still being taught that sentences like (3) are wrong, all because someone in the 1600's thought English should be more like Latin.

Here's one last example. Over the past few decades, three new ways of reporting speech have appeared:

(4) So Karen goes, "Wow - I wish I'd been there!"

(5) So Karen is like, "Wow - I wish I'd been there!"

(6) So Karen is all, "Wow - I wish I'd been there!"

In (4), goes means pretty much the same thing as said; it's used for reporting Karen's actual words. In (5), is like means the speaker is telling us more or less what Karen said. If Karen had used different words for the same basic idea, (5) would be appropriate, but (4) would not. Finally, is all in (6) is a fairly new construction. In most of the areas where it's used, it means something similar to is like, but with extra emotion. If Karen had simply been reporting the time, it would be okay to say She's like, "It's five o'clock,” but odd to say She's all, "It's five o'clock” unless there was something exciting about it being five o'clock.

Is it a lazy way of talking? Not at all; the younger generation has made a useful three-way distinction where we previously only had the word saidLanguage will never stop changing; it will continue to respond to the needs of the people who use it. So the next time you hear a new phrase that grates on your ears, remember that like everything else in nature, the English language is a work in progress.

For further information

Aitcheson, lean. 1991. Language Change: Progress or Decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bryson, Bill. 1991. Mother Tongue: The English Language. New York: Penguin Books.