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The Changing Language

Geoff Chaucer, last seen in the 1300s

Geoff Chaucer, last seen in the 1300s

Languages change and evolve – we all know that. What surprises me is the speed at which this can happen.

Take a look at this bit of Chaucer from the 14th century:

This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle
In spirit ones by a visioun;

It’s vaguely understandable, but clearly not modern English – see here for a translation. To be honest, after 600 years I’m surprised it’s as close to today’s language as it is.

Then we have slang words. Some appear and stick around, some are less long-lived. Some are merely short-term fads. When I was at school, if we wanted to say something was great, we used the word “skill”.

“Did you see that football match last night? It was skill!”

That particular one has disappeared. We also completely reversed the word “help” – that lasted a few months. If someone asked you if they could “help” you, answering in the affirmative would lead to your school bag being unzipped, turned upside down and your belongings being turfed out all over the playground.

These are short-term slang words attached to a particular group or region, and generally never make it to a dictionary.

I see three sources of language change today which may accelerate the change of language as a whole.

  1. New slang words and abbreviations which stick around and become an official part of the language. These can originate from text-speak, for example. I wonder how long it will be before “LOL” becomes official? Take “Fail”, usually seen in texts. The first time I saw this I was most confused. “Fail” is a verb, and by itself in a sentence is most likely the imperative, or command form. Someone is commanding me to fail! I eventually realised it’s a new meaning, when someone has themselves failed at something, or something else has failed. I particularly like “Epic Fail”. I generally get on my high horse and refuse to use such terms, but I like this so much, I may start using it. I even love an American phrase, which many hate – “My bad.” This is a great way to accept responsibility for something without even a hint of an apology. It’s very flippant, so be careful when you use it. When explaining a mistake to your boss or trying to avoid a prison sentence, for example, a proper apology is probably a better way to go.
  2. Technology. Abbreviations which have become proper nouns, for instance “LASER”, or new words to describe new things, like “internet”. Of course, new things have always been invented which needed to be named, but there seems to be so much of this happening these days!
  3. New words, or existing words whose meanings have changed slightly due to the distribution of English across the world. For example, words such as “elevator” (lift), “sidewalk” (pavement) or “mall” (shopping centre). Although I believe this last word originated in England as a road with market stalls along it (such as Pall Mall in London). The inventive Americans popped a roof over the whole thing and the modern shopping centre was born!

These are my thoughts – a physicist turned computer programmer who really knows nothing about language. I’d love to hear different points of view, a rebuttal or counter argument of my off-the-top-of-the-head “theory”! I’m sure there’s tons of stuff on the internet about this, but research early Sunday morning? I don’t think so.

  1. goldfish
    November 20, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Chaucer was a terrible speller.

    I, too, get all uppity as concerns improper use of language. However, most slang doesn’t bother me, because it is slang. By its very nature, it’s rebellious. Also, I’m a big fan of FAIL.

    I recently purchased a book one of my blog stalkers recommended that might be of interest to you as well: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/news/2010-08-11


  2. November 22, 2011 at 7:42 am

    Thanks! I just took a look at that book – they’ve got it on Amazon and it looks really interesting. I might just add it to my next order which will be soon, as I’m a bit behind in my Bones box sets!


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