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Language Drifts

Languages change. They have to. In fact, there’s a subfield of linguistics that charts language change. One of the more intriguing discoveries they’ve made is that the changes are predictable — not the specific changes but the kinds most likely to occur and the average rate of change.

Linguistic shifts are caused by some obvious factors like borrowing words from other tongues or having speakers carrying new words and meanings from one locale to another. Other changes are more subtle and involve processes like word-shortening (“until” became “till”; “because” is now “cause”); vowel shifts (in the Midwest “merry”, “marry” and “Mary” sound the same and Bostonians drop the post-vocalic “r,” so that “park” becomes “pahk”, “darling” is “dahling”); blending of dialects (“going to” becomes “gonna”); and dragging of forms (“-gate” is now a suffix denoting scandal). We even get wonderfully odd meanings emerging over time so that a word can be its own antonym (“cleave” can mean to sever and hold onto).

By comparing languages known to have a common root tongue, statistical linguists can make fairly good estimates of how long ago the two began to diverge. Using sophisticated models they are also able to determine which languages have common linguistic ancestors and which belong to distinct groups.

These investigations fall neatly in line with similar models in genetics. Only there, instead of charting linguistic changes, the search is for genetic mutations. Like linguistic shifts, mutations in DNA occur at statistically determinable rates. The kinds of analyses linguists carry out on word, sound, spelling and idiomatic shifts, geneticists carry out on mutations and shifts in the underlying code of a species genetic make-up. Scholars have used these combined data sources to explore the time and rate of human migration across the planet.

All this is quite well known and these two forms of statistical modeling are important and established scientific fields. But, alas, the so-called “language police” keep popping up with their snippy little “tsk-tskings” and criticizing how people speak and write. My original bête noire here was William Safire who wrote a weekly column some years ago in the New York Times. Safire approved of some verbal changes and disapproved of others. He was a well-known writer and essayist with conservative leanings (he was once a speechwriter for Richard Nixon), so it wasn’t surprising that he often bristled at language shifts that he regarded as somehow sullying his native tongue or ungrammatical phrases that leaked in and disturbed his sense of order.

What Safire didn’t grasp is that language change is a bottom-up process. Writers, journalists, reporters, and commentators stick with the forms of language they learned and, when they don’t, their editors correct them. But out on the street, in the bars and community centers all languages are forever mutating and, slowly, the changes leak into everyone’s everyday speech.

So, embrace the new and, when you can, get a kick out of it. Here, for your amusement are a few of the recent linguistic drifts that I’m enjoying.

I love to cook and noticed that the word “caramelize,” which refers to a way of cooking onions and other vegetables, has lost its middle “a.” It is now  pronounced “carmelize.” Note that the spelling hasn’t changed — yet.

“Garnishee ” has shed its final double-ee and is now “garnish.” But the change here is incomplete. In ads for legal help it’s become “garnish” but judges still order a court to “garnishee” a salary.

“That” is slowly taking on a human connotative meaning. “The person who …”  is now often “the person that.”

The count noun - mass noun distinction is slowly being lost and the adverbs used for each are changing. Count nouns are those that have numerosity like “chair” or “tree” where you can have three chairs or fourteen trees.” Mass nouns are conglomerates like “water” or “tea.” Traditionally, adverbs like “less” only were used with mass nouns and those like “fewer” modified count nouns. One referred to “less water” but “fewer runs.” Phrases like “less runs are scored in baseball” are now common.

We’re been engaged in an ongoing gambit where verbs are created from nouns. Rather than “make something a priority” we “prioritize.” Of course, this is old hat (we’ve long “magnetized” and “popularized” things) but it’s expanding rapidly. In fact, we “verbize” when playing another little linguistic trick when we turn a noun into a verb as when “impact” went from being a dues-paying member of the nominal class to a champion of verbizing.

We’re also losing our adverbs and occasionally overextending them. My favorite here is “bad v badly.” It’s not uncommon to hear someone say “I feel badly for him” when the speaker really means “I feel bad for him.” In the first, the literal meaning is that the speaker is not very good at feeling.

We’re losing some of our more awkward singular - plural distinctions. “Data,” the plural form is now used for both plural and singular cases and “datum,” the singular, has just about disappeared.  “Criterion  - criteria” is undergoing a similar shift and again the singular form is losing out. Note also that “data” has become a mass noun. “The data shows” is far more common than “the data show.”

It used to be “different from;” now “different than” is more common.

“Unique” no longer means unique. In fact, it now frequently is just a synonym for special and is often emphasized as in “very unique” or even “very, very unique.” In fact, “very” seems to have lost much of its “veryness” and often is doubled or even tripled to make sure the listener/reader knows just how special (or unique) the topic of discussion is.

“Literally” is making a similar drift and has become a synonym of “very.”  You often hear people say things like “he is literally out of his mind” which, of course, really means “he’s behaving very strangely.” These days, “literally” is literally no longer used to mean literally. And, perhaps, not surprisingly, “figuratively” is being crowded out.

“Ilk,” a term derived from the Scottish word for “clan” was once used to mean sort or type which were both emotionally neutral. Now it has a negative connotation. When someone refers to “The Republicans and their ilk” they are not using the term is a positive way. No one today would say “the Dalai Lama and his ilk” unless they were a rabid anti-Buddhist.

That’s it for today.

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