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Tuesday
Feb162016

More on Language Change

As we noted back in October, languages change and the drifts can be fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by this phenomenon and first sensed how powerful it could be back in the middle 1990’s. I had written a comprehensive Dictionary of Psychology (Penguin Books, Ltd.). The 1st Edition came out in 1985. A decade later I returned to the project to produce a 2nd Edition and was struck, indeed startled, by how much the language had changed in a mere decade. It wasn’t just that new terms had been introduced and old ones dropped out, the changes were both more subtle and more dramatic. In the Preface I noted that entries that were modern and up to date a decade earlier now felt antiquated, stilted. “No one,” I wrote, “talks that way … anymore.”

And so it goes, in scientific fields, in journalism, poetry and daily speech. Change is all about us and we often don’t even realize that it’s taking place and that we are carried along unwittingly. Here are some more mutations in modern English that I find intriguing:

Adjectives used as adverbs: This syntactic switch isn’t new but has, in recent years, become so common that it’s almost the norm. We say “the sun shinned bright upon the sand,” or “Kathy, come here, quick,” when, properly, the sun’s shining should be “brightly” and the movement made “quickly.” This one’s not recent. In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s king “raged more fierce.” This stripping away of the “-ly” suffix that marks an adverb is part of the “shorten when frequent” rule and doesn’t occur with infrequent adverbs. “Inconveniently” and “comparatively” are never shown of their suffixes.

The departure of the adverb is more general, for example “good” and “well.” “Good” is an adjective and traditionally modifies a noun. “Well” is an adverb and, as befits the “-verb” part of “adverb,” used to modify verbs. But that’s changing and has been for some time. We often hear someone say “he’s playing good these days,” where “good” has taken over from “well.”

Other linguistic losses are occurring in the world of the singular noun: “phenomenon” is disappearing, going the same route as “datum,” “criterion” and “medium.” As noted last October, the plural form is taking over, treated as though it were the singular and has become a mass noun. “The media is in agreement” is common; “the media are in agreement” rare. This shift appears centered on nouns with Latin or Greek roots and an atypical plural form. It may turn to be a general rule that the plural form pushes out the singular in these kinds of shifts.

“Decimate” is a neat word that’s undergone a series of expansions of its denotation. It started out as referring to a punishment inflicted on an army by the ancient Romans whereby one of every ten soldiers was killed. It then expanded to refer, not just to this draconian means of discipline, but to the loss of one-tenth of one’s forces by any means. The next generalization was to expand the reference to the loss of a minor proportion of resources, not just soldiers. Then the 1/10 element was jettisoned and any significant loss was a “decimation.” Finally, it broadened its scope so that today it’s used for any major loss of any kind in any setting.

“Troop” used to refer to a unit in the military, specifically a small formation of cavalry. As armies modernized the term came to stand for a platoon of soldiers in the infantry. Today, while still used in this general way, it is more commonly used to refer to a single soldier. News reports of a “number of troops” being sent into battle are common as are acknowledgements that “six troops died in the attack today.”

“Meme” has broadened its denotative meaning from referring to an idea or a way of behaving that spreads rapidly through a culture to essentially any idea that has caught on and spread via the Internet. The term was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as a cultural analogue to a gene and, following Darwinian principles, was viewed as undergoing slow modification over time. The new meaning has been stripped of any scientific connotations. Dawkins has fought back, arguing that this new usage should be called an “Internet meme” (he’s fighting a losing battle). Psychologist Susan Blackmore offered “teme” (the ‘t’ is for ‘technology’ — her neologism isn’t catching on either). In fact, the new meaning has taken over so thoroughly that it has a verb form. One can now “meme their favorite cat videos.”

Spelling (sometimes) follows pronunciation: “Analogue” and “catalogue” are now more often rendered as “analog” and “catalog.” I’m still waiting for “caramelize” to become “carmalize.”

That’s it for today. We’ll revisit this topic in the months to come.

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