An Evolving Language

Last night I found myself awake at a time when most sensible people were tucked up asleep. Facebook was rather slow and, being fully caught up on the news, I spent a good while staring at an empty browser looking for something to entertain me (or at least distract me) while waiting for sleep to come and steal me away.

I was looking through the trending topics on Twitter and amongst the usual babble I saw that users last night were discussing the Oxford English Dictionary. Further investigation revealed that Twitter had been angered (not difficult, I know) by reports that ‘OMG’, ‘LOL’ and ‘FYI’ have been added to the OED. This set me off thinking about the evolution of the English language and how I feel about it; a topic that I revisit infrequently without ever coming to a satisfying conclusion.

Looking through the tweets about the OED, I found one saying “LOL, OMG and FYI have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Somewhere in 1596, Shakespeare begins to weep inexplicably”. Perhaps the author of that comment would be surprised to learn that Shakespeare ‘invented’ 3,000 new words – 1,200 of which we still use – and also coined many phrases that made little sense at the time but which now seem normal (such as ‘in a pickle’). I wonder if at that time there was loud protest against the addition of words like ‘bump’, ‘rant’ and ‘zany’ to the dictionary. Perhaps I ought to ask the Twitter user who made that comment whether he thinks the line should have been drawn under Shakespeare or, now knowing that he added to our language himself, whether we should embrace the change and be as open to the concept of an evolving language as he was. Perhaps the Bard’s mass-contribution to our mother tongue was enough and the English language is now full up in the eyes of Twitter.

I am what is now referred to as a ‘Grammar Nazi’ (a term to which I object that describes somebody who strives to use correct grammar and is annoyed by those who do not) though I’m fully aware that the Spelling Gestapo (if such a group exists) would happily throttle me given half a chance. Now don’t get me wrong, I often make my own mistakes when writing and I don’t claim to be particularly well educated on the English language (in fact I gave it up gladly after GCSE level) but I like to see apostrophes used correctly and the basic rules of syntax observed. That said, despite my language snobbery, I appreciate the need for short-hand (having had to take fast notes in law lectures and write long equations in science classes) and I am guilty of using all 3 of the controversial new words myself (sadly Grammar Nazis aren’t given an extension to the 140 character limit in order to write things out in full.)

I’m not so committed to the status quo that I can’t see the advantages of the introduction of such short-hand, and I fully understand that with the development of new methods of communication comes a need for the adaptation of language, however, I can’t escape my feelings that proper use of language is a virtue. Perhaps being bilingual and having had to consider the intricacies of both English and Spanish I am a little oversensitive to change. Perhaps I shouldn’t care about bad grammar or the introduction of new colloquialisms; perhaps I should see these changes as a kind of linguistic natural selection. Whatever the reason for my attachment to language, I do find it hard to see it mistreated while simultaneously appreciating that it was evolution that brought it to the stage that it is at today and, indeed, admiring that evolution – do you see now why I’ve never managed to come to a concrete decision about the subject? (“A liberal democrat sat on the fence? Never!” I hear you cry!)

I spoke earlier about Shakespeare (or rather referred to him in blog-form), but linguistical evolution isn’t anything like its biological equivalent and we don’t need to go back even as far as his day to see it. With the introduction of the internet and further advances in communication, I have already seen language changing just in my own lifetime. It was only the other day that I was scorned by my younger brother and his friends for using the word ‘cool’ (apparently it’s now more acceptable to use the words ‘sick’ or ‘ill’ in its place.)

“‘Cool’ doesn’t go out of fashion!” I exclaimed, “It’s not like ‘funky’, it’s immortal! It’s not even slang, it’s just a word!” My mum smiled at me and said “That’s what I said about ‘groovy’.”

This shook me a little more than perhaps it should have. Surely at the age of 20 I shouldn’t already be out of touch with teenage patter? Though it’s hardly surprising that my use of language is considered out of fashion by those younger than me when society today brands my appreciation of good grammar with a word as negative as ‘Nazi’. Having grown up in an age where reading isn’t considered to be at all cool (and is becoming decreasingly so), I am all too aware of the changing attitudes towards the written word. Is it time for my generation to hand the language over to the children who can’t remember a life before the internet and embrace the changes they add with a view to making it more accessible to all? In an age where ‘Google’ is a verb and ‘bad’ can mean good, is it time to leave the language we’ve nurtured behind, documented for future generations, and open our hearts and minds to a new chapter?

I can’t offer an answer, but it’s certainly something worth thinking about.