The Words We Use — Language is fluid, isn’t it?

Since the time of Cro-Magnon orators, we have continuously and thankfully modified our languages.  Now there are many hundreds spoken, and many hundreds more have slid back into the recesses of time. And all this is a good thing. Had changes not occurred, we never would have had metaphors or s’mores? Yes, language changes with the times and the complexity of the world in general. This linguistic mutability is for some however a heady wine. Wine, and especially a good wine, can enhance a meal while it improves digestion, and it aids in the defeat of free-radicals. Similarly, changes in language can enhance good rhetoric, while aiding in the digestion of new ideas, and it helps clarify vagueness. However, like wine on the lips of some, changes in language can be committed for change-sake, a heady sense of self-empowerment, or a sad but general detachment from the value of standards.

There are agencies that actually inspire seemingly random, screw-cap changes in our language – at least in the English language – creating changes for the sake of catchiness. These catchy words and phrases, along with words born in the vacuum of lexical deficiencies, are picked up and proliferated across our land by the various media. Accepting the validity of anything posted on social media especially, no matter how dubious or pointless, furthers the corruption of our language. We become besotted with these jingly changes, spewing them into our own communities. And they are infectious – or rather—and forgive me for saying it, “They go viral!”

What then is the result? Do we have a better understanding of any thought that might have been subtly embedded? Well, that’s a tricky question. In the first place, so much of what is written or said has no particular meaning. The speaker or writer may simply be trying to evoke a reaction, not a thoughtful assessment, from the listener or reader. Anything like meaning is just an empty carton, wrapped in glib gift wrap, giving the impression of meaning. It is intended to sound ‘a way’: funny, comforting, threatening, etc. But, hey, actual thinking is calorie costly work. No, no! Life is supposed to be fun and feel good. Entertainment over information. Thus, the second reason that better understanding is unlikely is that the reader or listener, more often than not, wants reassurance, not reasoned argument. Bias affirmation not cognitive stimulation. So, two halves of a communication: sender and receiver – half of the model has no meaningful message to deliver, and the other half has no interest in analyzing one. So, ignore everything I’ve written so far and just enjoy the catchy bits. We go on, however.

We know that it happens, but how?

Beowulf Manuscript from, 24 Aug 2020

How ever did we get to this point? To begin with, the English language has indeed been changing since well before it was even Old English – Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic tongue. Beowulf (shown here) represents the state of language around 1,000 years ago. The change since then has occurred over the last 1% or so of the whole course language. So change is natural and it is certainly going on pretty much everywhere today, but perhaps a little more quickly.

By the way, this bit says:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang,
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,

Even when neither invasion nor rising mercantilism is the source, languages cross boundaries in other ways. The more people travel or emigrate, the more they take their language into new places. “Tobacco” came back to Europe from the Americas as both a product and a word. Food and other consumables often enter the language and are easily adopted. Though sometimes the adoption is not so easy. “Hot dog” was brought to France during the Second World War. The word was rejected from the official French language under the dictatorship of the Académie Française, but it might have seemed more acceptable to the French people than the source food name, Frankfurter.Historically, there are three ways that languages change. The first of these is simply conquest and submission. In 1066, the Anglo-Saxons who ruled the south and east of modern England were displaced by Norman conquerors. The latter spoke Old French – Latinized Gallic probably influenced by Norse, since the Norse had established a colony in Normandy as they had in Dublin and Scarborough and many other places. Skipping the complexities of the era, Norman French of the then ruling class merged with the Saxon German of the peasantry and smaller estates, because they needed to be able to communicate with one another. Their pidgin became Middle and then Modern English over 500 years of so. We maintain some of the features of that pidgin, such as the Saxon cow () in the barn becoming the Norman beef (boef) on the plate.

The Académie Française, by the way, has had only some success in stopping changes to French. The conservative linguistic scholars simply came too late to the game. French, like all languages, has suffered or enjoyed gradual vocal drift, for example. Vocal drift is a change that has brewed over hundreds of years. Did the French always drop the final consonant sound of words? The result of vocal drift is easy to see in the current differences in American and British English speakers, and is even apparent in regional differences across America and across England. We learn to form the sounds of our language as babies, and that there would be slight differences in what is formed is not surprising. Children spend much of their speech practice with other children. This allows changes from one family to influence children from another family. Vocal drift is especially common in vowel sounds. We all tend to take several vowels (ă, ĕ, ŭ) toward the schwa sound, eh, for example.

The third change mechanism is word addition often resulting from advances in civilization and technology. Since civilization is about living together, language would have to evolve with it. At some point, farmers tell their hunter neighbors that it’s okay to hunt on their land because otherwise the animals might eat the food plants they had planted there, which seem attract animals, such as deer. “You planted food plants?” “Yes, indeed, and I call it a farm. So, please, hunt the deer on my farm, but don’t crush the crops.” “Crops?” These days, we are swamped with technobabble, of course, and that’s actually a big part of an emerging problem. English isn’t just evolving to meet changing needs; it’s become a form of (self?)-entertainment, and it’s degrading. And while my efforts may be as pointless as those of the Académie Française, I will appeal to the consciences of thoughtful, communicative readers such as yourselves to hold out against the corrosion of English.

As now, language had an explosion around 450 years ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press and Protestantism in Europe engendered a fairly large increase in those who read. That in turn supported the amount of writing that was going on. Language needed to standardize. The vocabulary of the times—more properly called a lexicon—in the village of 100 was bumping into the lexicons of other villages, and moreover, the lexicons of places such as the court in London. Shakespeare helped the explosion. He created hundreds of new words, mostly out of old ones, such as “eyeball.” Now, I rush to the defense of Willie here; he had good cause for creating a new word and he didn’t run it into the ground with over use. The thing he was writing about needed a better word than any that existed, and it was needed to complete an iamb. Shakespeare’s inventions didn’t degrade the language. They met a need and they were not, and did not become hollow catchy sounds. Many became words commonly used today. That’s no longer the case.

Today we are dealing with forces changes to our language that do not meet a need and which are becoming overused and often used so far from their origins, if they even have one, that they have become superfluous and utterly meaningless. It is as if we are emptying meaning and poetic charm out of English. Trendy words that have supplanted English existing words have become unclear in their meanings. They are pseudo-words, junk words.

Many such changes are purely gratuitous. For decades cute, slang-veined spelling was the change of frivolous choice. “Quick” became “Kwik.” How very “kwaint.” That slang-creating trend has metamorphosed, or, in the truncated, digital-age cant, “morphed.” Thus we see some of the changes as auditory abbreviations. A few, such as President Coolidge’s conversion of “normality” to “normalcy,” are probably the deposits of lexical ignorance; the speaker didn’t know there was already a word for the desired meaning. More recent are the changes that are truly unnecessary, and cannot be overlooked as cuteness, laziness or ignorance either.

They are changes for change sake, pointless and a little crude. One such change is the generation of new words by converting a noun or less often an adjective into a verb, usually by adding “ing,” an act I call “verbing”. The classic “verbed” word is “priority,” used as “prioritize” to mean “set priorities.” It was probably born of not knowing that “prioritize” was not a word, but could appear to be by adding a Latinate suffix, the classic way to shift parts of speech. It is has become accepted now and so is a real language change, not just kitsch verbing. Such questionable changes are represented by such words as “texting.” A text is a set of words usually in print. The term distinguishes words from images or other visual features. When we send text from one mobile device to another in the form of a words-only message, are we “texting” or worse “messaging”? Surely, we are not so strapped for time that we can’t say, “Send me a message,” rather than, “Text me.” “Cover me in text?” A “text message” is already moreover redundant, since messages are text for delivery.

Handling new technology derived words is challenging. Considering the bright lines that distinguish engineering and mathematics from linguistic cognition, philosophical discourse or other humanities, one hardly wonders that computer hardware and software engineers are recasting language into a digital system that computers can handle. And we even speak of programming languages, which create systems where the exact same input will always return the exact same output. Since computers can’t deal with the emotional ambiguities of organic people, technology-based language must limit our ability to speak our feeling to them. That’s not all together a bad thing. We become a bit more bilingual, and we know that’s good for brain development and concept formation. This bilingualism however can engender pidgin language. Bilingual Spanish/English speakers may use Spanglish. Perhaps OS/English speakers will adopted Compuglish.

Perhaps the most glaring of these language corruptions springs from the screens of the Mac computer. That’s word high jacking. Macs used icons as switches or buttons displayed on the screen meant to activate something, usually to start a program running. The icon was a little picture that may have represented something about the program’s function, such as a typewriter picture to represent a word processor. Maneuver the cursor to the icon and press the button on the mouse and the program would start running. This is exactly what is meant by the word “icon,” an image through which one could access some dynamic. The word is taken from religious worship where icons were images, such as paintings or statues, representing deities or saints. By appealing to such images, the spirit of that entity would inhabit the image and be accessible to the supplicant. An icon was not just a symbol or emblem of something representative of an idea or category. It became, when called upon, the very thing it represented. The icon wasn’t worshiped; it was a connecting mechanism like a telephone that connects us via a direct hotline. So what is meant by an iconic song? “Iconic,” the adjective form of “icon,” suggests that the noun it modifies is in the nature of an icon. The saint or computer program that comes to us hears our prayers or inputs. The answer is that “iconic,” as it is used today, means nothing. Its incredible overuse and consistent misuse have rendered it completely without meaning. It is simply a mot du jour. Not using is the only fault; it leaves one out of step. Using it however means nothing, but it sounds good. While this is a very apparent dilution of meaning through the change of language, its use pales when compared to intentional misdirection. Beyond just emptying words of their meaning to leave a vacuous smiley face, words are being twisted further to elicit emotional arrays beyond the glib into the grim.

Avoiding meaning is not enough it seems. Today changes to our language are often meant to confound understanding while drawing out a reaction – often buying something, voting for someone, targeting something or just filling an empty ego with primal sounds. The dilution of the language paves the way for this. The use of buzz-words is often effectively calculated to fall on ears open to the sound of things, but deaf to any thought behind the sounds, thus bringing forth the desired reaction even when it conflicts with the best interest of the listener. There are many buzz-words in our cultural lexicons that do this. It’s seldom necessary to create new ones. Remember that the word doesn’t necessarily carry any meaning, and when it does, it might be unclear or twisted. These words make us feel some way, but what do they tell us?

Speakers shift their rhetoric from reason to passion by the choice, placement and repetition of words that sound good or scary or promising. Our intellect could be reached by these emotional appeals through reason, but that would require a little background knowledge and some reasoned consideration of ideas—reaction v. evaluation. We can be reached with a few well-chosen, incendiary words. A word such as “lying” needs no explanation. It’s bad and whatever is attached to it is bad too. So a lying newspaper is a bad newspaper. It doesn’t need to make sense and it doesn’t need to be true; it’s bad [full stop]. And as it has no real meaning, can it be true or false? If the words describing people and events have no real meaning, the veracity of those words has no foundation. There simply is no true or false—right or wrong, just linguistic sociopathy. Without some sense of truth or falsehood, some sense of right or wrong, no one can be held accountable for anything, because there is no accounting. Everything is what it is—empty moving sounds, ink on paper, vibrations in the air. This is argument without reason, winning by manipulating emotions through clever management of charged language—language without standards.

English is a rich, even precise language with something close to 50,000 words in use. College educated native speakers probably recognize between 25,000 and 30,000 words, if they are widely and well read, and use about half that number, less in speaking than writing. Overusing words therefore thins out the meaning that may have been intended, leaving only an imprecise impression. Worse, creating new words that don’t add anything more to our understanding of one another seems a bit of a disconnection with the whole point of language. Shouldn’t language attempt to transmit the complex abstraction and imagery of our thoughts as closely as possible with a clear comprehension and recreation in someone else’s thoughts? Other media can carry the abstractions, such as art and music, but these only stimulate dreamlike, abstract thoughts or feelings, by tapping into remembered feelings. Such thoughts and feelings can vary greatly, or may be absent, and are certainly not the same between two individuals. Words are for sharing ideas. Words hold and share power and clarity of thought when used with this intent. Using a word for its cuteness—for its entertainment value—seems like a petty vanity that discourages thoughtful persons from taking such a speaker or listener seriously. Moreover it opens the way for deception and manipulation. Language competence makes us more resistant to deception and manipulation, and empowers us to be thoughtful people in control of our own lives. Is the pen not mightier than the sword?

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

—George Gordon, Lord Byron

About Jay C Ritterson
If I say nothing, it might be that I have nothing to say.

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