Skip to main content

Don’t Fear Our Changing Language

We consistently find people who decry change and fear it will bring about the demise of English as we know it. But it’s totally harmless and offers us a window on the complex system that underlies our knowledge of language.
(Photo: Isuaneye/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Isuaneye/Shutterstock)

Change can be exciting or painful. Change can also be scary: Whether we are a toddler going from home to daycare, or a working adult moving into retirement, transitions can be difficult. But some changes are inevitable, and should be embraced; start with language: change in language is not harmful, is perfectly logical, and gives us insights into the workings of the human mind.

All aspects of language change: the lexicon, the syntax (or grammar), the system of sounds (phonology), and meaning (semantics).

Changes in the lexicon are very visible: We’re all aware of new words that come into use, some related to technological innovations (like the verb to google, or the noun app), some to new products or behaviors that become a public concern (like manspreading, the state of a man sitting with his legs spread widely on public transit). Every year, at an annual conference, linguists devote some time to celebrating new words—this year, they included the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and the noun columbusing. No need to cringe or fear new words, for sure.

Changes in the syntax are also frequent and inevitable. Take, for example, the use of so that is pervasive in the English of young American speakers. Is it an aberration that should make us cringe?

Changes in the syntax are also frequent and inevitable, though perhaps less obvious. Take, for example, the use of so that is pervasive in the English of young American speakers (“She has so dated that type of guy before!” or “You’re so in the doghouse for that!”). Is it an aberration that should make us cringe? A sign that young people are sloppy or lazy or don’t know how to put words together? Neither. It simply shows that young speakers are innovative and put the rules of English syntax to work.

Patricia Irwin, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, has some interesting thoughts about how such change might have come about. First, she argues, young speakers extended the possible meanings of the adverb totally (“completely,” or “entirely,” as in, “That’s totally burned”) to include that of a so-called “speaker-oriented adverb” conveying a strong commitment on the part of the speaker to the truth of a given sentence. This meaning of totally is the one relevant in sentences like “Jamie has totally dated that type of guy before,” where totally conveys that the speaker is thoroughly committed to the truth of the proposition.

Next, Irwin says, speakers apply two rules that are part of the syntax of English: they modify the adverb with so, and leave it unpronounced. Every speaker of English can modify certain adjectives or adverbs (like tall, kind, quickly, precisely) with so, as in “She drives so quickly that I worry about her.” Young speakers modify speaker-oriented totally with so (“Jamie has so totally dated that type of guy before!”). They can also leave totally unpronounced (“Jamie has so dated that type of guy before!”), where totally is present in the syntactic representation of the sentence but is silent.

Is this an aberration? Is failure to pronounce something a sign of laziness? Not at all: Failing to pronounce something is an option of the syntax of English that we see in many sentences. Suppose I said: “This is Sarah. She’s four.” The sentence “She’s four” is perfectly grammatical in English (though it wouldn’t be in many other languages) and is not ambiguous: It means that she’s four years old. Note that it cannot be interpreted as meaning that the girl is four feet tall, even in a context in which we are talking about height and she is indeed four feet tall. This suggests that the element left implicit in “She’s four” (namely, years old) is not filled in by context, but rather is present in the syntactic representation of the sentence, though it is not pronounced. Similarly, if I said, “We’re at the top of the eighth,” the missing element could only be inning, not floor.

In other words, “Jamie has so dated that type of guy before” results from the extension of the meaning of an adverb, totally, combined with the application of two rules of the syntax of English. No laziness involved, no aberration, and no need to cringe—this is change that should be celebrated.

Some people will say that language change is to be resisted because it will lead to the “demise of English.” But why think this way? Is the language that we speak today less good than the language of our ancestors in any way? It is certainly not less efficient as a means of communicating or relating to one another; it can still be used to create beautiful poetry, literary pieces, and expressions of love and awe and all other human feelings.

In her plenary address to the members of the Linguistic Society of America this year, the society’s president, Joan Maling, discussed how the characteristic properties of passive sentences have changed over time, across a number of languages. While Jane Austen could say, “The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down” (Northanger Abbey, 1818), today we would have to say, “The clock struck ten while the trunks were being carried down.” Are we worse off because we express the passive in a different way (one that was reviled when it first appeared), or because we say you instead of thou, or dove instead of dived?

Anne Karpf, author of How to Age, recently pointed out in the New York Times’ Sunday Review that “we begin to age the moment we’re born” and that age resistance is “a futile kind of life resistance.” Like humans themselves, language also changes the moment it is born. Across the centuries, people have expressed dismay and reluctance to accept change in their own language. Yet, rather than decry it, we should enjoy it and see it as a reflection of our minds’ ability to use and expand the complex system that underlies our knowledge of language.