Linguistics

A language evolution: reflecting on language change for Darwin Day

Niall Curry

To celebrate Darwin Day, Niall Curry explores the evolution of language over the last 10 years. Niall Curry is a Lecturer in Academic Writing at the Centre for Academic Writing at Coventry University. He has been actively engaged in both teaching and research for many years and his work covers a range of topics in applied linguistics and language pedagogy. He is a co-editor of the Journal of Academic Writing and he holds a PhD in corpus and contrastive linguistics from the University of Limerick.

Have you ever had a negative reaction to a word, expression, or use of grammar you find increasingly common? Why did you feel that way? What is it about that change in use of language that bothered you? Well whatever the case, you are not alone.

I have been to many conferences where there is inevitably someone who argues that they do not begin a sentence with “so” or that they never split an infinitive. In fact, rejecting language change is not a particularly new phenomenon. In their book, Understanding Language Change (2017), Kate Burridge and Alexander Berg give many fascinating examples of exceedingly familiar historical attitudes towards language change. For example, they discuss a large debate that took place in 16th and 17th centuries surrounding English’s adoption of Latin and Greek terminology, with those not in favour of the adoption arguing that such terms only serve to add confusion, as opposed to sophistication. Try as they may have however, language change is inevitable.

 

How and why does language change?

Languages change for many reasons. Language contact and borrowings can result in language change. Take for example words like “cake” or “knife” which, according to Hundt and Schreier (2013), are borrowings that occurred in the time of Old English and which were adopted following contact with Old Norse. Beyond language contact, redundancy can result in words falling from usage, language learning can result in changes owing to the use of English as an international language, and further changes can occur at the hand of cultural, societal, and technological developments.

However, when we think about the kinds of changes that take place, it is not just about a language borrowing nouns or verbs. We see grammatical changes in the position of words in a sentence, changes to meaning where words can become more positive e.g. slang usage of “wicked” or “sick”, or more negative e.g. awful (once meaning inspiring awe). We can have changes in pronunciation, changes in formality, and even changes in spelling, think “color” and “colour”. As I said, language change is inevitable, and usually it changes because we need it or want it to change. If that does not convince you, then perhaps the following comic from XKCD will show you the dangers of resisting language change:

XKCD - change in language - comic

Now that we are all on board with language change, let us think about some changes that have happened a little more recently, which have allowed us to do a little more with the English language.

 

Changes to the English language over the last 10 years

We can study language change using language corpora like the Cambridge English Corpus, which contain a large collection of texts gathered over many years. Here are 3 insights we found from the analysis of such data:

1

Technology: Innovation in language often presupposes innovation in the wider world, and technology is a great driver of this. Think about companies like WeChat or WhatsApp, which were founded in 2011 and 2009 respectively. In 2007, if you were to say, “I’ll whatsapp you” no one would have understood. However, now the frequency of the word WhatsApp in web corpora has increased exponentially. In fact, in the Now Corpus there are no examples of the word WhatsApp in 2010, while in 2018 there were over 50,000 examples. What is more, as a verb or noun, it is easily understood and WhatsApp, when not referring to the app or company, has become synonymous with “message”. It would seem that as long as the companies keep going, we are likely to continue to use the words.

 

2

Changes in adverbial meaning: A large change in language that we documented in our research on the Spoken BNC2014 is the change in terms of frequency of the adverb “literally”, which in the 2010s was almost ten times more frequent than in the 1990s, for example. However, frequency is not the only point of interest as there has also been a notable change in meaning with the 2010s seeing much more metaphorical use of literally than before e.g. “oh I literally haven’t moved all day”. This is important, as if someone had not moved in the slightest for a whole day, then we might grow a little worried for them. This of course was not what the speaker meant. Rather, they were most likely just being emphatic. This change in trend was quite noteworthy, and it will be interesting to see how this carries forward in the 2020s.

 

3

 

Changes in positive and negative words: Returning to words like “wicked”, a collocation analysis shows that in spoken British English, wicked is used more positively with gradable adverbs like “well wicked” or collocations like “wicked smart” in the 2010s. This is within a younger demographic of course, but an important thing to know is that if someone calls something wicked, it is not necessarily bad. Interestingly, the word appears to be declining in use already, so as 2020 and the new decade unfolds, it may not be something we hear very often.

 

What can you do with language change?

With all this in mind, how can we bring this into the language classroom? Well, fortunately language change is happening all around us, which means students can engage with it both in and out of class. Why not ask students to identify some of these words being used? They could note information like:

  • Who said/wrote it?
  • How often was it said/written?
  • To whom did they say/write it?
  • Etc.

 

Taking their notes back to class, students can present what they found out about language change in English, and in a learner-centred approach, navigate challenges with regard to the formality, spoken and written differences, and the value of language that is changing in English to their own language development. The goal of this exercise is to help keep our students up to date with language change, but this is just one idea. If you have another, feel free to share your own ideas of how to bring language change into the classroom.

References

Burridge, K. and Bergs, A., 2016. Understanding language change. Routledge.
Hundt, M. and Schreier, D., 2013. Introduction: Nothing but a contact language. In Schreier, D. and M. Hundt, eds. English as a contact language. Cambridge University Press, 1-17.


 

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out the Cambridge Life Competencies for Teens podcast on Communication in the ELT classroom, featuring Niall Curry.


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