Languages are alive – figuratively speaking that is. However they do seem to exhibit similar qualities to many of Earth’s other living organisms. Languages have parents, have off-spring, have cousins, distant and close. Languages move, even across continents. They grow, and sadly even die. It should therefore be of no surprise to you that languages go through a lot of changes as they grow. If we look back at English over time you can see how people spoke differently even 70 years ago on recordings and in film. Written literature, for example Shakespeare, demonstrates how dramatically English has changed in the last 400 years. Go back another 400 hundred and English becomes incomprehensible.
But in the most recent times…let’s say the last 30-40 years – just one generation- how has the English language changed? Well, the changes have been subtle but they are definitely continuously affecting English in various ways.
Easily the most dramatic and visible manner in which language change has occurred has been in the lexis, or vocabulary. Because of technological advances several new words have been created to meet new needs. Verbalizations of certain new technological devices have quite suddenly appeared;
|A text message||To text someone|
|Vape – an electronic cigarette||Vaping, vaped|
|To google something|
|To tweet something|
Change of Meaning
Words can take on new meanings as times change. The words ‘Like’ / to ‘Like’ something can now mean to formally approve of something on Facebook. This has led to the bizarre creation of ‘unlike’ as a verb – “I had to unlike his pictures after we broke up but I didn’t want to unfriend him entirely.”
The word ‘literally’ in English has changed over time to become used in colloquial speech as a way of adding dramatic emphasis. “I had to wait literally all day for you!” (used in a context where the person ‘literally’ (in the precise meaning) had to wait 45 minutes – nevertheless a very long time. This is particularly sad for me because ‘literally’ had such an important and practical function in language – to underline the fact that the words you were using could be understood for exactly what they meant. When I get too depressed by this change I remind myself that ‘fantastic’ used to mean ‘existing in one’s imagination’ and ‘incredible’ used to mean ‘not to be believed’ or ‘NOT credible’ literally. Now they both just mean ‘GREAT!’
These are new words often created as blends or shortenings of other, known words.
- bromance from bro (man) romance – when two guys have a great friendship and enjoy spending time together.
- mansplaining from man and explaining – when a man tries to explain something to a woman that she already knows
- chillaxing from chilling and relaxing
- binge-watching – to watch an entire TV series in one sitting. Usually a series that has been saved so that one doesn’t have to wait for subsequent episodes
The lexical changes to language are always a bit more obvious but what seems to go under the radar (perhaps because they are less like the proverbial brick to the face.) are the sneaky, underlying grammatical ways in which languages change.
Dr. David Crystal conducted a splendid plenary session at the IATEFL Teaching Conference in Birmingham in 2016 and I had the privilege to attend. It was entitled „Who would of thought it?” The English language 1966-2066 and in it he noted that there is a strange but perceivable movement away from the use of certain single word modular forms like SHALL, and MUST. They are being increasingly replaced be multi-word modular forms such as ‚going to’ (gonna) /want to (wanna) and have to (hafta) so;
- We shall go there tomorrow children. – We’re going to go there tomorrow, children.
- Shall we go home now? – Do you wanna go home now?
- I must leave now. – I have to leave now.
Furthermore he noted, very correctly, that English is moving towards an increased use of progressive (continuous) voice forms. The vast majority of English course books teach that stative verbs are never continuous. I am loving you, I hear what you are saying but I am not undertsanding you. I am not believing in God. These would all be considered incorrect according to well established standards of English as well as all Cambridge exams. However, these forms can be heard spoken by typical modern-day native speaker teens all the time.
- „OMG I am loving your sweater!”
- „I’m not believing what I’m seeing.”
- „Are you understanding the words that are coming out of my mouth. I don’t want to go.”
These are all very typical and everyday expressions used by teens in English speaking countries. Even the McDonald’s slogan says ‚I’m lovin’ it„. I had a student drinking out of a McDonald’s cup while I was trying to teach the rule about stative verbs (love, know) NEVER being continuous.
In all places where English is spoken there has been a decrease in the intensity and variety of local accents. Within the UK, an accent used to be an automatic badge of identity making it possible to guess where an individual’ was from within any given county within a few kilometres. These differences are becoming less and less dramatic. It is widely recognized that a future King George (Prince William’s son) would speak a very different English from his grandmother Her Majesty, the Queen.
This is also evident in North America where Canadians are often mistaken for Americans and the younger generation of Texans, who were once famous for their charming twang are becoming increasingly less recognisable by their speech.
Perhaps all of our pronunciations are slowly getting closer to one another through our shared social media, TV, cinema etc. The world is becoming a smaller place.
Unfriend – to stop being connected to another person on Facebook
Go under the radar – to go unnoticed
Twang – nasally speech with short vowels
So these are some examples of areas in which English has changed through recent years. In your own mother tongues have you noticed any perceivable changes in the language over the last generation when you watch films or listen to older folks talk? Let us know an give us some feedback in the comments below.