Language Changes?

James Lincoln Warren.
Photo: Reinhard Kargl

By James Lincoln Warren

I will rarely engage with people who want to argue with me about grammar and diction. They almost always open their salvoes with, “Language changes!”, as if I were utterly ignorant of this. Of course language changes. That is not the point.

Change is not a value, in and of itself.

The question people need to ask when they indulge in adopting certain changes is, “What value is in the change?”

If it is a constructive value, then well and good. If it is a destructive value, then bad.

Which naturally leads to the question, what values are we talking about, anyway?

The first and most obvious value of language is semantic clarity, but that isn’t its only function. It’s also used to promote or suppress emotions, for example. And it’s a very significant contributor to establishing group identity.

The way you talk and write is a lot like what you choose to wear. It projects your self-image. There is a distinct difference between long-lived styles and short-lived fads. It announces your sense of class. It may announce a desired impression: “I am refined”, “I am beautiful”, “I am rich”, “I am a rebel”, and so on. Image is also a value.

The forensic linguistic term for language used to establish a particular group identity is called its “register”. This includes slang, professional lingo, bureaucratese, regional dialect, and so forth. (When I was a student at the Mannes College of Music in New York back in the 70s, there was a student there named Arthur Wood or Woodley or something similar, who was a singer with a rich, sonorous baritone voice. He was from the Virgin Islands. When he talked to the other students, he spoke with a perfectly indistinguishable American accent—but when he talked to the school’s janitor, Wendell, also from the VI, he switched into a mellifluous Caribbean accent and a different syntax. It was like he was two different people—both of them very pleasant, I might add.)

Police are famous for having an international register that may not let you know where they’re from, but will definitely tell you the speaker is a cop. An example of this is the postposed “then”, meaning that “then” follows a noun instead of preceding it as is usually the case, viz., “I then proceeded to the station,” in lieu of “Then I went to the station.” (“Proceeded” is also a register marker, of course.)

This is not standard usage, but I have no problem with it, other than the fact that it lacks grace. It has value to its users.

Likewise with slang, although sometimes it fails when it pretends to be standard—I recently read a short phrase online wherein someone described himself as a “sapiophile”. I had never run across that word before, and couldn’t find it in the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s because it’s actually slang. It’s supposed to mean “a person who likes intelligent people.” I think it’s highfalutin nonsense, used to try to make the speaker sound smart by using a word that seems sophisticated, with the connotation being, “if you don’t know what this words means, it’s because you aren’t as smart as I am, so I won’t like you.”

How is that adding value to the language?

The worst offenses, though, are those that reduce the meanings of words, like the ubiquitous “awesome”. It is now impossible to use that word to describe something that inspires awe. It used to be an age identifier, but that has long since evaporated, too. Now it’s just insipid.

But I’m not going to argue with anybody about it, one on one. Use of language absolutely is tied in with identity, and confronting someone with a consistent misusage is like rapping their knuckles everytime they make a mistake, punishing them for being stupid or slow.

Margaret corrects me everytime I make an error, but since part of MY identity is wrapped up in ensuring standard usage, I am grateful for the corrections. Plus, I usually know better than to argue with my wife.

So—please don’t justify using a barbarism on the grounds that language changes. I know it does. I am not trying to arrest changes. I’m only trying to weed out the bad ones.

[Guest post courtesy of James Lincoln Warren]

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