Musings

Language: ever-changing

One of my jobs as a communicator is to, well, communicate. 

Now, there’s a deep statement, you’re thinking.  But it gets better:  read on.

The one constant fact about the English language is that it is always changing.  “Language is always in a state of flux,” I keep saying.  It’s not original to me, but some days I feel like I might own the record for most-frequently-used.

It used to be that language was the purview of etymologists (that’s word freaks, to us lay folk).  And most etymologists, like most other “-ologists”, were academics.  Nowadays, however, language is both no one’s and everyone’s purview.

It’s no one’s purview in the sense that no one has control over the evolution, or erosion, of language.  It’s everyone’s purview in the sense that, thanks to mass-media communications (not least of which is this here Internet thing) everyone contributes toward the addition of terms to the common dictionary, as well as toward the disuse of terms or even the re-definition of words.  (Remember when “gay” strictly meant “happy”?  When “man” meant “humanity”?  Not so today!)

A couple of years ago, I had a protracted online debate with a member of the editorial staff of Our Local Tabloid That Holds The Canadian Tire Flyer.  We were discussing the uses and abuses of the adjective, “The Reverend”.  The newspaper had written quite a favourable column that involved some members of the clergy.  (If I recall, it was about a Habitat for Humanity project in Scarborough.)  I wrote, not for publication in the newspaper, that the editors had chosen to misuse the aforementioned adjective. 

What was interesting about the debate is that the person from the paper conceded that I was correct, but at the same time stated that the paper was not going to change how it used the term.  That, friends, is power over the English language.  Granted, it’s not over some life-changing issue, but that’s just an example from my own experience.

(If you’re curious about the uses and abuses of the adjective, “The Reverend”, comment on this piece and I’ll give you the right – er, my – take on it.)

The Internet gives us all power to change the language.  In fact, the Internet itself is changing the language just by the use of some common terms.  One of the most interesting thinkers in the blogosphere today is a guy named Seth Godin.  In one of his pieces earlier this week, he discusses how the Internet is changing language.  (I might suggest that the term “blogosphere” could soon find its way into the OED.  But I digress.)

You can read Seth’s piece here.  He talks about the phenomenon of Facebook and how it has turned the word “friend” into a verb, e.g., “I’ll friend you on that.”

Words are powerful.  As a communicator, I try to use words in ways that will express what I need to say in relevant and meaningful ways.  Sometimes, that means using English words in ways I haven’t been used to.

That being said, it is unlikely that u wl evr c me rite lk ths.  Frankly, it took me longer to write that than the whole previous paragraph, because it’s not a language – a dialect? – with which I’m conversant.  I guess that’s because I’m not a big text messaging user, where characters count and vowels are often disposable.

When I lead groups in seminars on discovering the Bible, I show them a political cartoon from The Globe and Mail from some years back that depicts a couple of children speaking in terms largely foreign to adults under the caption, “English Language In Flux”.  Most of the participants turn up their noses at this, but when I remind them that their grandchildren probably talk this way, they are reminded of the need for relevant communication.

That’s why there are so many English versions of the Bible, for example.  Because language is ever-changing, and God speaks every language under the sun, versions must continue to be translated and published. 

And we who communicate for a living must, therefore, be culture analysts.  It’s not always easy, but it’s, like, necessary, you know?

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