Saturday, November 07, 2015

A Word of Warning

While some changes to language are roundly condemned by pedants, purists and prescriptivists - creaky voice, rising intonation, split infinitives and literally not actually meaning LITERALLY AT ALL - new words often get an easy ride. People generally like new words and can see why they appear in the language, even if some of them seem a bit silly (Awesome sauce and amazeballs? Really?) or likely to last as long as a David Cameron promise on tax credits (dadbod and mantihose?). In fact, new words now get wall-to-wall media coverage.

So, this week we have seen the latest additions to the Collins Dictionary feature in pieces such as this (from the Dictionary-makers themselves), this from The Guardianthis from the BBC and this from the Daily Fail.

But among the hype and the celebration of an evolving and vibrant language, naysayers complain that some of the new entries are just trendy fads, too ephemeral to be included in esteemed dictionaries.

As Robert Lane Greene explains in a blog for The Economist, the whole process of putting new words in a dictionary is quite an intensive exercise, admittedly now made much easier by the internet: something that early lexicographers could have only dreamt of. A further explanation is given in this helpful video clip from Oxford University Press, which describes how a new word (in this case selfie) might enter their dictionaries. As the clip explains, the naysayers are partly right that things have been changing faster than before, because the new words don't have to have had a very long existence before being added to the online versions of the dictionaries. But in a way, that just reflects the rapid pace of lexical change these days. Perhaps, as John Sutherland argues in this article, language is "evolving at a faster rate now than at any other time in history because of social media and instant messaging".

Is this rapid change leaving some behind? One argument often put forward by more prescriptively-minded people is that if language changes too fast, we lose mutual intelligibility; in other words, one generation may not understand the language of another. Older people (anyone over 30) will lose any semblance of understanding of what young people are talking about, goes the argument, and that will lead to social breakdown and chaos. Indeed, this is the argument peddled in rather dubious articles like this one in yesterday's Daily Fail which claims that parents haven't a clue what their kids are saying because they're using a secret sex and drugs code, grandad!

For example, the seemingly innocuous "netflix and chill" now takes on much more sinister connotations. The innocent Snapchat message from your teenage daughter to her bae saying "Do you want to come over? We could Netflix and chill." actually means "Buy drugs, come to my boudoir and let's have hours of dangerous chemsex". Apparently.

The fear that young people's language is constantly evolving as a nefarious means of hoodwinking their prying parents or to hide other dubious activities (smoking tobacco, drinking alcopops and playing CoD until after bedtime) is one that has been around forever. This piece in The Daily Telegraph from 2013, this one from the Daily Fail (again... almost like they don't like young people), or even these from as far back as the 17th Century, all say similar things.

And if people have been complaining about it and we still manage to communicate fairly effectively with each other after all this time, surely the doom-mongers are barking up the wrong tree.

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