Our Changing Language

When I came to teach in a college in Mississippi, I was amused, and somewhat dismayed, to learn that someone was to be “funeralized”, as in “John Doe will be funeralized at 10:00 on Saturday at St. John’s Church.” Then the other day, I learned that to ensure employees produce their best work, employers must find ways to “incentivize” them.

As a writer and English professor, of course, I was concerned about what the language is coming to. Then I began to think about the language. This is the way a living language evolves. Not at the academic level, but with ordinary people who speak the language. Look at the first sentence of this paragraph, for example. I have ended it with a preposition, something grammarians may still cringe over. Though after Winston Churchill’s famous rewording of one of his sentences after he was criticized for ending it with a preposition, I believe grammarians may have backed off some: “This is something with which we will not put.”

In the end, the people using the language have the last word. I have taught Milton and Shakespeare for many years. Those two created a word when one that was exactly what they needed was not available in the language. Milton is responsible for some 600 words in English. Some are “pandemonium, lovelorn, earthshaking, unaccountable, dismissive, irresponsible”. I am reminded here of “irregardless,” which is not recognized as a bona fide word, yet its use is so widespread it may someday be considered standard English.

Estimates of Shakespeare’s contribution to new words in the language range from 1,700 to 10,000. A few are “obscene, swagger, torture, skim milk, submerge”, and the list goes on.

So, to get back to “incentivize” and “funeralize”. They may very well catch on and, over a long period, be included in our dictionaries as standard English.

So how did people speak before the seventeenth century? English began as an obscure Germanic dialect that eventually became what it is today. The study of the history of the English language is fascinating to those who enjoy the study of words. If you are one of those people, you may enjoy reading Beowulf: A Trilingual Etymological Bridge by Charles Long, PhD.

Use the language as you need to use it. If a character speaks nonstandard English, then use it. The point is that to break the rules successfully, you must know the rules. Keep that dictionary nearby and use it. Good craftsmen understand how to use the tools in their tool chest. And keep writing.

9 thoughts on “Our Changing Language

  1. Language evolution is so much fun. People do get terribly emotional about new words. All words were new at some point. Great post :).

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