English Language is very tricky and never seems to want to stay put. Through the years, the language has changed drastically. This may be to the point that if an English speaker alive centuries ago, if placed in today’s world, may think English speakers now are using a completely different language. It is interesting, however, to see how far the English language has gone. Let’s take a look at some of the special properties of the language, and how they’ve changed and evolved.
Nonsense statements become understandable in the English language
The legendary comedian George Carlin made a career out making fun of the language. He liked calling to attention the difference between how words are perceived as opposed to what they are actually saying. He would ask wonderfully rhetorical questions in the English language. My favorite of which was: Would you really get on a non-stop flight? Carlin would then proceed to joke about how he insists his flight should stop, preferably at an airport.
Being on a “non-stop flight” literally suggests that the plane you are riding will not come to a stop. This obviously does not make sense. However, as the phrase “non-stop flight” is used today, it is commonly understood that it actually means a flight without any pit stops or layovers. As seen in this example, the literal meaning of things is not always what others interpret. In the English language, what seems like complete nonsense actually becomes an understandable phrase.
The English language defies definition
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the language. The conservative view is that the integrity of the language must be maintained, however grudgingly at times. The liberal view is that the English language must adapt to the times in order to become a lively and vibrant language. Additionally, there is my view, which is that the language defies definition.
I start my case by citing the classic argument that ‘ghoti’ is a homonym of ‘fish’ by virtue of the following logic:
- “gh” may sound like “f,” as in the word “enough,”
- “o” may sound like “i,” as in the word “women,” and
- “ti” may sound like “sh,” as in the word “action”
This is a ridiculous extreme, of course. In the English language, the evolution of letter combinations and the sounds they represent is a natural process. This is because the language is spreading and becoming more universal. Conversely, this is also why more geographically compact languages, such as Swedish, remain purer in the logic of their pronunciation rules.
Definitions change over time
Not only do sounds change over time in the English language, but so do definitions. An example of this would be the word “nice.” “Nice” has its Latin origin in the word “nescius,” which means ignorant. Considering this, in the 1400’s, the phrase “nice man” would have been referring to an idiot. However, by the 1600’s, the word “nice” already had a different meaning. A “nice man” evolved to meaning that he was “refined.” After slightly more than a century, a “nice man” has become someone who is “pleasant.” This is now the definition in the language that is recognized today in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Slang in the English language
In more colloquial vocabularies, slang has also developed in the English language. Nowadays, the word “sick” has turned into a synonym for being “cool.” The word “cool” has also been turned from a temperature condition to a state of being trendy or popular. Every generation has its slang. It is rare that the “proper” dictionary definitions have actually changed for words that have evolved into the established vernacular. Yes, “sick” may mean “cool” in local vernaculars. However, if a dictionary is consulted, “sick” still means being affected by an illness, and “cool” still means low temperature.
Popularity of slang and online references
Due to slang being so popular in the English language, alternative informal reference sources have given rise. One of the most interesting of these today is Urban Dictionary. This is the brainchild of Aaron Peckham, a former student at California Polytechnic State University. He saw a need to catalog, define, and post today’s slang for the benefit of all. This non-profit site has become popular and attracts millions of hits per year. This is because of the exponential growth cyberspace has to offer. It has become a resource for parents trying to understand their kids or for language learners confused by the language.
The Urban Dictionary has become so popular, it has become available in the form of a book. It contain a modest 2,000 slang definitions in the English language. The site itself, however, contains more than 250,000 entries. Examples of these would be having “gone 404” – a reference for the online error message displayed when a site is missing. This means you cannot be understood by others because you are using words relatable only to computer and electronics enthusiasts. Another example would be having “butt dialed” someone, meaning you accidentally called someone because your mobile phone is fit too tightly in your pocket.
The English language is certainly very interesting, and full of unexpected twists. Nonsense can become perfectly understandable, sounds and definitions are slowly being altered, and new generations are giving rise to new words that fit the times. Through all this transformation and unpredictability, one thing is for sure – the English language is not done changing and evolving.