I don’t know you, but I’ve always had the feeling that words change and new ones are created faster in English than in Spanish. I know all languages are constantly on the move and nothing’s carved in stone, but still. If I were to compare both languages with a train metaphor, the Spanish train would be the normal train we all used to know, while the English one would definitely be the bullet type in terms of coming up with new words and expressions.
So with this in mind, I did a little research on language books, specifically on the English language. Most of books I found were sort of the same. They talk about the origin or how English developed or how the mind works when learning it, but then… Hurray! I came across a book that I think is really interesting and quite original. It’s WORDS ON THE MOVE: WHY ENGLISH WON’T – AND CAN’T – SIT STILL (LIKE, LITERALLY) by John McWhorter. Enthusiastically, the author makes the case that language is fluid and rests it with multiple fascinating word stories.
McWhorter establishes from the start that more than a few people mind that today the way people are talking is always changing. And that somehow it seems that language is always changing in the wrong way. It would seem, according to the author, that when most people express approval of language changing, they are thinking of something relatively nondisruptive: roughly, matters of keeping the language up to date.
One of the hardest notions for a human being to shake is that language is something that is, when it is actually something always becoming. They tell you a word is a thing, when it’s actually something going on, writes the author.
It isn’t that language changes only because new things need names or because new developments bring people into new contacts. Language changes because its very structure makes transformation inevitable.
In McWhorter’s own words, change would happen simple because mutability is as inherent to the very nature of language as it is for clouds to be ever in transformation.
Meanwhile, sounds are slightly misheard by each generation’s ears, with each generation making the sounds slightly differently. A word many once pronounced “dafter” now is only pronounced “dawter”; hence our familiar daughter, exemplifies the author.
He compares language with a parade: the word whose sound and meaning stays the same over centuries is the exception rather than the rule.
Words Get Personal Words have modal pragmatic markers (MPMs, for short) and generate new MPMs as a normal process in any language. MPMs are an extreme manifestation of a general process.
Throughout any language, words of all kinds are always going personal to a certain extent. Other times, things get so personal that the original meaning vanishes entirely.
MPMs are what happens when this personal pull on words’ meanings goes so far that a word no longer has what we can easily process as a meaning at all, or has a meaning so divorced from the original that some mistake seems to have been made (the “teenager” usage of like).
Among many examples, one cited is the use of the word “literally”, which originally meant “by the letter” but has gained “purely figurative usage” to mean something closer to “actually”.
The weather headline VERY COLD WEATHER NEXT WEEK is quite plausible, but REALLY COLD WEATHER NEXT WEEK would never make it through. Why? What makes “really” seem out of place in a headline, explains the author, is that it is fundamentally emotional: it’s too personal. Really is about your gut feelings in a way that “very” is much less so.
Words move. They bring language alive. They simply require us to expand our conception of what it is to “mean” something.
Novelty can also be a lot of fun. Some consider it the staff of life. It’s certainly what keeps most linguists so interested in language.
So if anything here has aroused your curiosity, don’t miss reading the book!
And if you’re interested on the subject, here’s a book review article you might like: Why English Keeps On, Like, Totally Changing.