I’ve had several encounters recently with people complaining about the way that English is changing. When I stop laughing, I feel a bit of frustration. One of the things that is a constant in language is that it changes. Exactly the same way that the rest of life changes.
There are the obvious changes that happen, like when a new technology shows up and we suddenly need new words to talk about it. For example, prior to the invention of the microwave, we didn’t have that word. Now it has transformed from a noun to a verb, as in “I’m going to microwave my lunch now.” Not such a bad thing if you think about it. If language never changed we’d still be talking about every thing in terms of rocks and fire.
New words come, they change meaning and they die out. Some much quicker than others. This is normal, natural and expected. When what people want to talk about changes, the language they use has to change to accommodate those new thoughts. All languages have a method for incorporating new words. English likes to take whatever other languages have come up with and just use it as is. That is why spelling in English is so difficult. French on the other hand insists on making any new word fit its phonemic and morphemic paradigms. Most languages fall somewhere in between. None of this in inherently better than any other way. The important part is that the language adds new vocabulary.
More important than new vocabulary, is the shift in grammar. Each new generation has new experiences that need new ways to describe them. In many ways that is the most glorious aspect of language. It flexes and stretches to meet each new demand. For generations going back further than recorded history older generations have listened to younger generations and shook their heads at the horrible way the youngsters were speaking.
These days, we have linguists to codify and decode all the ways that language is used. Older generations expect linguists to agree with them about the proper use of certain words. Linguists just shake their heads and explain that language changes. That’s not to say that you can’t make mistakes. There are times when people misuse words, bollix up the grammar or just plain don’t say what they meant to say. They don’t become change until there are repeated patterns with mutual understandability within a culture or sub-culture (and yes, a group of teenagers counts as a sub-culture).
So what does all of this mean for those of us who play with language on a daily basis? It means that we have options, but those options are going to come with baggage. If I want my grandmother character to talk like a valley girl I’m going to have to set my story far enough in the future that the valley girls are old enough to be grandmothers. On the flip side, if I have my grandmother character talking like a valley girl my readers are going to expect other changes consistent with that kind of time shift. If I don’t give it to them, they will reject my grandmother as unbelievable. It also means that we will have to pay attention to the languages around us. Who is using which words in what ways, and what does that tell us about their life?
It also tells us that we shouldn’t talk to our grandmothers the same way we talk to our friends. After all, we don’t want our grandmothers to think that we are uneducated hooligans just because we used the wrong dialect.