Beware the Squiggly Red Line

Our language is constantly evolving. That’s almost a tautology for any language that hasn’t been officially pronounced dead. Whilst the rate of change often appears virtually imperceptible to us, a quick flick through a dictionary containing word etymologies, or a glance at the literature from bygone centuries soon proves the point. Words arise and mutate, they spontaneously alter their usage and change their position in a sentence, they crop up in unusual scenarios through metaphor, and before long appear to us in an entirely new guise from their original form. Whilst we occasionally borrow words from foreign languages, and typically for the moment derive new words for new technologies, the main source of new words in our language comes from the current stock. Each of us has an inbuilt sense of how words should be used and formed, and through repetition and popularity, a new word (or an old one with new stripes) can worm its way into one of those revered tomes we like to call dictionaries.

But just what is that makes a word worthy of that rubber stamp of approval? Most of us use words in our everyday speech which would not appear in a dictionary, be they so-called slang terms, or simply words of our own fabrication that follow those deeply ingrained rules of our language. Taking a new term such as the name of the website Google provides as an example, it is not uncommon to hear people who use “google” as a verb, and nor do we require an extra lesson in English to know that the past tense of the verb is “googled”, that the particle is “googling”, that a person who googles would be a “googler” etc. No one will be sent running for a dictionary to work out what any of those terms mean, but the previous sentence is nevertheless littered with wavy red lines in my browser. Of course this is only one example, and perhaps one that will ultimately make its way into the major dictionaries, but how many such examples would litter our spoken language?

Of course, our spoken language alters in different ways than just the formation and reimplementation of words. Our way of speaking shifts, sometimes drastically, such that given enough time and relative isolation, two strong dialects can diverge into two mutually unintelligible languages. It seems difficult to imagine how such a shift can occur in our way of speaking, such that in one swoop words like the German drei and the English three could become so radically different in sound (or even, to take a word that altered at both extremes, the German Dieb and the English thief). Yet would it be such a surprise if we found that the soft ‘th’ sound was replaced in certain parts of the anglophone world with a ‘f’? That is to say, would firty-free feories really be so unimaginable, or even unintelligible? But it would appear that the speed and extent to which linguistic change occurs has been retarded by the mass spread of literacy and new technology. The latter has made the world a much smaller place, and broken down the normal geographical confines of our languages. Isolation is now no longer as simple as settling in the next valley, or the next island, or even on another continent, and the normal understanding we have of borrowing words from neighbouring languages is in many languages overruled by other concerns. In the former case, however, the written word provides a stone framework upon which many of us develop our spoken language, even if this written form does not do a particularly good job of representing our language.

But perhaps we are coming across a period of acceleration, once again. We are all, of course, authors of spoken language and to such an extent we all contribute to the way in which our spoken language alters. Though these changes are usually very gradual, they are certainly noticeable, as when comparing English to its nearest linguistic relatives, or even simply pondering the origin of the variety of sounds that remain petrified in a single written form such as ‘ough‘ (e.g. through, though, bough, lough, enough). Yet where previously, the spread of technology and literacy had a halting effect on the rate of change, today’s technologies are empowering more people to become authors of all kinds of ‘written’ content, through email, SMS, social networking, blogging, twittering and so on. Unlike the written material of the past, so often carefully proof-read to conform to all the prescribed rules, or private, written correspondence that would have very few readers, today’s authors are both carefree and numerous, and their recipients likewise. The number of txt messages sent on a daily basis is frankly staggering, and whilst they represent a particular niche form of the written word, there is plenty of other published material to add to that tally, which comes from ordinary minds processing the English language as they see fit, without proofreaders or editors watching over their shoulders.

To some extent it is largely too soon to tell quite what the effect of this rapid expansion in people’s written output will be. The rules of language are descriptions of the way in which we use it, just as a dictionary records the words as they are used in a language, rather than prescribing the way words must be used. As our language changes, so must the rules move to accommodate it. And these rules will not be created by some small ivory tower institution, but will develop piecemeal through official and unofficial custom. Take Birmingham City Council‘s recent decision to remove apostrophes from place names, for example, a slightly detracted but certainly not wholly unrelated manoeuvre to Bournemouth Council‘s move late last year to prohibit the use of certain Latin terms.

So back to where we started then—how much attention do you pay to the squiggly red line? Typos aside, would you stop and reconsider, and use another word you know to exist? Or do you allow yourself to create freely, hang all the rules? And how far do you consider yourself to be author, not only of the words, but of the ‘rules’ of our language?

Random Quote

I’ve no idea what Eddie Irvine’s orders are, but he’s following them superlatively well.

— Murray Walker
Fips Written by:

The only current author of this personal blog.