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Contemporary change

June 10, 2016

Language is still changing, as we write now. if you get a modern-day text, be aware of both its regional variations (if they are evident), and of changes which might be in process now, usages which some might find informal or new, innovations which might be caused by current fashions and technologies and trends.

We considered a number of forces that have been at work in leading to language change, first thinking about how they have affected language through our consideration of the history of English, and then thinking also about what seems to be prominent now.

Factors we thought were influential included invasion, the entry of a dominating language into an existing language milieu, especially important in 1066 and in the colonisation and enslavement that led to creation of pidgins and creoles. This tends to overhaul the language spoken, especially by the invaded, significantly, affecting fundamental structures in the language and stratification into different levels of formality (to acrolect, basilect and mesolect in creoles, for instance). Trade also led to significant contact with other cultures, leading to borrowing of lexical items more likely than fundamental changes to grammar (as we see in invasions). Many spoke up for printing as causing a fundamental change in the mass dissemination of fixed forms of the language — which produces pressure to standardise; but this was also bound up with religion, especially the emergence of a protestant Christian church which valued direct contact with the holy text of the bible in the readers’ own language. Of the many texts that were printed, the bible was the most read and most highly valued, so inevitably led to the fixation of a valued standard for English, particularly in the King James Authorised version of 1611. Some in discussing this wanted to extend the notion of ‘printing’ to later technologies — and yes, the rotary press, steam-driven and mechanised presses of the 19th century, coupled with widespread education from about 1870, led to the boom in literacy and the range of reading materials in the last 150 years; and electronic ‘print’ is a crucial contemporary outcome of this development in technology, though it perhaps does not fix and standardise the language, but democratises it, and tends to enshrine informal, spoken and dialect forms in ‘print’ to widely distribute around the globe.

When we turned to present-day influences, that globalisation was prominent in people’s top drivers of language change: global travel and trade, global dissemination of specifically American English through mass media consumption (Hollywood film, music in English), and the globally connected lingua francas of internet English and business English. The full list of factors, if you’d like to print them and consider them again (perhaps in relation to  a past paper exam text?), can be found here: Influences on Language Change Cutups

We also looked at contentious sentences in current English usage. We had noted when discussing ‘theories of change’ the continued existence of prescriptivists who want to keep the language following rules they received in their own education; to ensure that it follows logical rules; and in some cases, that it conforms to rules of politeness or to the form of a valued language like Latin. Against those, are the more academically-minded descriptivists, who step back from such moral judgements about what language should be, and instead aim to observe what is. (We took a brief aside to comment on the situation of Jonathan Swift, who wrote an extensive complaint to the government  requesting the setup of an ‘Academy of English’ who would decide and prescribe the ‘facts’ of English usage; he didn’t get one (unlike France), but what did follow was Johnson’s more descriptivist dictionary of 1755, which nonetheless did serve to further settle and standardise the language, though its methodology was to start by collecting instances of actual usage of a word.) We tried out an acceptability test, looking at a list of sentences and deciding whether this seemed to be ‘acceptable English’ or not. Some of these are objectionable to prescriptivists, but seem totally fine to us; we found that in some cases, we ‘corrected’ something with the conviction that it was ‘wrong’, only to be surprised at the evidence (dreamed/dreamt, spelled/spelt). Some non-standard forms we really need to be getting standard when writing academically in the exam (eg, it’s/its), and others bring out our inner prescriptivist (eg would of) sometimes even though we know we might say it ourselves (if i’d’ve known).

The point is that there are many usages which may vary according to formality, to spokenness vs writtennes, in dialect forms which encroach upon one another, and which find themselves in free variation within our own usage, because they are in the midst of change; and that change is not logical and neatly causal, but may be emerging by the shifting of fashions or patterns of usage that arise from who speaks to whom. (‘Whom’ is another dying form; we also noted hypercorrection of ‘my friend and I’.)

It’s impossible to teach all of these — we just don’t know what text might come up. But keep alive to them — look out for them — the task of engaging your grammatical intuition, of considering the possibilities, of trying it out in your brain and seeing what happens (and describing that in linguistic terms), is the skill you need to exercise in the exam.


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