A selfie of English, the Mother Tongue: Ceaseless change, flux forever


Someone should tell The Huffington Post the facts of linguistic life. Ie:

* that language is constantly in a flux, and so it must be if it is not to die

* that the English language was not in an especially unusual state of flux during the time Shakespeare was writing

* that the English language is constantly inventing or appropriating new words, which is why it’s everyone’s language, the lingua franca, worldspeak

The above assertions are prompted by an interesting, if slightly inaccurate, recent piece in The Huffington Post. It saluted Shakespeare’s enormous contribution to the English language’s word bank – gloomy, laughable, fashionable, majestic, hurry, lonely, generous and so on.

A fragment:

Definition: Somewhat dark: not bright or sunny
Origin: “To gloom” was a verb that existed before Shakespeare converted the word into an adjective in a number of his plays.
Quote: “Forced in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?” – Titus Andronicus

Definition: Bad in a way that seems foolish or silly
Origin: Derived from the verb “laugh.”
Quote: “Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.” – The Merchant of Venice”

All of this is very interesting but one has to question the Huff Post’s suggestion that Shakespeare’s inventiveness had larger origins. He was not just a “clever wordsmith”, it says, but lived in interesting times. “Colonization and wars meant that English speakers were borrowing more and more words from other languages.”

As linguist and 1996 BBC Reith lecturer Jean Aitchison told me back then, language changes all the time, it’s a fact of life. She added that in the 14th century, Chaucer said “in forme of speche is chaunge”.

English is especially good at this, she pointed out, coping with changing social circumstances and remaining relevant.

Surely selfie, googling, tweeting is ample proof of that?