New vocabulary appears constantly: we invent words, or more usually modify existing ones, to meet the needs of expression – or just for fun. Sometimes, too, existing words get repurposed, switching grammatical classes or incorporating new ones: verbs and adjectives are converted into nouns, and vice versa. This attracts predictable criticism, but it’s a thoroughly ordinary process; nounings and verbings are a large part of the everyday formation of new usages.
Other switches are more unusual. Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca recently reported that her students are using the word slash in innovative ways. In lines such as “I need to go home and write my essay slash take a nap”, what began as a punctuation mark (“/”) has become, of all things, a coordinating conjunction. These constitute a very narrow class, and the arrival of a new one is rare indeed.
What’s more, slash is showing up at the start of sentences to set off a new topic or angle, as in: “I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?” (again from one of Curzan’s students). These migrations are significant and surprising. Curzan compares the emergence of slash as a new function word to “a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics”.
Another recent grammatical change is the transformation of LOL. In a casual reply like “lol, i hear you”, actual laughter is probably not occurring. What began as an abbreviation meaning “laughing out loud” (or “lots of love”) is losing this explicit meaning and now frequently serves as a pragmatic particle marking empathy and a shared frame of reference, according to linguist John McWhorter.
Something similar, McWhorter says, has happened to the phrase (Do) you know what I’m sayin’? – it isn’t really the question that it superficially appears to be, but rather is “a piece of grammar, soliciting the same sense of empathy and group membership that LOL does”. Given its frequent informal use, the phrase is often compressed into a syllable or two for efficiency. If you search Twitter for nomsayin or knowmsayin, you’ll see how common this is.
Grammatical innovations can be subtle, but they play a long game. Compared to new vocabulary, they represent deeper modifications to the structure of a language. Whatever their particular source, and whether or not they spread to standard use, they signify a language in good health. And the more useful they are – the more functionally they slot into niches in our daily lives – the more likely they are to catch on. Knowmsayin?Email this Post