When people lament the state of the English language, they often criticise new vocabulary, such as the slang, buzzwords and jargon that arise from young people, advertising, and technology. But new vocabulary marks linguistic change only in a relatively superficial way. Significant changes in language happen more slowly.
In a short video for Global about how the internet is changing language, David Crystal points out that English has remained essentially the same since the advent of this technology. Grammar and spelling have not mutated – though variant forms and new styles are now more visible – and the common vocabulary has grown only slightly, relative to its total size.
Slang, however, is always an active frontier. Traditionally, lexicographers have been cautious about including new slang, because so much of it is ephemeral. Slang dictionaries are different, of course, and nowadays some dictionaries have websites that allow more flexibility in what can be recorded. Macmillan Dictionary’s BuzzWord and Open Dictionary pages exemplify this by showcasing (and, in the latter case, inviting) words and usages of recent or limited currency.
When popular slang is added to a print dictionary, it can attract considerable media attention. Informal acronyms like OMG and LOL make for catchy, quirky headlines, but unfortunately at the expense of substance. In his recent article “Why say pundigrion when you could say pun?”, Michael Rundell regrets that when it comes to lexicography, newspapers “seem incapable of focussing on anything but trivia”.
The disproportionate interest in peripheral aspects of lexicography can fuel a widespread misunderstanding of it, and of language generally. Time and again, people get bothered about dictionaries “trying to be cool” or even “losing their dignity” simply by including current or recent slang. But dictionaries catalogue and define the words people use; coolness doesn’t enter into it (except in the appropriate entry).
The 19th-century linguist William Dwight Whitney said slang combines “exuberance of mental activity, and the natural delight of language-making”. Most of it fades quickly, but there is always a chance that it won’t, particularly if it captures something vital about a particular culture, subculture, or time.
Innovation in language, just as anywhere else, is a sign of health. The slang condemned by strict linguistic conservatives, far from indicating a decline, rather suggests an interest in language and a creative enthusiasm that propels it in new directions.Email this Post