Love English

Words in constant motion

To Heraclitus we owe the saying (variously phrased) that you can’t step into the same river twice. There are different ways to read this, but one common interpretation is that everything is subject to constant change. Not only is the river different every time you step into it, but you’re also a different person, and it’s a different world, despite the feeling of continuity.

The same applies to language. It changes because we change and our world changes, and because of the inevitable effects of time. Everyone who acquires a language inherits a version of it slightly different from that of the previous generation, and so its various parts – words, sounds, meanings, spellings, grammar, and so on – keep shifting in one way or another, some parts more slowly than others.



Understandably, this unsettles people. We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism: we drop the false idea that language doesn’t or shouldn’t change. In T.S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), the first of his Four Quartets, the poet writes:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

If there is frustration here with the slipperiness of words, there is also acquiescence to the reality that ‘Words move, music moves / Only in time’. Repetition of the phrase will not stay underlines the inexorability of linguistic change. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, ‘A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought’; as such, it is subject to shedding, colouration, and transformation.

In her book Understanding Language, Elizabeth Grace Winkler writes that ‘no two people have exactly the same linguistic system, because they have been exposed to different experiences and contexts’. Geographic, familial, sociodemographic and other factors contribute to the system we develop.

Within a language or dialect there is enough overlap in our individual linguistic systems – our idiolects – to allow us to communicate more or less successfully with each other. But the differences, the slight and significant variations, keep us on our toes and can be a source of great interest, puzzlement, and joy.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

2 Comments

  • This reminds me of a particular situation i had at the office in which i am employed, a lady called me “fruity,” she is in her 60s, I am in my 20s, we both have very different ideas of what this word means. Oh semantics….

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