Language can be divisive. Some people are relaxed about the way it keeps on changing, but others see change as decline. For them, English is ‘going to the dogs’, standards are falling, and the language is being overwhelmed by ‘slang’ and (even worse) ‘horrible Americanisms’. None of this is new. Samuel Johnson harked back to a golden age, and felt English was losing its purity – and that was in 1750! More recently, Norman Tebbit – a British cabinet minister in the 1980s – believed there was a link between sloppy grammar and delinquent behaviour: ‘once you lose standards’, he suggested (whether in language or behaviour), ‘then there’s no imperative to stay out of crime’.
Where is all this anxiety coming from? Some people just aren’t comfortable with change and novelty, while for others the traditional rules of language can feel like an oasis of order and certainty in a scarily unpredictable world.
But like it or not, change is happening. Since its origins 1500 years ago, English has always been a patchwork, with vocabulary borrowed and absorbed from many different sources. The only difference now is that this process is accelerating, as English becomes the lingua franca of business, popular culture, science and of course the Internet. And perhaps it’s the adaptability of English, its readiness to welcome newcomers and be enriched by what they bring to the party, that makes it such a good world language.
Where do dictionaries come in to the picture? Some people consult ‘the dictionary’ to settle arguments: if something’s in there, it must be right, and if it’s not in the dictionary, it can’t be right. But as dictionary-makers, we don’t see it quite like that. Our job is not to tell you what to say or how to say it, but to keep the best possible record of how people use words when they communicate with one another. And if a word or expression isn’t in the dictionary, maybe it’s because the dictionary hasn’t had time to catch up with new developments: language is a moving target – and right now, it’s moving very fast. Or maybe it’s because the lexicographers didn’t have the resources to notice some new usage – even with our massive language corpora, we can’t know everything. But as well as our corpora and the riches of the Web, we now have an even more powerful resource: you.
Going online means we can open up the dictionary, and – by getting input from its users – make it even more inclusive. Two areas we’re especially interested in are ‘Englishes’ from around the world, and vocabulary associated with particular occupations, hobbies, or sports. Whether you are a beekeeper, a particle physicist, or an amateur film-maker, you are sure to have your own special language. So our goal for the new decade is to expand the dictionary by tapping into the expertise of the people who use it.
For anyone interested in English, these are exciting times. Let’s celebrate the diversity of this unique language, which belongs to no-one – and to everyone.Email this Post
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