Commentary

Elocution Revolution

By AL ROMANO | Apr 25, 2018

Language has always fascinated me, both personally and professionally. Maybe my enthusiasm results partly from my poor eyesight, so sound became especially significant. Maybe it’s the connection between language and music that captivated me. Perhaps it’s people’s peculiarly personal spew of words that enchants me. Even the technical term for our individual knowledge and use of language, idiolect, mystifies me.

As interesting as our own language use is more revealingly individual than our fingerprints, language also is shared. Its social function, its identifying words and pronunciations mark us as members, or nonmembers, of a group. And it’s also intriguing to wonder about language change versus permanence: because it is human, biologically generated, language changes, as do all living organisms.

It appears that our English language is changing as radically as it did in 1066, when the Norman French – descendants of British people who had fled the Viking Angle, Saxon and Jute invaders 500 years earlier – overcame the English armies and introduced French as the national language of England.

Our present revolution in English happens to be a largely nonviolent one, but one that may prove as pervasive as the violent French assault. First, most people today notice, and sometime grumble about, the way kids speak. Slang and other words perennially pop up to identify and separate one group from another, us from them. Also, just as some slang expressions stick and even expand in meaning (turn you on, cool, hip), others disappear (groovy, and from earlier generations, solid and gams).

Slang alone doesn’t show a language in flux, although we have introduced many new terms thanks to technology, which requires new words (or neologisms), and subsequent 24/7 media, which necessitates more use of language, and thus more opportunities for change. What reveals underlying shifts in language use is the speech patterns and grammatical structures that alter almost imperceptibly.

Sound change is difficult to demonstrate without, of course, examples, and often gets mixed up and mixed in with regional, ethnic and physiological factors. A prime example is the expression “the reason is because.” (I’ve used italics for the significant words.) Both words mean the same thing, so they are redundant. I’ve heard this since at least the early 1990s in many different contexts, and I have seen it in writing since then, from students and professional authors alike, to bloggers and other social media typists. It remains listed as incorrect usage in grammar texts and other sources, including a pithy discussion from a July 23, 2000, entry in getitwrite.com, curated by a Columbia University professor. However, it appears to be sticking with us. Why? Perhaps because it seems to serve as emphatic redundancy, like the double negative in “He don’t know nothin’!” Anyway, its use is ubiquitous, and, so, seemingly unremovable.

Another pair of changes are related in a way. They are the use of less instead of fewer, and amount instead of number. This change is normal: As languages age, they tend to simplify the number of exceptions to rules they have. Also, fewer has two syllables, and its and less’ opposite, more, has only one; it uses more air and energy to pronounce. But amount and number have the same number of syllables, so why the apparent appropriation of number by amount? Perhaps amount expends less energy to say than number.

Two other changes in language use involve irregular verbs and idioms. Irregular verbs do not regularly end in “ed” in the past tense. For example, talk and speak: the past tenses are talked, have/has talked, and spoke, have/has spoken, respectively. We seem to be forgetting – or, maybe more accurately, not hearing – certain past forms of these verbs. More and more, I hear students say and sometimes write, “I have drank” or “She has went.” These changes can be accounted for by the tendency of young learners to generalize all past verbs as regular. (My son once said, “We goed to the zoo yesterday.) However, this is a sea change in usage, with many of our oldest English verb forms dropping out of normal usage.

Idioms are “frozen” figures of speech: raining cats and dogs, pain in the neck, an arm and a leg. In some ways, these expressions, being so old and oft-used, resemble irregular verbs: They have been heard, or mis-heard, more than used for a long time, or perhaps their oral usage is dropping out of Americans’ word stock, so people are not using them. Some idioms get mangled in translation: for example, two of my personal favorites are take it for granite and in odds with each other, for they both seem to modernize and maybe improve the original expressions.

But as native English speakers lose these forms, the language’s nuances are also handed over (to employ another idiom). And this brings us to the most significant source of English change: its place in the world.

Since WWII, English has become the world’s international language (or lingua franca, to use a technical term dating from medieval times to the 19th century, when French was the international language, from the Mediterranean to Russia, from Portugal to Vietnam). For example, when Japan rolled out the CD in the mid-1980s, it didn’t make us learn Japanese to buy a Walkman; it used the biggest economy’s language to sell us the product. And so, today, people globally are trying to learn English, to varying degrees of accuracy, and even renouncing their native tongues, especially among many young. These many new “mouthfuls” of English are bound to alter “our” pronunciation, word choice and structure as it passes through the filter of speakers’ many other first languages.

I wish I could attach a few characteristic examples used right now to demonstrate this peaceful revolution in our and others’ elocution. In fact, technology helps us take note of the changes in language because so many people every moment are captured in non-rehearsed, almost improvisational speech. These constant speech streams probably help propel speech change as well.

And people do love to borrow others’ words if they resonate. We are social animals, and to use a cliché, another speech habit we all demonstrate, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Al Romano of Manahawkin is an adjunct assistant professor in the English/literature department at Ocean County College.

 

 

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