Sunday, 9 June 2013

Linguistic evolution

In Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Miller's Tale' the word queynte may be found, and yet few people reading that word today would have any idea what it meant. Since the fourteenth century that word has evolved into something more easily recognisable as probably the most offensive noun for a woman's pinkest part; a word which still has the power to upset people where the f-word has now become so commonplace that the majority barely raise an eyebrow at its use.
Obviously queynte's modern counterpart still has its uses - few other options exist to describe parking enforcement operatives or Audi drivers, but it still remains one of the few words to cause offense to a large proportion of the population.
It's not just swear words and their application that have changed over time though.
The English language has constantly evolved and for the most part these changes have happened so slowly that they're only noticeable when you read literature from many years past. Shakespeare still has a cult following and his works are still studied in schools to this day, but the language used in the 16th and 17th century was vastly different from what we're familiar with today which begs the question of how relevant they are today as a means of studying English. Perhaps history lessons would be more appropriate?
The biggest changes to the written word have come about since the introduction of SMS or texting on mobile devices. When this system started, the limitations on available space within each message rapidly brought about a kind of shorthand (textese?) to enable people to convey as much information as possible with the minimum of characters. In its place this system was useful, albeit indecipherable to anyone over the age of about 20, but unfortunately it escaped from its electronic cage and went on an English-killing rampage. Suddenly kids were handing in homework written in this text-speak language and wherever you turned you found yourself having to spend ten times longer trying to read something that had been abbreviated where there was no requirement for abbreviation in the first place. Maybe the kids wanted a language that was just for themselves, that the older generations wouldn't understand. They succeeded. But so many seem to have forgotten the English from which their 'Newspeak' was derived, or they simply switched off in English lessons at school.
For example, let's look at 'ur'. This is not a word, but is commonly used as one by the hard of thinking as a replacement for 'your' or 'you're' because apart from not being able to spell, they're unable to comprehend which of the latter forms is correct and don't really care anyway.
In fact this confusion doesn't appear to be limited to teenagers, but is rife amongst a huge proportion of adults. The possessive 'your' as in 'I'm sorry you lost your dictionary' versus 'you're' which is an abbreviation of 'you are' remains a mystery to more people than you'd expect.
The same confusion exists between 'there', 'their' and 'they're', and I cringe every time I read one of these used incorrectly. But it has become so common now that many either don't notice it or just skim over it, realising what the imbecile writing it meant and carrying on regardless.
And there's the problem. We become desensitized to this bastardisation of our language, and before you know it all the rules of language become lost or distorted. Chances are that in a hundred year's time kids will be studying something like George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eighty Four' at school and be as mystified by it as I am by Chaucer.
Now I'm by no means exempt from writing in a manner that would make purist linguists tear their hair out in frustration, but I'm still determined to hang on to the English language as used before the invention of the mobile telephone and its short message service.
After all, I'd find it far more difficult and time consuming to write this blog if I had to translate everything into the language so prevalent amongst the younger generations, and as English is probably the most international language in the world I believe it's important to maintain consistency. Otherwise the language barriers will go up, which would be a move in completely the wrong direction in a world where communication has never been easier.