A Cultural History of Feminine Nouns Turned Into Insults

‘Slut’ and ‘hussy’ used to have tame meanings. Then, like so many other feminine nouns, they came to mean ‘prostitute’

If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.

Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at some point during its lifespan, been colored some shade of obscene. The main piece of evidence for this tendency toward women’s linguistic disparagement appears when you examine certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, “sir” and “madam”: 300 years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept mistress or prostitute, and then, finally, a woman who manages a brothel. All that excitement while the meaning of sir just stuck where it was.

A similar thing happened with “master” and “mistress”: These terms came to English by way of Old French, and initially, both words indicated a person in a position of authority. Only the feminine term was contaminated over the decades to mean a sexually promiscuous woman with whom a married man, as linguist Muriel Schulz puts it, “habitually fornicates.” Meanwhile, master continues to describe a dude in charge of something, like a household or an animal (or a sexual submissive, if we’re talking BDSM). Master can also indicate a person who has conquered a difficult skill, like karate or cooking. Tell me: Is there a wildly entertaining television competition show called MistressChef? No, there is not. (I would definitely watch that, though.)

Two types of semantic change can alter a word’s meaning over time: Pejoration is where a word starts out with a neutral or positive meaning and eventually devolves to mean something negative. The opposite is called amelioration. Feminine works usually go down the former route, while masculine works often go down the latter.

In some instances, the process of pejoration rebrands a feminine word as an insult—not for women, but for men. Take the words “buddy” and “sissy”: Today, we might use sissy to describe a weak or overly effeminate man, while buddy is a synonym for a close pal. We don’t think of these words as being related, but in the beginning, buddy and sissy were abbreviations of the words “brother” and “sister.” Over the years, the masculine term ameliorated, while the feminine term went the other way, flushing down the semantic toilet until it plunked onto its current meaning: a man who is weak and pathetic, just like a woman. Linguists have actually determined that the majority of insults for men sprout from references to femininity, either from allusions to women themselves or to stereotypically feminine men: wimp, candy-ass, motherfucker.

The word “pussy” is analogous to sissy, in that it’s a feminine word that was gradually reduced to an insult—not for women, but for men. Scholars aren’t 100% sure of pussy’s beginnings, but one theory is that it comes from an Old Norse word meaning “pouch” or “pocket.” There’s also an Oxford English Dictionary entry from the 16th century that defines the term as a girl or woman who bears similar qualities to a cat, like affability and coyness. By the 1600s, the word had surfaced as a metaphor for both a cat and a vagina. It wasn’t used to describe men until the early 20th century, when writers began associating it with tame, unaggressive males.

Few traditionally masculine terms have undergone pejoration like sissy, pussy, madam, or mistress. “Dick” is really the only prominent example — this word started as an innocent nickname for men named Richard; by Shakespeare’s time, it was extended to mean a generalized everyman (like a “Joe Shmoe”); in the late 19th century, it evolved to describe a penis (which we can likely attribute to British military slang — those dirty boys); and in the 1960s, it grew to refer to a thoughtless or contemptible person. Dick, however, is an outlier. Lad, fellow, prince, squire, and butler are just a handful of other pejoration-worthy masculine words that have been spared.

Do feminine terms ever ameliorate? They do, but it’s often because women actively reclaim them. But finding more instances like buddy, wherein a masculine term gains a more positive status over time, is an easier task. An Old English version of the word “knight,” for example, simply meant young boy or servant before ameliorating to describe a gallant nobleman. The word “stud” graduated from a term for a male breeding animal to a slang phrase for a hot, manly dude. Even the word “dude” itself has elevated in status since the late 19th century, when it was used as an insult to describe an affected, foppish man. Today, dude is one of the most beloved words in the English language.


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The 19 greatest linguistic spats of all time

hero-mythsfrom the guardian…


Apostrophe catastrophe

A so-called “grammar vigilante” has been correcting shop fronts in Bristol, England, for more than a decade. His pet peeve is the confusion of plain old plurals with possessives, which in English are usually marked by an apostrophe followed by an S. Confronted with a sign advertising “Amy’s Nail’s”, he will obliterate the second apostrophe with a sticker. Addressing the potentially illegal nature of his mission in a BBC report, he said: “It’s more of a crime that the apostrophe is wrong in the first place”. Linguist Rob Drummond disagrees: “Fetishising the apostrophe as if its rules are set in stone,” he writes, “and then fostering an environment in which it is acceptable to take pleasure in uncovering other people’s linguistic insecurities is not OK.”

Are you really disinterested?

Use this word at your own risk. If what you want to say is “lacking in interest” then brace yourself, because there’s an army of people who will point out that it should be “uninterested”, and that “disinterested” must mean “impartial”. They are sticklers for what they regard as the correct meaning, and have taken up columnist William Safire’s command to “rear up and rage, rage against the dying of an enlightening distinction”. The problem is that if a word is more frequently used to mean one thing than another, then that’s effectively what it means: you can’t fight a linguistic consensus. The news for pedants gets worse, however. The OED tells us that the use of “disinterested” to mean not interested or unconcerned has been around since at least the 17th century, used by no less a stylist than the poet John Donne.

Shipshape and patriarchal

“It is an insult to a generation of sailors … a ship is like a mother.” An incensed Admiral Lord West was speakingearlier this year about the Scottish Maritime Museum’s decision to stop using “she” to describe ships and boats on its information signs. The move, made after the female pronouns were scratched out by persons unknown, provoked a furious debate, with feminists arguing that the tradition was anachronistic and “perpetuat[ed] the patriarchal view” while naval enthusiasts claimed it was “political correctness gone mad”. Unlike English, many languages force speakers to assign a gender to inanimate objects, and there is evidence that it influences the way they think about them. For example, “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. When asked by researchers to pick words they associated with it, German speakers chose adjectives like “beautiful”, “elegant”, “pretty” and “slender” and the Spanish speakers chose “big”, “strong”, “sturdy” and “towering”.

‘Nucular’ war

The fact that we used to make fun of George W Bush for his malapropisms seems quaint these days. But it was worrying to many of us at the time that the man in charge of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal didn’t seem to be able to pronounce it right. He said “nucular” and it was one more black mark against his intelligence. But this syllable-flip is in fact a fairly common linguistic process called metathesis. All English speakers live with the results of historic metatheses that caught on: horse used to be “hros” and bird used to be “brid”.

Trumped by language

Now we have far greater opportunities for ridicule in Donald Trump, whose multisyllabic manglings have become world famous: “covfefe” anyone? But acting as a linguistic irritant appears to be a family trait. Journalist Eve Peyser has kept tabs on words the president’s daughter Ivanka seemed to misuse in public pronouncements, and they included relative (“my husband keeps incredibly long hours, so I try to keep mine on a relative basis”), otherwise (“Cuddling my little nephew Luke, the best part of an otherwise incredible day!”) and “indeniably” (“Indeniably it’s very expensive to raise children”).

When commas change history

Let’s just hope none of the Trump family gets to rewrite the US constitution, because it’s there that linguistic quirks get really serious. Its precise wording, even punctuation, has been endlessly scrutinised, sometimes with life-and-death consequences. The second amendment states that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The comma after the word “arms” has been used to argue that the framers of the constitution believed the right of an individual to own a gun was more important than collective self-defence. That interpretation ultimately resulted in the striking down of some Washington DC gun controls, which had been among the strictest in the nation.

‘Please return the word “gay”’

The word used to refer to gay people has been controversial in several languages, not least English, where people railed against the co-option of the term until quite recently. In 1990 an anonymous journalist wrote a piece for Newsweek headlined “Please return the word ‘gay’”. “It is of the least possible concern to me what homosexuals do with one another in the privacy of their homes … But I want the word ‘gay’ back. ‘Gay’ used to be an extremely useful word. It showed up frequently in poetry and prose – Shakespeare used it 12 times.” Fast forward 30-odd years and a similar row is playing out in China, where the word tongzhi, whose literal meaning is “comrade” increasingly only has one interpretation. That didn’t stop the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary from prudishly refusing to list its common connotation, with one compiler telling the BBC they “did not want to draw attention to its more colloquial meaning”.

The Ebonics controversy

In 1996 the school board of Oakland, California, decided to recognise the dialect of many of its African American pupils, which it called “Ebonics”, as a language. It would henceforth be used to “facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English-language skills”. The move became a major flashpoint in the US culture wars after being attacked by commentators across the country. Then Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel labelled it “a big mistake” and black leaders weighed in, too, with Jesse Jackson writing “in Oakland some madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language”. But the Linguistic Society of America took a different view. It said:“Characterisations of Ebonics as ‘slang’, ‘mutant’, ‘lazy,’ ‘defective’, ‘ungrammatical’, or ‘broken English’ are incorrect and demeaning” and argued that evidence from other countries suggested its use in the classroom would help students. The storm of criticism stifled sensible discussion of the issue for years. “Ever since,” according to the Economist, “any recognition that there is such a thing as Ebonics sets people foaming at the mouth.”

Splitting hairs

You may have been told that it’s bad to split your infinitives in English – that you should never put anything between “to” and the verb – meaning a sentence like: “She wanted to fully support him” would be wrong. This was certainly a tenet of prescriptive works (like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style) and classroom instruction for much of the 20th century. But the Chicago Manual of Style dropped its objection in 1983, and there are relatively few pedants now prepared to die on a hill to keep the infinitive joined in matrimony. The origins of the “rule” are shrouded in mystery, with perhaps its earliest appearance in an 1803 grammar guide. But in reality, English speakers have been splitting their infinitives for hundreds of years. For an edict that’s never been properly observed, it has loomed surprisingly large in the grammatical consciousness.

Don’t call me ‘le president’

The self-appointed guardians of French, a once dominant language assailed by the rise and rise of English, can be especially touchy about changes to the conventions that govern speech. Particularly, it seems, when you add gender to the mix. In 2014 a row over whether masculine titles should be changed when the bearer is a woman erupted in the French National Assembly. Conservative representative Julien Aubert insisted on referring to socialist Sandrine Mazetier as Madame le president, using the masculine article and noun ending. Mazetier responded that he must call her Madame la presidente, and when he refused, she fined him €1,378 (£1,230).

Bollocks to jargon

In the late 2000s, the problem of obscure government language was getting so bad that the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee wrote a report on it. They referred back to comments by Tessa Jowell who, as culture secretary, said: “I have what I call a ‘bollocks list’, where I just sit in meetings and I write down some of the absurd language we use.” The report notes: “The unlovely language of this unreal world floats along on a linguistic sea of roll-outs, step changes, public domains, fit for purposes, stakeholder engagements, across the pieces, win-wins, level playing fields and going forwards.” In what must be a rare rebuke of Latin from a Conservative leadership hopeful, Michael Gove lamented that: “Since becoming a member of parliament I’ve been learning a new language … No one ever uses a simple Anglo-Saxon word, or a concrete example, where a Latinate construction or a next-to-meaningless abstraction can be found.”

Buried in translation

An interesting sub-genre of language controversy is the tiny translation error that has gigantic geopolitical ramifications. In 1956 Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev told western ambassadors at an event in Moscow My vas pokhoronim!, using a Russian idiom that means roughly “we will outlast you” – in other words, that communism would prevail in the long run. Against the background of a nuclear arms race, the English translation, “we will bury you”, took on an altogether more sinister meaning, particularly when it was splashed across the front pages of western newspapers. Five years later the Cuban missile crisis brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war.

Polite to a fault

Richard Nixon was foxed by elaborate Japanese politeness in 1969. Prime minister Eisaku Satō visited the White House amid a trade row over textile imports. Nixon’s job was to get him to agree to restrict them. According to the New York Times, “Mr Sato replied as he looked ceilingward, Zensho shimasu. Literally, the phrase means: ‘I will do my best,’ and that’s how the interpreter translated it. What it really means to most Japanese is: ‘No way.’” When the Japanese government did precisely nothing, Nixon was furious, branding Sato a liar.

Black coffee

There’s often a dark side to disputes over language: they are often the medium through which inter-ethnic conflicts are brutally expressed. Linguists Marko Dragojevic and colleagues recount the story of a cafe in an area of Bosnia and Herzegovina controlled by Croatians during the 1992-95 war. “On its menu, the cafe offered its customers coffee at three different prices, depending on which pronunciation customers used to order the item. Kava, indexing a Croatian, and by extension, Catholic identity, was sold for the modest price of 1 Deutsche Mark. Kafa, indexing a Serbian and Orthodox Christian identity, was not available for sale. Finally, kahva, indexing a Bosnian Muslim identity, cost the customer a ‘bullet in the forehead’.”

The Waitangi swindle

In 1840, the British government and more than 500 local chiefs signed a bilingual agreement that made New Zealand a colony. English missionaries had translated the draft of the Treaty of Waitangi into Maori but the two versions had important differences. The New Zealand Ministry of Culture explains that “in Maori it gave Queen Victoria governance [kawanatanga] over the land, while in English it gave her sovereignty over the land, which is a stronger term”. The English text also assured the Maori that they would have “undisturbed possession” of all their “properties”, whereas the Maori translation merely gave them tino rangatiratanga (full authority) over taonga (treasures) – a more nebulous term.

Mother’s month

If you’re a ruler with absolute power there’s nothing to stop you issuing any manner of linguistic decrees. Turkish leader Atatürk, for example, masterminded the abolition of the Arabic script and the adoption of a Latin-based alphabet in 1928. In 2002, in another country where a Turkic language is spoken, a more eccentric set of reforms failed to meet with universal approval. Turkmen president-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov decided to rename the months and days of the week according to some of his favourite things: April changed from Aprel to Gurbansoltan, which happened to be Niyazov’s mum’s name. January was no longer Ýanwar, but Türkmenbaşy, which means “leader of the Turkmen” and was one of Niyazov’s self-bestowed titles. A Turkmen source told the BBC: “It seems like he lives on another planet,” and the changes never gained popular legitimacy. They were reversed in 2008, two years after his death.

A country at odds

Belgium is a country divided between Walloons who speak French, and Flemings who speak Flemish, a variety of Dutch (Walloon and Fleming are the demonyms for people from Wallonia and Flanders). The linguistic conflict simmers in places like Linkebeek, whose population is 85% francophone, despite being in Flanders. In 2010, the Guardian reported that the man who had been elected mayor on 66% of the local vote was barred from taking office because he sent out election literature in French to French speakers, and not in Dutch as the law stipulated. Conflict over language and identity was at the heart of Belgium’s failure to form a government for 589 days in 2010–11, setting a record for a democracy.

Agree to disagree

Linguists use the word “agreement” to describe the way the form of a word can change depending on its relationship with other words in a sentence. For example, if a man is named, then at second mention a pronoun can be used instead, but it has to “agree” in gender and number – so it would be “he” not “she”. But can it also be “they”? “They” is traditionally regarded as being plural: it refers to more than one person. As a result, sentences like: “If someone wants me, tell them I’ll be in the kitchen” are frowned upon. But, as so often with grammatical bugbears regarded as dastardly innovations, this kind of usage has been around a long time – since at least 1375, accordingto the OED. And now, of course, “they” is increasingly being used to refer to those who do not identify with gender-specific pronouns. A key pedantic bastion fell in 2017, when the Chicago Manual of Style changed its advice to read “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected”.

Are you literally kidding?

How can a word come to mean its opposite? That’s against nature, surely. Except when you consider “cleave” or “sanction”, so-called auto-antonyms (you can cleave something apart or together; you can sanction a behaviour, then sanction someone for doing it). But enough of them. Literally seems to be a word on a journey from one meaning – “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically” – to its polar opposite – “the strongest possible version of a figurative or allegorical sense”. Once more, this is a journey that began far earlier than you might think. The OED records the following sentence, from 1825: “Lady Kirkclaugh … literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart”. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote “I literally blazed with wit” in 1847. That hasn’t stopped repeated shock not only at the usage itself, but at dictionaries’ radical decisions to include it. “Merriam-Webster caves in: ‘literally’ now means ‘figuratively’” declared one blog in 2011. “Merriam-Webster says the word can now mean its exact opposite” reported Salon in 2013. The pedant community is convulsed like this every few years despite the fact that, according to Merriam- Webster’s own lexicographers, the definition has been sitting there for all to see since 1909.



Grammar gripes: why do we love to complain about language?

Grammar gripes

People sure get mad about words. Every month for a few years now I’ve been a “grammar enthusiast” guest on ABC Radio Melbourne. We do talkback and people call in with their grammar-related comments. Sometimes they ask questions. Last month Chris from Northcote, aged 10, wanted to know whether he should write “Chris’ cricket bat” or “Chris’s cricket bat”, but mostly the segment is an airing of grievances. A catharsis. A blood-letting. It is public therapy and I’m pleased to be part of it.

But often I feel I’m not the adviser they’re looking for. People want me to bang the grammar gavel and solemnly rule that “irregardless” is not a word, and that it’s wrong to say your team is “versing” another team, and that sports commentators who start sentences with “for mine” must be driven from our towns and cities. (There are lots of complaints about sports commentary.)

So really it’s a segment about language change. And I love language change! Thus, I disappoint the listeners. Change is the thing they revile.

“Some Method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever,” wrote Jonathan Swift in 1712. His instinct was to preserve. But languages evolve – like viruses. English has been a very successful virus, now spoken by 1.5 billion earthlings thanks to its wily shape shifting. And these days, our human desire to somehow fix the language in place is being thwarted at a faster pace than ever.

“The internet has REVOLUTIONISED language change,” enthuses former AP Stylebook editor David Minthorn, in one of the most gloriously nerdy videos on YouTube. A few weeks ago, Dictionary of Slang author Jonathon Green gleefully tweeted: “… the lexicographer’s challenge was always: ‘where do we find our data’. Now it’s where do we dare allow ourselves to stop looking. Because there is always more on offer.”

Now that every English speaker in the world can talk to every other English speaker in the world, the virus is mutating vociferously. The modern grievance airer must keep pace. So I have compiled a list of changes for which to watch out in 2018.

1. Semantic change thanks to the internet

Trolls are not just bridge dwellers anymore, a cloud isn’t always a visible mass of condensed watery vapour and a mouse is sometimes a mouse. Computers have given us so much. But mainly they have given us the internet, where we can wake to a new definition of woke. Definition expansions happen when usages spread from small language communities to larger ones. “Spread” being the key word because, as we know, “fetch” never happened.

My colleague recently tweeted to apologise that her posts were “so thirsty tonight”. The next day I asked what “thirsty” meant and I have never felt so old. She did, in fact, act quite extra about it. I’m usually the goat at knowing words so I was salty. And her outfit was snatched, which made things worse. The whole thing was not lit and I have receipts.

2. Syntactical change thanks to the internet

I am tired because life. I am angry because the internet. “Because” is a preposition now! Ewww. But also I love it. If I were a 2014 Facebook user, I’d comment: “This.” Because “this”, as a demonstrative pronoun, can be useful in place of an approving clause or exclamation. Those who use the “This” sentence, though, are a dying breed. So if you haven’t started on that, skip straight to an emoji for your emphatic enjoiner.☝️

3. Semantic and syntactical change thanks to television

Is this a thing? Yes it is. In fact “a thing” is a thing, thanks to television show The West Wing. And another thing is “re-gifting”, a verb birthed from a noun by Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes. Annoyed much? Hardly anyone stuck the terminal adverb “much” on things before Buffy did. These changes are old news in 2018, though. I think television might be losing its edge.

4. Inflection change led by Kanye West

“Real rappers is hard to find.” If anyone can eliminate verb modification from English, it’s Kanye. About time!

5. Conversion thanks to advertising

In grammar, “conversion” refers to a word’s shift into a different role or part of speech. It’s what happened when Facebook converted “friend” from a noun into a verb (and gave us the vital new infinitive “to unfriend”) and when corporate memos did the same thing to “action”. These changes were actioned a while ago, however. The new thing is turning adjectives into nouns. Use Nutella and you’re “spreading the happy”; shop at Sephora and you’re “celebrating your extraordinary”; connect to the internet with AT&T and you’re “rethinking possible”. If you cannot keep up, La Trobe University will help you to “find your clever”.

6. Word and phrase coinages from the internet meme factory

New words! New phrases! Sure, they’re annoying, but if they’re useful, they stick.

One of them stuck hard late last year when the Macquarie Dictionary named “milkshake duck” its word of the year. Noun: a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but is then discovered to have something questionable about them that causes a sharp decline in their popularity. The term was coined in 2016 by Australian Twitter user Ben Ward, aka @pixelatedboat: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”

Twitter seems to invent words faster than any other social media platform. Not that they all catch on. In 2015 I cheered for brave user @murrman5 and his new noun: “‘I came downstairs for a zip of juice and noticed the TV was gone so I called you guys’ [cop stops writing] did you say zip of juice?” Retweets: 3,293, but I haven’t heard a peep about “zip” since. For a brief moment, though, to use a phrase coined last month by the Victorian roads minister, Luke Donnellan, it was “better than a kick in the dick”.

7. Punctuation change led by smartphones

If you’ve ever typed “apple” into your phone and been autocorrected to “Apple”, you’ll know that small-screen communication is causing George Orwell to spin like a beachball in his grave. But punctuation seems to be the real victim of our incessant texting.

A small storm blew up in 2016 when senior grammarian David Crystal observed a change in the character of the full stop. He put forward, at a British writers festival, that in text messages the full stop has ceased to be a humble and simple ender of sentences. Instead, it now turns what might otherwise be a friendly “Fine!” into a passive-aggressive “Fine.” Interviewed afterwards, Crystal explained: “It is not necessary to use a period in a text message, so to make something explicit that is already implicit makes a point of it. It’s like when you say, ‘I am not going – period.’ It’s a mark. It can be aggressive. It can be emphatic. It can mean, ‘I have no more to say’.”

Is texting putting the full stop out to pasture? In its report on the incident, the New York Times included not a single full stop – and truth be told I didn’t notice [And did you notice the absence of one here?]

8. ‘Meaning leakage’ thanks to politicians, bureaucrats and business writers

There’s a dark side to hating change. Self-appointed language gatekeepers are often attempting to enforce a central English. This sort of intransigent rule-booking reaches its stinky nadir in the refusal to accept a word’s semantic shift into slur-dom (as in “fag”) or a word’s reclamation by the slurred themselves (as in “queer”). It’s grammatically blinkered and, I feel, a failure of the human spirit.

But some gatekeeping comes from a generous place, the place where words are valued for their meaning-carrying powers. These grievers rage against the kind of language change that allows people to communicate less. To obscure truth, as Don Watson would say, in a weaselly way.

In US political reporting we now have “alt right”, a term that paints a benign sheen over a white nationalist branch of conservatism. In its topical guide for the 2016 election, AP Stylebook ruled alt right “a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience”.

In bureaucracy, we have people noun-ifying verbs to distance themselves from any clear action: “Consideration will be given by the committee to the provision of advice on this policy issue in the near future.” (The advising is in there somewhere, but it’s a long way from the main verb.)

In business, as ever, we have people making things up to sound, as they might say, “leading-edge”. Projects are “moving forward” and “synergistic”, and people are “unpacking” “the takeaway”.

But let’s take this offline. The real intention of such jargon is to make others feel like lesser human assets. So if you want to stay ahead of the curve this year, definitely keep an eye out for “coopertition”, “change agent”, “de-skilling” and “invitation to leave (ITL)”. Or gouge your eyes out. Either way, some grievances deserve to be aired.

 Penny’s Melbourne-based writing school The Good Copy is holding Word Alert!, a festival of crossword spelling and grammar at the NGV’s Melbourne Art Book Fair on 16, 17 and 18 March


Paragraphs on Language Discourses


a person who flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.

“scofflaws who have accumulated large debts in unpaid parking tickets”

Scofflaw” was the winning entry of a nationwide competition to create a new word for “the lawless drinker,” with a prize of $200 in gold, sponsored by Delcevare King, a banker and enthusiastic supporter of Prohibition, in 1923. … The word itself remains a symbol of the Prohibition era.



I have a sneaking suspicion that the language I speak is somehow, though I’m not quite sure how exactly, just not good enough. Now, this isn’t just an idea I had on my own. People think this. A lot of people. And all the time. Because there are people who complain about language. A lot. That it’s going to the dogs. The kids are invariably to blame. Or maybe immigrants. However, maybe, language, in the first place, just isn’t good enough. Why else would there be a constant need for words, such as the 1923 prize winning entry to a new word competition “scofflaw”? Did we need a word meaning a person who flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively? I guess we did. Because it stuck. So was our language in 1922 somehow incomplete? How did Shakespeare cope? Samuel Johnson? (But Johnson never gave up complaining – though mainly about how language was degenerating – not that it hadn’t been good enough when he was a lad.)


Now, you might argue that even if there is a word for that stuff that clings to your banana after you peel it (phloem), then we should be pretty ok as far as having words for stuff: isn’t our language more or less full?


The Forces of Destruction, Guy Deutscher


  • “[one hundred years ago] practically everyone (…) spoke correctly. The lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect” –Cicero, 46 BC
  • “six hundred years ago, every common peasant knew (…) perfections and niceties of the German language” –Grimm, 1819
  • “how rapidly the language of a nation (…) can sink” –Schleicher, 1848
  • “[English will] sink into mono-syllabicity” –Schleicher, 1848
  • “most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way”-Orwell, 1946
  • “every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before”- Weigel, 1974


  • “decay is (…) the aspect of change that is by far the most easily observable” + “the productive forces of renewal and creation, are much more difficult to spot”

Deutscher argues that measuring positive language change (e.g. the spread of a new word) is much more difficult than measuring ‘negative’ language change (e.g. the spread of non-standard grammar); this is why so many linguists think that English is decaying.

  • “linguistic labour-saving devices” + “economic benefits of short-cuts in pronunciation”

Deutscher believes that languages change for three reasons (to become more economical, to become more expressive, and to become more regular): here, he argues that any change which makes speech easier or quicker, like the change from ‘isn’t it’ to ‘innit’, cannot be fairly labelled as degeneration.

  • “the English of today is not what it used to be, but then again, it never was”

Deutscher argues that, since complaints about language change have existed as long as written records have, there has never been a perfect model English.



One of Aitcheson’s three ‘theories’ is the crumbling castle view, the idea that English, which, at some point, was totally perfect, is degenerating, thanks to current language usage; this theory is easily disproven. For one thing, comparing English to a great building implies that at some point, somebody mapped out its entire structure, setting all of its rules in advance: as evidenced by the huge number of borrowings and irregularities in the English language, this is simply not the case. The verb ‘to be’, for example, is irregular, not just in English, but in almost all languages; the very existence of irregular verbs suggest that languages develop organically. For another thing, the crumbling castle theory states that, at one point, the English language was flawless: however, complaints about language have been a constant for as far back as written records go. “Six hundred years ago, every common peasant knew (…) perfections and niceties of the German language”, complained Jacob Grimm in 1819, whilst monks in the 14th century bemoaned the ‘grating tooth-gnashing’ of the common folk; “practically everyone (…) spoke correctly. The lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect”, wrote Cicero in 46 BC, lamenting the loss of the ‘superior’ Latin spoken one hundred years prior. These sustained complaints cast doubt on the idea that there was ever a version of any language that satisfied everyone, let alone a perfect model English, neatly disproving the crumbling castle view.




Everything was better back in the day: anyone over forty will tell you that. The air was cleaner, Freddos were cheaper, and, most importantly, everyone knew how to speak properly. Unlike nowadays: if the experts are to be believed, we’ll be regressing back into monosyllabicity any day now, such is the state of the English language in 2019. So, who’s to blame? Teenagers, obviously. Teenagers, with their idiotic slang and their terrible grammar and their incessant shortening of words, will single-handedly destroy our language if we let them, argue humourless sticklers up and down the country. Not only is this view patently ridiculous, it’s also extremely short-sighted: the linguistic shortcuts that teenagers tend to adopt will inevitably win out in the long run. Take ‘gonna’ for example; it’s easier to say than ‘going to’, and therefore speeds speech up, without causing confusion: logically, then, ‘going to’ should be dying out. So why isn’t it? Maybe the linguist Guy Deutscher had a point: languages are improving all the time: they’re getting more efficient at getting across the meaning, the point, or even the insult.



The idea that languages always degenerate is a prescriptivist one and thus should be challenged, considering that language can evolve and change but never degenerate: if they did then they’d not work eventually and stop being used. However, in every instance language death only coincides with the death of a particular people, culture, or way of life. The idea that languages degenerate would fit with Aitchison’s mockery of prescriptivist ideas under the ‘crumbling castle’ metaphor where language was once a beautiful structure which is now being destroyed by the evolution of language: this is clearly not the case as no real language was never built to any kind of design. Guy Deutscher shows how we make language more effective by using metaphors, eventually change the meaning of words; for example, the word “very” originally meant completely truthfully, however now, due to the evolution of its meaning and the repeated use of it to mean “in high degree”, the meaning has shifted from the original. If one were to look at this from a negative view it could be suggested that this is the devolution, or the degeneration, of the English language; however, it is simply a change that naturally comes. The evolution of language should fundamentally not be seen as a negative thing, considering the fact that evolution is a natural part in any aspect of society and should be treated as such, and applauded.


Verbal Hygiene

Verbal Hygiene – Deborah Cameron


Political correctness, it has its place, but I’m not going to sit here and deny that I raise a few eyebrows when I hear die-hard PC advocates championing the so-called “neutrality “of terms like “chairmen”. As citizens living during this linguistic guerrilla war, we are left with two choices. We can choose to stick to the norm, stay loyal to the old “chairman” and convey a conservative attitude, or we hop onto the PC bandwagon, wave our feminist flag and opt for “chairwoman.” We’ve lost our option of political neutrality in our attempt to achieve political neutrality. Orthodox feminist Dale Spender and her counterparts, need to take a step back, and see that the creation of new words to reform our “man-made language” is fundamentally an illusion. Alongside these words comes the obligation to pick a side, and then what we’re left with is the inability to convey something that means nothing more than “a certain woman holds a particular office.”


An example of when PC may not exactly be bettering our language is with so-called gender-neutral terms to reform our ‘man-made language’ (Dale Spender). When a woman in charge of a meeting at work, is tasked with introducing themselves as it begins, the task of conveying nothing more than the idea that they are a woman who holds a particular office has been rendered even more difficult by the development of “PC” terms. If she introduces herself with the concrete noun “chairperson” she shows a conservative attitude, but if she opts for “chairwoman” she presents herself as an advocate of feminism. The English language may have gained terms with huge social capital at a conservative or a feminist press conference but the language has lost its option political neutrality alongside prescriptivists search for political neutrality. What Deborah Cameron calls “Verbal Hygiene”…



Those who have got the hump with language change seem, for some bizarre reason unknown to the rest of us, to enjoy equating the change in meaning of words with the decay of our English language. Will they ever realise that they are ultimately fighting a losing battle? When my skinny friend told me last week that she “could literally eat a horse” I knew it wasn’t literally true. Obviously, she couldn’t actually chomp her way through one of the solid-hooved mammals. Arch complainers like Lynn Truss try to back up their “zero tolerance approach” to language change by claiming that these “missuses” of language cause confusion. But anyone who claims that the panda; the large, black-and-white, bear-like mammal native to China that EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES contains any sort of ambiguity, is clearly nuts. No one’s afraid of a panda shooting them in a seedy bar in some Chinese city. Changes like these have been happening without any problems ever since we can remember.



Prescriptivists are often quick to declare that our English language is decaying from its once “Golden Age” right before our eyes and their “evidence” often comes in the form our youth and their increasing use of non-standard constructions. Rest assured I’m not promoting the use of “innit” in your next job interview. I’m not even telling you to throw the odd one in. But what if, these “non-standard” forms do have a place in society. When used amongst our friends, we might seek a sense of group solidarity and belonging. Can you blame us? Non-standard forms might me our easiest way of doing this. Using language to help us construct our identity, is putting language to good use, and pioneer of sociolinguistics James Milroy would back me in saying that language is not deteriorating at all, and certainly not from an old peak of perfection. Language was never only about communication – getting your point across as effectively as possible. But is it was, wouldn’t “innit” be a more efficient way of saying “isn’t it”? They have “vero” in Italian, why doesn’t English have a word that does this, seek the agreement of your listener?



Some of the words that prescriptivists claim are riddling our language like an infectious disease, come in fact from our beloved playwright, Mr. Shakespeare: the king of histories, comedies and tragedies. He used not a double but a triple negative in Richard 111. Need I say more? Well, clearly I must. However, “I was never nor will never be” coming from the Best British playwright simply isn’t enough to show that these constructions do have their place. The French do it day it day out, their standard negation involves two parts, “n’est pas”? The University of Manchester honorary research fellow, Guy Deutscher sheds some light on the perfectly acceptable function of these dreaded constructions. They allow us to achieve greater effect for what we say, to emphasise our utterances. So not only do you know nothing”, to “not know nothing” emphasises the utter lack of your knowing anything. Isn’t this better language? How could it be worse?


PC- Power and Deception by Dwight Bollinger

  1. Complete truthfulness is synonymous with complete sincerity


  1. Promises are never objectively true or untrue, because intentions are private


  1. A meteorologist is not a liar when the fair weather of his promise turns into rain


  1. Intentions are the arbiter of truth


  1. A label is ambiguous- possibly false on the interpretation most favourable to the product, but true on some other interpretation.


  1. Maurice Bloch (anthropologist) “ritual is the enemy of positional language, through which human beings grasp reality”.


  1. Traditional authority…ritualising what it approves and tabooing what it does not.


  1. Aggressive falsehood…a truth that comes too late is equivalent to a lie; like justice, truth delayed is truth denied.


  1. Euphemisms add up to a world of promise grander than life


  1. Advertising turns a timepiece into a jewel, a motorcar into a symbol of prestige and a mosquito swamp into a tropical paradise.





Those who can’t quite get their head around political correctness seek to join one of two sides of the debate; the first being that PC has gone too far and we should just get rid of it altogether. I’m not sure about you, but I am well aware that freely being called ‘fat’ in the school corridor, is not the best way to go about bettering your self-esteem, so it’s probably best to hold onto some awareness of PC. The latter stance of course, is that PC needs to be enforced by replacing every word in the English dictionary- so instead of your GP calling you ‘fat’ they might note you down as ‘curvy’ on their medical records. Aside from this failing to discourage anyone from eating their daily 5 packets of chocolate digestives, it also won’t solve the never-ending judgement in society. As American linguist Dwight Bollinger rightly points out – PC cannot be enforced by only focusing on words, because it depends on how they’re interpreted, which determines whether they’re politically correct. Of course using the word ‘curvy’ doesn’t make you politically correct if you’re clearly lying through your teeth. Really, people’s intentions are the main problem here – not words.



The idea that political correctness has gone too far simply because descriptive adjectives such as “fat” have been replaced with the evaluative adjective “curvy” for example, is perhaps unfair. Not only does this suggest that Political Correctness is purely based on an individual’s choice of words but it also dismisses the intentions of people in society. For example, Dwight Bollinger would suggest that the use of the adjective ‘curvy’ is rather ambiguous, meaning it depends on how it’s used, as to whether it actually helps enforce political correctness within society. For instance, if a person believes another individual to be fat but uses the simple declarative “you look curvy in that dress” to portray their appearance, it may be interpreted in a positive way and be seen as a compliment. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as obfuscatory and a euphemistic term for ‘overweight’, thus not working as language should: getting our point across. Therefore, adapting one’s choice of words, doesn’t automatically result in a change to their discriminatory views, as Sapir & Whorf’s theory would suggest – both the strong and the weak variety – so it could be argued that PC hasn’t gone too far when words are replaced, because it doesn’t change much, barely nudging the views of society.



The damp spoon theory, which is one of Aitcheson’s language change ‘theories’, states that language change is generally the result of laziness, the same kind of laziness that would lead someone to put a damp spoon back in the sugar bowl without drying it. An example of a linguistic change that prescriptivists would label as lazy is clipping: for example, the change from ‘advertisement’ to ‘advert’ to ‘ad’, or from ‘limousine’ to ‘limo’. These changes, they argue, are the result of people being too lazy to finish one word before moving on to the next one, and too passive to correct themselves if they clip a word accidentally: however, this is not true. Clipping is often born from speakers varying the speed of their speech to suit their audience; informal speech tends to be quicker than formal speech. This natural instinct to adapt is not an indicator of laziness, or of degeneration: quite the opposite, as clipping provides evidence of speakers making an effort to adapt their language, and, as Aitcheson said, “faster speech involves more words per minute, and cannot be classed as laziness”. Since clipping allows speech to be sped up, without confusing its meaning, enabling easier and quicker communication, the idea that language change is always synonymous with degeneration can’t be true. This also supports Guy Deutscher’s theory of language change, where he claims that language changes to become more efficient, at least some of the time; this tendency can be noted in changes such as “innit” – we’re saying the same thing more efficiently.


Jespersen, a descriptivist, concluded that “the discarding of old flexions goes hand in hand with the development of simpler and more regular expedients”; this observation agrees with Deutscher’s theory that language changes to become more ‘orderly’. A recent language trend that supports this idea is the blurring between the nominative and accusative cases in everyday speech. In Standard English, subjects of verbs are in the nominative case (e.g. the ‘I’ in ‘I was asleep’) and objects of verbs are in the accusative case (e.g. the ‘me’ in ‘she knocked me out’). Hypercorrection has resulted in the use of the nominative case spreading to places where the accusative case ‘should’ be used: for example, after prepositions. The phrase “between you and I” is a good example of this: grammatically speaking, the correct version of this phrase is “between you and me”. However, this change cannot be fairly labelled as degeneration: as Aitcheson said, “real [linguistic] rules or patterns need to be distinguished from artificially imposed ones”. The change from ‘I’ to ‘me’ or from ‘they’ to ‘them’ is a rapidly emerging pattern because, in terms of comprehension, it simply doesn’t matter which pronoun is used: in fact, it could be argued that merging two separate cases into one fluid group of pronouns would in fact make it easier to communicate by eliminating any possible confusion between cases, suggesting that language change can actually be a positive thing.


“All languages have their own ‘rules’ in the sense of recurring, subconscious patterns. (…) Without these real rules, communication would break down: ‘Henry ate an octopus’ does not mean the same as ‘an octopus ate Henry’. But real rules or patterns need to be distinguished from artificially imposed ones. For example, an old and illogical belief that logic should govern language has led in English to a ban on the double negative, as in ‘I don’t know nothing’, which is now standardly: ‘I don’t know anything’. This is odd, because in most languages of the world, the more negatives, the stronger the negation. This was true in thirteenth-century English.” J Aitchison

Forces of Creation by Guy Deutscher (2005)


  1. Dr. Chris de Troy said “Creation through Destruction” when talking about how the language has developed


  1. “without these much maligned forces of destruction, language would never have developed in the first place”


  1. “we wouldn’t have got much beyond grunts and groans”


  1. “forces that create grammatical structures in language are nothing other than the by-products of destruction”


  1. “the forces of destruction took hold of ‘going to’ “


  1. “are you going tothe concert this evening? No, I’m gonnastay at home.”


  1. “ ‘gonna’ in the second sentence has lost its status as a verb of movement”


  1. “ ‘going to’ slowly starts sliding down the long slippery slope towards abstraction”



The idea that language change can be controlled and directed is not necessarily correct as language change is inevitable and although there are many negative attitudes towards language change, it may not be as bad as some people think. There are many people who are likely to use the word “innit”, meaning “isn’t it” (which may, in context, be a tag question). Despite this use of language being incorrect in the eyes of prescriptivists, it’s not necessarily wrong as language is prone to change. Some people may see this change as a destruction of language but others may see it as the creation of a new word which could then improve the language. The linguist Guy Deutscher argues that the forces of creation go hand in hand with the forces of destruction, words get clipped and shortened, then they get so small they clump together to form new words. An example of this may be the French noun “aujourd’hui” which was originally four separate words but over time blended into one as the French people spoke it as one word.



Language change is inevitable. Your slightly racist grandpa may argue that ‘kids nowadays sound dumb’ because they say “innit” and “gonna” and that they’re destroying his beloved language, but I beg to differ. Out of destruction can come creation and although there will be people who try to argue that these new words are out to poison our very being, I implore you to see that they may actually help us create a new language, and what harm can be done from that? Especially if it allows me to annoy my racist relatives. So use “chairperson” with a cheeky smile on your face. Use words that didn’t exist for the last generation…


The term decay is often used in regards to a new form of English that arrived with the digital age – “textese”. Common features of textese that come into criticism are abbreviations – such as BRB (be right back), IDC (I don’t care) or even LOL (laugh out loud). This variety of English is often criticised by older, more prescriptivist members of society, who believe these changes are eroding the English language, who see the abbreviations as ‘lazy’. In reality, these prescriptivist ideas are outdated and problematic, and are lampooned by Aitchson, where some old fogies see the grossest abusers of the English Language as being like oiks who leave a damp spoon in the sugar bowl. Aitchson’s parodic metaphor almost imitates those who see English as decaying due to laziness, who are blind to the fact that they too shaped language due to perceived laziness. In reality, abbreviations have been present in English since its creation, and it is thought monks created the @ sign. In reality English isn’t decaying: there’s nothing negative (or positive) about it; instead it is adopting to its user’s needs.



The idea that political correctness is a ‘cure’ to improve our language, implies that the language we speak is ‘ill’ and that there is something wrong with it. I mean if we ask our 2,000-year-old friend Cicero I’m sure he would agree as “the lapse of time has certainly had a deteriorating effect’. But what would he know? He probably wouldn’t understand the concept of political correctness, as it’s way after his time. The words we use are not ‘ill’ themselves, however, “language functions as a tool for expressing social categorisations and hierarchies” according to respected linguists Sczesny, Moser and Wood. Therefore, if toxic individuals within society use language to perpetuate their negative thoughts and stereotypes then the words used will appear ‘ill’ and in need of a cure such as political correctness, or is it? For example, the word “fat” is not a bad word, but due to the body shamers, beauty ideologies and the unfortunate message that anything other than ‘perfect’ is wrong, the word “fat” is now seen to be bad. “Fat” is used negatively and is used to attempt to marginalise those individuals who may fall under the imaginary category of ‘fat’ from society, making them feel that something is problematic with them.



The only thing that is problematic are the damaging views that are allowed to exist amongst us. Therefore, political correctness is not a priority in making our language better, in fact the focus should be shaming societal attitudes not our language. George Orwell would agree; he would have it that if the “general atmosphere is bad …language must suffer”. So if the small minded individuals could halt their desire to scrutinize and body shame then perhaps the word “fat” has a chance of being accepted. In another light political correctness may in fact be a necessary cure for some areas of our language. Our language being ill may be due to the toxic societal views, but it may also be due to “the slovenliness of our language” according to Orwell. For example, the word “chairman” is discriminatory as it “can apply to both sexes, it is apparently male orientated”, as said by professor Peter Trudgill. As the stereotypes and discriminatory essence this word carries are not obviously problematic, individuals may not go out of their way to avoid using it. This is out of laziness as they will not suffer from the detrimental effects these types of words have. This shows how “foolish our thoughts are” (Orwell) and due to our thoughts and laziness our language becomes “ugly and inaccurate” and perhaps even ill. Therefore, if we had a politically correct, gender neutral replacement for “chairman” our language would perpetuate less problematic stereotypes, be accurate and therefore, showing our language being improved by political correctness.


The argument that political correctness makes our language better is seriously misleading, coincidentally so is political correctness itself. If I was to say “migrant” rather than “immigrant”, Orwell would accuse me of lying to myself and those around me. Orwell wouldn’t be wrong as this political correctness attempts to hide the real issues surrounding the word and avoid them. By using the word “migrant” some individuals may see it as a way to stop perpetuating negative stereotypes about these individuals, as the word doesn’t carry the negative connotations, therefore, demonstrating how political correctness makes our language better. However, the use of the word “migrant” isn’t always to protect the affected individuals, but rather to protect other people as the word “migrant” isn’t loaded with the anxiety and controversy, which “suddenly emerges into popular consciousness” when “immigrant” is used, as linguist Jean Aitcheson has said. This shows just how wrong political correctness can be, not only for our language but for society, as it encourages fake news, fake beliefs and fake knowledge!


Q4. PC

As everyone knows, political correctness was cooked up by a coven of mollycoddling mothers and insecure fathers, rearing its ugly head for the first time in the mid ‘90s. Before that, we lived in an idyllic society, one in which we were free to say what we wanted, when we wanted; free from the constraints of the thought police, liberated from the liberal jackboot. Now, obviously, I’m being facetious here, but this idea of a shadowy PC syndicate is frequently dredged up, dusted off, and treated as breaking news by uninspired journalists looking to make a quick buck. If they bothered to put a little research into their articles, however, they’d soon discover that the idea of political correctness dates back much further than its opponents would have us believe. As far back as the late 18th century, in fact, when the search for a gender-neutral singular pronoun began; James Anderson, a Scottish publisher, suggested replacing the generic ‘he’ with the more inclusive ‘ou’, opening a can of worms that would not be successfully dealt with for almost two hundred years. But hang on a minute, you might be thinking: what does using ‘he’ as the default pronoun have to do with political correctness? Isn’t PC all about offending people? Who’s offended by the default ‘he’, other than crazy men-hating feminazis? The answer to this is simple: ‘being politically incorrect’ is not synonymous with ‘being offensive’. The issue of political correctness, a nebulous concept at the best of times, has been bastardized by the media, who have linked it, inextricably, with the idea of easily-offended ‘snowflakes’. In order to disprove this carefully engineered misconception, let’s look at the issue of generic ‘he’ more closely.



Sitting on the plain back from Moscow last week, I had heard the fella behind me say “”They sound like they’re angry all the time, don’t they? That must do something to your brain surely. If say, the Germans didn’t have a word for the process of coming to terms with the past (they do; it’s Vergangenheitsbewaltigung), would they be able to conceive it?” The principle of linguistic relativity, coined by linguists Sapir and Whorf and brought to my attention by my aircraft companions, claims that it is our language that determines our culture, which in turn determines our language, by determining the way that we categorize our thoughts about the world and our experiences in it. Pronouncements made by Sapir and Whorf and my train carriage companions leave me feeling a little uneasy. This idea that people who speak some particular language are incapable of certain kinds of thought? Isn’t this a bit…distasteful…maybe even…a little bit racist? The strong version of the theory states that our language is a prison house: we can’t escape it. But even the weak version of Sapir and Whorf’s hypothesis – that language at the very least kind of matters – that it leads us, or misleads us, is worrying too.



There seems to be a new trend within old, wrinkly, white people at the moment. Having moved on from casual racism, their new target is the young generation; in particular, their language. Suddenly, the new evil within the world are people who use abbreviations. You heard that right, not criminals, worse. Texters. Enraged with the use of acronyms and initialisms such as BRB (be right back), IDC ( I don’t care) and LOL (laugh out loud) they cannot believe the way in which ‘their’ English has been torn apart by the new generation. Those lazy bastards have charged in, they argue, barely at voting age, and ripped the linguistic carpet from under our feet! They believe English is being changed by what Professor Jean Aitchson would describe ironically as the damp soon theory – the idea English is changing through laziness and bad manners – much as an ignorant oik would leave a damp spoon in the sugar bowl. In reality, they need to accept that English has been changing since its birth (even in their sad little lives) and that it will continue to change – irrespective of if they keep up or not.



Many believe that language is constantly decaying, and it’s impossible for us to save it from its destruction. ‘We cannot by conscious action do anything about it’, argued George Orwell. Many people believe that changing our language will affect the thoughts and beliefs of individuals – basically control the way they think. Although it is impossible to eradicate negative thoughts – such as racist opinions, from society as a whole, by changing our language and avoiding the use of words and phrases that encourage negative stereotypes, we can maybe make it harder for the negative thoughts to spread. But the danger here, as Orwell would argue, is that we are handing the keys of mass mind control over to the Political Correctness Overlords. Some are so quick to laugh at politically correct language and deem it the language of snowflakes and social justice warriors, of the far-left. But instead of ridiculing the idea of PC, we should recognize its theoretical validity and usefulness in promoting social progress, though the converse of this is the incredible power it could give to a shadowy elite, if such a shadowy elite existed.




Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass

  1. “Fluent speech, there are no real spaces between words, so when two words frequently appear together they can easily fuse into one.” E.g. blends: brunch, guesstimate, motel, shopaholic, hangry.
  2. “There is an inverse correlation between the complexity of society and of word structure!” the more complicated the meaning of language the less sophisticated society is.
  3. “Gender thus provides our second example of how the mother tongue influences thought.”
  4. “Word that is not actively used by one generation will not be heard by the next generation and will then be lost forever.”
  5. “People find names for things they feel the need to talk about.”
  6. “The culturalists tried to make the idea more appealing by pointing out that even in modern languages we use idioms that are rather imprecise about colour. Don’t we speak of “white wine,” for instance, even if we can see perfectly well that it is really yellowish green? Don’t we have “black cherries” that are dark red and “white cherries” that are yellowish red? Aren’t red squirrels really brown? Don’t the Italians call the yolk of an egg “red” (il rosso)?”
  7. “And there are also languages that divide nouns into much more specific genders. The African language Supyire from Mali has five genders: humans, big things, small things, collectives, and liquids. Bantu languages such as Swahili have up to ten genders, and the Australian language Ngan’gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders, which include, among others, masculine human, feminine human, canines, non-canine animals, vegetables, drinks, and two different genders for spears (depending on size and material).”
  8. “Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows only too dearly that languages can be full of pointless irregularities that increase complexity considerably without contributing much to the ability to express ideas. English, for instance, would have losed none of its expressive power if some of its verbs leaved their irregular past tense behind and becomed regular.”


The idea that language is getting worse is a perscriptivist viewpoint and is argued to be incorrect as Guy Deutscher would say that its actually getting better. Words that a prescriptivist would argue as being the result of lazy and ignorant kids, as lampooned by Jean Aitcheson with her “damp spoon syndrome”, including blends like “brunch” and “guesstimate”, actually make explaining these things less complicated and therefore reflects the efficiency of our language as opposed to its degeneration. Aitcheson, a descriptivist, doesn’t judge, she merely describes: these changes happen. However, Guy Deutscher puts forward the idea that the increase in efficiency is actually an improvement.



The English language is so perfect it could express things without you even having to mean it, this oxymoronic opinion that the tea-loving patriots of our nation have, demonstrates the irony of the idea that our language is perfect the way it was. Our language is 1000 ways biased as well-known linguist Dwight Bolinger said. Changes like the use of the word ‘innit’ instead of ‘isn’t it’ seem to vex these nostalgia-junkies, which is ‘literally’ the funniest thing to witness. Their precious language derived from metaphors like ‘literally’ which come from meaning that changed over time, when we used to use it figuratively it would be outrageous to use it metaphorically which is common in our language nowadays. Language will change whether these ‘geniuses’ will it or not and we must embrace change instead of make futile attempts to reject it.


Q4 – PC

Up until about the 1950s, if you wanted to refer to someone generally, you wouldn’t refer to ‘them’: you’d refer to ‘him’. For example, instead of saying, “a person can’t help their birth”, you would say, “a person can’t help his birth”, and so on. Born out of patriarchal tradition, this practice seems harmless enough at first glance; think it over, though, and the problem begins to take shape. Using generic ‘he’ as the default in literature teaches boys and girls alike that it’s men who write, that it’s men who read, that it’s men who do stuff, feel stuff, think stuff; as a result, girls are limited not only in what they can do, but what they think they can do. An over-exaggeration? I don’t think so. It’s easy to dismiss the threat of generic ‘he’ now, in a society that promotes freedom of choice and equality for all; put yourself in the shoes of a woman in the 1950s, though, and it’s easy to see how your sense of self-worth would be chipped away over time. Hence, the need for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, advocated for by women who were sick to death of the marginalisation of their sex. Dogmatists who continue to use generic ‘he’ run the risk of appearing out-of-touch, bigoted, or, worse, ridiculous: “when we get abortion law repeal, everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion”, announced Albert Blumenthal before the New York State Assembly in 1984.


Q4 – LC

It seems to me that a lot of people struggle with the concept of language change. I’m not sure why because it’s been happening since well before you were born – and before you start, I don’t need to know your age, I just know. “Literally” is probably referred to as one of the most controversial examples of language change. It has gone from being used in a complete ‘literal’ sense, to now being used much more figuratively; like when united lose a match for the fifth time in a row and you say “I literally want to kill myself”. No one at that moment really questions whether you will ‘literally’ take your own life for the sake of football. Despite this, people still complain that language change is causing confusion when let’s face it, it really isn’t. Someone who has made sense of this is linguist Guy Deutscher. He circulated the idea of Expressiveness in speech, which may result in words such as ‘literally’ extending their meaning, so that you use them in a non ‘literal’ sense, thereby being more expressive, getting your frustration across more effectively. If I say “I could literally kill people who moan about language change,” I’m sure you get the depth of my frustration.


Q1 – LC

The idea that not only is language not degenerating, it’s improving, has been suggested by Guy Deutscher, technically making him a prescriptivist. He argues that a language has to change, in order to remain relevant and useful, and that all change is motivated by one of three aims: to become more expressive, to become more economical, or to become more orderly. The idea that language has to change to become more expressive can be supported by the recent shift in meaning of ‘literally’; originally only meaning ‘in a literal meaning’, the adverb is now also used as an adverb of emphasis. Prescriptivists who think language is getting worse would argue that this is a negative change, as the meaning of ‘literally’ is now confused: however, Deutscher would argue that this type of semantic shift is inevitable. ‘Very’, for instance, used to be ‘verily’, another adverb of truth; this type of shift, he argues, is a by-product of our natural tendency to over exaggerate. Hence, this change is nothing more than an inevitable side effect of a language evolving, which supports Aitcheson’s idea that a “rigid system” of language needs to become flexible in order to survive.


Q4 – PC

The media’s proclivity for jumping on the PC-bashing bandwagon has warped our collective understanding of what PC actually is, to the extent that anyone who doesn’t knowingly chuckle at the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ runs the risk of being irrevocably labelled as some kind of linguistic tyrant, an enemy of free speech, to be avoided at all costs. Supporters of political correctness are simply too thin-skinned for the real world, argue mindless reporters up and down the country; either that, or they’re championing political correctness in order to somehow reap the benefits of not being a straight, white, middle-class man, whilst ignoring their own shortcomings. To the media, and, by extension, the population at large, the issue of political correctness is inextricably linked with the idea of avoiding causing offense, which is not its purpose at all: rather, political correctness is all about the eradication of harmful stereotypes and preconceptions. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, maybe, possibly, without the words “slut”, “bitch” and “chairman”?


Q4 – PC

We are all so quick to laugh at politically correct language and deem it the language of snowflakes and social justice warriors of the far-left, just because we like to know we can use whatever language we want to. Instead of ridiculing the idea of PC, we should recognize its theoretical validity and usefulness in promoting social progress. To those of you out there that are trying so hard not to conform to this mental politically correct movement, grow up. Alright maybe that’s a bit harsh, but all I’m saying is don’t just nod along to all the racists and bigots that just live to embarrass and lampoon anyone who agrees with PC culture. It’s a very much outdated view, is all. Take this quote from Eighteenth Century writer Johnathan Swift, “I see no absolute Necessity why any Language would be perpetually changing.” Judging by this we don’t need to change language, right? Back in Swift’s day a “nigger” was every black person whether free or a slave, a horse was a car, a “mouse” was a mouse, a woman’s place was in the home, and a chairwoman” would have been a woman big fat white men sat on. Should we still be using the language of Johnathan Swift? Maybe Swift had a point about the Irish: let them eat their babies if they are to survive the potato famine. But I don’t think he was right about language.



Jean Aitcheson: Conflicting Loyalties


  • “Don’t pay much attention to the behaviour of others, unless it is dramatically different from the norm”
  • “Exaggerated the situation considerably”
  • “Suddenly emerges into popular consciousness”
  • “Sloppy language”
  • “Centre of considerable cultural and commercial importance”
  • “The spread of a hypercorrect pronunciation”
  • “There appears to be a tug of war going on”
  • “We can not predict a movement in any one direction”
  • “The shop-assistant phenomenon suggests that changes move from one network to another via weak links”

Q4 – LC

The ridiculous idea that the British language is becoming ‘sloppy’ is an idea which is becoming more prevalent within society. But, surely people have ‘exaggerated the situation considerably’ as what gives people the right to say that the way someone speaks is worse than another person? It baffles me that ‘there appears to be a tug of war going on’ which involves something so insufficient compared to other situations going on. People nowadays get more riled up about someone not pronouncing their ‘t’s’ at the end of their words than the fact that there are 36 million people who will die from starvation this year alone. If you put language change into perspective, then it makes you really question why so many people ‘overreact to it’. If your kid is using “like” in the wrong way, saying “innit” for isn’t it, ending sentences with prepositions, or even dropping them altogether, is their language in any way worse? For is your language worse than the language of the generation before? Or just different? What would Shakespeare think? Or Samuel Johnson? He who had “laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms and irregular combinations”?


Q4 – PC

Welcome to the days where everything you say is wrong. We are now constantly scrutinised for the words that we use, our human rights of freedom to speech are no longer enforced. Why has everyone become so sensitive all of a sudden? GREGGS is now changing its name due to the fact that it is too masculine so is offending women, Mothercare is turning into Parentcare to make sure there is no discrimination about different types of families and finally MANchester is in the process of being called PERSONchester! Everyone has gone mad. In an attempt to be fully inclusive of everyone in society they have gone a step too far. I can understand (to a point) why we are taught to refrain from using terms such as “third world”,  as this completely separates people and makes them seem like they don’t belong and are inferior. However, there are some examples which have just crossed the line. Everyone appears to be taking offence to every little thing that is being said: or is it more about the media blowing things out of proportion in order to gain a reaction? Is there really anything to what those two linguists Sapir and Whorf said about language? That it has the power to influence the world that surrounds you? Or even that it shapes the way we see the world? Or even that it is a prison-house in which we exist? Can’t we think, outside our language? And if not, can we change the way we think by changing those words we think in?


PC – Q4

Another situation which has sparked debate is one which is changing the name of job titles. Policeman is now more properly called a ‘Police Officer’ to reduce the impact it is thought to have on women; or at least to stop perpetuating the rather unhelpful stereotype that only men can police, or protect or stand for law and order. Plus,  if it is a gender neutral term, then it could encourage women to pursue careers that were always typically portrayed as a man’s job. This is a positive outcome of political correctness as it is trying to reduce barriers which have been put up in order to allow one group of people within society to excel more than others. On the other hand, the job role of a nurse has strong connotations of a woman yet the number of male nurses are increasing. Does this mean that we will have to change the name of this job role as well in order to accommodate others? Do we really have to step on egg shells in case we accidentally insult someone by using the wrong pronoun? George Orwell wrote convincingly on the dangers inherent in this approach: Big Brother is watching you! Yet, even more invidiously, Newspeak is thinking for you!


As society has progressed, the English language has become much more relaxed and lexis that we used to use for people that we were close to. Goodman argues that we are living in a time of increased Informalisation, which is the process whereby language forms that were traditionally reserved for close personal relationships are now used in wider social contexts. The noun ‘babe’ has become a pet name and is now commonly used in passing, however in the past it is more likely to be used in closer relationships and have a deeper meaning. This is related to Fairclough’s idea that language is becoming more coversationalised as professional encounters are increasingly likely to contain informal forms of English. Some would argue that increased Informalisation’ in a range of contexts breaks down barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. However, there are others would argue that barriers remain but we are more likely to be manipulated if they appear not to be. Either way, our language is certainly changing, either reflecting shifts in society, or informing them.


Q1. PC

The idea that PC has no place in language is one often pushed by those with a misinformed view of what PC actually is. Having been misled by the UK tabloid media, PC and health and safety have somehow become confused and intertwined as one phenomenon, when in reality they are completely different ideas. PC is in fact useful in preventing the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, for example the concrete noun ‘Chairman’ may perpetuate the idea that only males can hold this position – one of power – and may prevent women from pursuing this position from a young age, due to the ‘man made language’ (Spender). By instead referring to the position as simply ‘chair’ or ‘chairperson,’ we are preventing the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, and are avoiding ‘blocking’ women from certain jobs, helping the development of society thus proving the worth of PC. George Orwell and others though have given us many warnings on the danger of this approach: are we giving too much power to those who decide what words we use? This depends on a. Who are these people who decide what is and what is not PC? (Answer: there’s no shadowy cabal behind PC) And b. does it matter? Orwell would agree with Sapir & Whorf: yes it does! Language might best be considered as a “prison house”.


Q4 – PC

Despite what bigoted buffoons will lead you to believe, PC does in fact hold a worthwhile position in society. In between frothing at the mouth screaming ‘PC has gone mad’ because their local park has been shut down (not PC at all) and rambling on about how it was okay to say ‘half cast’ in their day, if they took a minute to find out what PC actually is and how it benefits us all they may understand. Instead of PC being about petty things that the media push, like calling criminals ‘behaviourally challenged,’ and changing bin men to ‘sanitation officers,’ PC is instead about preventing harmful ideas from spreading. An example of this is reducing the slut shaming of women that occurs from day to day, in a bid to stop the spreading of the disgusting idea that men are for some reason immune to being sluts, and that men having multiple sexual partners is well respected whereas women are shamed for the same thing. Respected linguistic theorists Sapir and Whorf did extensive (well, not really – they kind of just pretended to talk to Eskimos Native Americans) research into this topic, finding that if there are more words for a term (e.g women having multiple sexual partners) then the idea is likely to be spread and, in such a case as this, stigmatised more, e.g the slut shaming of women with words like whore, slut and slag as opposed to the only male variant, which is still just a ploy on the female version – man slut.


Q1. PC

Despite its undeniable benefits, there are times when PC has its limits, potentially masking the true meaning of words and creating inefficiencies within language. For example, the recent developments in attempting to reduce the use of the descriptive adjective “fat.” George Orwell would see the rise in the use of evaluative adjectives such as “person of size,” obfuscatory, hiding the real issue of the matter – the person is fat. If the meaning of some words continue to be hidden by PC, language may become inefficient and lead to a society that is constantly masking the truth of situations, leading to some people potentially making unhealthy decisions, such as fat people not losing weight as they have been lied to by society and developed the idea that it is normal to be fat, when in reality it is unhealthy. That said, languages have been operating with euphemisms for as long as they have existed, and however much George Orwell cries out at the potential dangers, our language is still pretty healthy.



Q4/Q1 – LC

I was on the bus on my way into London last weekend and I could help but overhear a conversation between an elderly couple in front. Well, I say I overhear, but to be honest I think you’d have to be deaf to not have heard them. They were talking, or complaining should I say, about the so called ‘language’ of today’s youth; as if we get by, communicating with completely identical utterances. They’re not the first people to have this view that young people are somehow to “blame” for the alleged awful disease that is language change; that words such as “peng” are ruining the beautiful castle that is our English language and causing it to crumble and that these changes are destructive. Yes, many such perscriptivists do believe that new words introduced by the younger generation are contributing to this ‘crumbling’ of our grand linguistic ‘castle’, but how about they look at it from another perspective? How about they consider that these changes are actually bettering our language, contributing to the building of the castle and adding variety to our language? In a way that the castle that was Shakespeare’s language or Keats language was similarly constructed over centuries by the street urchins, the lords and ladies, and the charwomen, all of whom own language and own its changes. Anyway, whether you like it or not, language change can’t be stopped, irrelevant of these so called language villains.


Q4 – LC

Here’s another thing which people are making a storm in a teacup about- the changing in meaning of the word “basic” and I think the blame is heading towards Kate Moss for this one. She first used it in an advert in the terms of “you’re a basic bi**h” and now, like an infectious disease, everyone seems to be using it. So, ‘basic’ originally meant plain and simple and now can be used to describe someone who is perhaps afraid to express individuality. Some people, unknown to the rest of us, seem to believe that language change is lazy and Jean Aitchison, Professor at the University of Oxford, uses a clever ‘damp spoon’ analogy to describe these beliefs which suggest that change is a result of sloppiness. Really though, changing the meaning of a word is innovative as opposed to lazy and it can actually fill gaps in language for meanings which before didn’t have a word linked to them. You don’t see anyone throwing a fit about the meaning of “nice” changing from ‘ignorant’ to ‘pleasant’ nowadays, so why should we complain about the changing in meaning of the word ‘basic’? It makes no sense.


Q4 – LC

You’re probably now immune to walking past people in the street using the most dreaded structure that is…double negatives. Whether it’s ‘I haven’t done nothing wrong’, ‘I don’t know nothing’ or ‘I ain’t giving you no money’, the use of double or triple negatives is becoming much more common over recent years but has been scorned by perscriptivists such as Professor of Grammar, Robert Lowth for being grammatically horrific and completely rivalling ‘rules’ of grammar. What people seem to be forgetting is that one of our most respected poets Shakespeare rebelliously used multiple negatives in his most famous pieces of literature. Nobody attempted to frame Shakespeare as being some sort of grammatical demon, so 500 years later I think it’s safe to say that people are completely overreacting when claiming that the use of double negatives is a new thing and that it is completely ruining our language. If Shakespeare thinks it’s ok to use double negatives, who are we to say that it isn’t? This just proves that the protest against language change holds little substance.


Deborah Cameron: Verbal Hygiene

* Hackney Council, we were told, to abolish the term manhole by order of it’s Women’s Committee.

* Didn’t diminish the power of stories like the one about “black coffee” as symbols of what was wrong with the so-called “loony left”

* For some twenty years, speakers of English have been in a position to observe a linguistic guerrilla war raging all around them.

* (Political correctness is) An attack on the language and on the possibility of communication.

* Language reflects society

* Verbal hygiene practices are obviously about non-linguistic matters of political beliefs or allegiance, they are also about the nature of language itself and about peoples conceptualisations of language.

* Objections to linguistic reform tend to focus much more in language than on the social questions at issue.

* (Verbal hygiene isn’t only) a crisis of cultural values; it is also a crisis for common sense.

Q1 – PC

Political correctness is necessary within our language. Some may argue that it creates boundaries, restricting what we are allowed to say; however, this can be a positive attribute to create social order within out language. Deborah Cameron would argue that “language can be controlled” by the use of verbal hygiene. This is the attempt to “cleanse” our language to put a stop to the negative and offensive connotations which it creates. Verbal hygiene mainly involves replacing offensive language with language which is “politically correct” for example, replacing ‘disabled’ with ‘physically challenged’. It can be argued that this causes people’s language to become much more controlled as there are now social restrictions put in place which urges to stop people from perpetuating negative stereotypes within their language. However, this may create a negative view on political correctness and cause people to believe that the use of verbal hygiene to achieve political correctness threatens freedom of expression within our language, which was very much George Orwell’s argument.


Q4 – PC

As an advocate of non-fascists, I believe Donald Trump, known for being the 45th present of the United States and also a sexists man-child, needs his mouth washing out with soap. A lot of it. To put it in technical terms, well known linguist Deborah Cameron would say he could do with a spot of “verbal hygiene.” Today, there is a “crisis for common sense”, of what is viewed as social acceptable to say within our language. Due to the views of the mass media, there has been a negative portrayal of political correct, shaping the views of society suggesting that it’s unnecessary and only for the likes of the “looney-left.” But surely it’s common sense; that if we can be a little more careful with our language we can live in a more tolerant world, less filled with harmful stereotypes?



Sexism – Language The Loaded Weapon by Dwight Bolinger (1980)

* “As with other relatively powerless classes, there is a heavy representation of epithets and similar unfavourable terms, more than for men.”

* “Being old puts one in another class of the powerless. Being old and female puts one on the verge of being an outcast.”

* “The skin deep phenomenon”

* “The women-as-property iceberg”

* “When a woman is at fault, it is often because she is a woman; when a man is at fault, it is more often because he is cruel, or dishonest, or cowardly, or ambitious.”

* “So no solution is in sight. The writer or speaker has to choose between perpetuation sexist language and making a mess of the grammar.”

* “Terms like chairperson seem to be specializing to women while, chairman is reserved for men.”

* “Linguistic asymmetry is everywhere.”

* “Women inherit their place as speakers inherit their words.”

Q1 – Evaluate the idea that our language is degenerate:

Over time our language develops and changes, if not improving it, certainly not making it worse: the idea that our language degenerates over time is that of a prescriptive view, rejecting things such as the possibility of positive change and the rationale of political correctness, instead subscribing to one of the three positions that Jean Aitchison parodies. These pointedly ridiculous positions on language change of the crumbling castle view, damp spoon syndrome and infectious disease assumption, are the three prongs Aitchison’s very convincing attack of prescriptivist views. While all these paradoxes mock prescriptive views of language degenerating and deteriorating, language could be seen to develops and to be built on instead. As the English language is often referred to as a web where new lines of the web are made language becomes more complex and developed over time due to changes such as semantic shifts, neologisms and other developments both in wider society such as political correctness. Therefore, in disagreement to the idea that language degenerates, language could be seen to improve as things such as political correctness have helped with the development and improvement of language in order to help avoid the perpetuation of problematic stereotypes as Bolinger argues “linguistic asymmetry is everywhere” and so specifically with the issue of sexism in language, change needs to occur to help remove the sexism within our language and therefore help improve and develop language rather than degenerate it.



The very idea that without PC our language would be better and not have “deteriorated” or crumbled like in linguist Jean Aitchison’s crumbling castle paradox is preposterous. Having grown up hearing how boys will grow up to be chairmen and

businessmen, while myself a homemaker or nurse because of my gender is disheartening to say the least. The reality of our language is that it is, as linguist Dwight Bolinger would argue, “not a neutral instrument”. A dominant part of our language is this twisted fascination with encouraging men and putting them on a pedestal while simultaneously slandering women. This is “as with other relatively powerless classes, there is a heavy representation of epithets and similar unfavourable terms, more than for men” (Dwight Bolinger). This is supported by our use of derogatory terms such as slag, slut, whore, and a whole host of distasteful pronouns used in across all forms of media, transmitting the message out further to even younger generations. But I ask you, can you think of any equally damaging terms for a man? “Manwhore” maybe, “manslut” too? Interesting to see that only when we choose to argue back to our oppressors disguised as knights that we feel the only possible was is to add a prefix of “man”. Coincidence? I think not. For centuries the idea of male as norm has been used but not so much questioned by anyone except pioneering feminists and PC supporters. It’s always nice to see how if young man and a young woman sleep together outside of marriage, the woman is seen as “promiscuous” while the man a “stud”. These double standards of what is acceptable for a man and what is acceptable for a woman need to change and as “sexism in language will grow less as women are accepted more, in the roles that men have traditionally occupied”. When that change to remove sexism in our language will happen I wait for that change to happen.


Question 4: Directed Writing on PC

Do we really need PC?

This whole concept of PC is nothing to do with offence but more so what is just blatantly right or wrong. For instance, if I walked down the road and shouted “fatty” at you, you wouldn’t stand for it yet here we are in 2018 and it somehow still seems almost second nature for people to normalise the idea of male being the norm in our language. No. While you’re at it you may as well just go around calling the homeless hobo’s. This preconceived idea that one day children will grow up to become “postmen” or “policemen”, or that the default is “he” is a notion which is slowly but surely murdering the aspirations of young girls not only here in the UK but globally.

While I do appreciate there has been some advancement in the development of PC and so the development of our language, for years’ men and women’s occupations have to been segregated by their title and differentiated into a male and a female term for the same job. Men have been called “actors” while women “actresses”, “lady doctors” instead of just “doctors” therefore downplaying women’s role in society and further perpetuating the dated idea that male is norm. For example, the default pronoun “he” reinforces to women and girls that when they grow up men will be controlling their lives and quite possibly their thoughts too. I know that at least for me growing up always hearing “policeman” and “chairman” certainly told me that those were jobs for men and “not for the likes of us”. However, as linguist Peter Trudgill says, “language as a social phenomenon is closely related to social attitudes”. It isn’t language that is the problem, reality is the problem. We need to stop socialising children into the idea that certain jobs are for men while others for women. As linguists Sapir and Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativism argues, our language influences our thoughts about the real world, so we need to change our language so that seven-year-olds are no longer growing up thinking they can’t be a chairman because they are a girl or that they can’t be a policeman because that’s a man’s job. We need to stop forcing the idea on young impressionable children that they cannot do something simply because they are female.

So, is there no future for political correctness? The simple answer would be no our language will always keep developing along with PC, but much like how PC isn’t clear cut the answer isn’t either. It is hard to tell whether new PC terms will work and catch on. Admittedly using words such as “holiday tree” instead of “Christmas tree” may be a bit of an unnecessary stretch, but for the most part replacing “half-caste” with “dual heritage” and “policeman” with “police officer” and using singular they much to some people’s despair will surely have to help the cause of political correctness and language change.

Question 1: Evaluate the idea that language degenerates

The idea that language degenerates over time is a rather prescriptive view, in reality language is, as Pinker argues, a web in which multiple aspects of our language link to each other and so works as one. As time goes on our language is also further creatively built on and thankfully develops rather than decays or degenerates.

Firstly, Aitchison argues that there are three parodies of language change. Although Aitchison herself does not hold these views herself she talks about the damp spoon, crumbling castle, and infectious disease analogies. The idea of the damp spoon analogy is the idea that language change is unfortunately due to laziness and sloppiness. For example, the use of abbreviations such as “LOL”, “gym”, “exam” and “OMG” are wrongly seen as sloppy in this prescriptive view and so are ‘damaging our language’. The crumbling castle view is the idea that our language was once a beautiful castle which is now being damaged by changes such as the use of slang. The infectious disease theory is that language changes catch on like an infectious disease. For example, Kate Moss coined the phrase “basic bitch” using the adjective “basic” in a new context. By the infectious disease theory this caught on and has ‘made our language degenerate’. However, language changes and variations are not like a disease and unlike a disease, which you cannot choose to get or not, people individually have a choice whether or not they accept and take on a new change.

Deutscher argues that there are three motives for language change. These are economy, which refer to the tendency to save effort and make short-cuts, expression, which refers to a speakers attempt to achieve greater effect in their speech, and analogy, which refers to order and the mind wanting language to have order. Deutscher takes a more prescriptive view on language, for example with his expressiveness theory he argues that there is a constant battle against cliché language and language bleached of meaning. For example, the adjective “good” became overused and less effective and meaningful therefore people started to use metaphors like “brilliant”, which then also became too overused and then turned into a dead metaphor and cliché. Therefore, Deutscher would argue that language is degenerate, however in reality language is just changing and new meanings of words are being created. Although some metaphors such as “brilliant” may die new metaphors are also being created to replace them and therefore improving language.

Finally, Hockett argues that language changes come from errors which have then by mistake caught on. For example, the adjective “disinterested” means to be uninterested. This however came about from misunderstanding of the original meaning which as a matter of fact was the opposite of its current definition. However, admittedly some new meanings are from ‘errors’ these new meanings are actually helping to build on our current language. Similarly, Postal argues that words may come in and out of fashion and therefore may be dropped from our language. While words may not be ‘dropped’ from our language the idea that some words and phrases may be used more than others might be more plausible. This is as for example, with time words may be viewed as more ‘old-fashioned’ than others so therefore people may interestingly create newer language to almost ‘replace’ the old phrase, while also still using them. This is therefore showing how our language is built on and how our language does not decay over time.

Q1/2 – Language Change

weird lang

There are some people who believe in Atchison’s “Crumbling Castle” parody theory: they believe that changes within language are damaging and are ruining something that was once beautiful, but also something that was carefully constructed over millennia according to some grand plan, much like a gothic cathedral. Although these prescriptivists may pride themselves on using only the most English words, those words they think of as always being English, they’re unaware of the origins of the majority of the words in their vocabulary. Take “orange”, a concrete noun or descriptive adjective (depending on how you use it), for example. It may have appeared in the late middle English ‘period’, but it was taken from ‘old French’ and before that, it was an Arabic word. This word is certainly not part of any concerted effort by people who lived in England in the past to construct a perfect language.


Although many may argue that younger generations don’t sound ‘right’, due to their use of words such as the contraction “innit”, it could be argued that by using such words with their peers, they are showing solidarity and performing their own identity. Use of this word is moving away from the standard and so could be described as downwardly diverging (Trudgill) from the language that older people may use, although this can be a slightly problematic view. Many prescriptivists would argue that use of “innit” is lazy, much like that of Jean Aitchison’s “damp spoon” metaphor; however in reality, language change is inevitable and can’t be blamed on the ‘laziness’ of one group of people. What might be seen as something resulting from laziness, could just as easily be seen to be the consequence of what Guy Deutscher would see as the improving efficiency of our language: “innit” is just more efficient than “isn’t it”, so in a way making our language more effective at communicating meaning.


Guy Deutscher argues that language change can be destruction but eventually leads to creation. This outlook can be adopted by descriptivists and prescriptivists alike as it shows both sides of the argument yet does come to the conclusion that language is in a constant state of flux. The changes aren’t good or bad, just natural to how all languages work. So the word “literally” being used to mean “metaphorically” according to some, is just one instance of our constant efforts to stay one step ahead of the game and come up with new words meaning “very” or “really” if our language is to retain its force or expressiveness. Yes, we could keep using “very” or “really” as our main adverbs of degree, but they were once made up too, taken from “verily” meaning truthfully, or “in reality”. Why did people need new adverbs of degree back then? For the same reason we do now: language needs to be constantly revived and rejuvenated if it is to work as well for us as it did for our great-grandmothers.


Who decides what words mean

language is a system1

Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.

Language changes all the time. Some changes really are chaotic, and disruptive. Take decimate, a prescriptivist shibboleth. It comes from the old Roman practice of punishing a mutinous legion by killing every 10th soldier (hence that deci­- root). Now we don’t often need a word for destroying exactly a 10th of something – this is the ‘etymological fallacy’, the idea that a word must mean exactly what its component roots indicate. But it is useful to have a word that means to destroy a sizeable proportion of something. Yet many people have extended the meaning of decimate until now it means something approaching ‘to wipe out utterly’.

Descriptivists – that is, virtually all academic linguists – will point out that semantic creep is how languages work. It’s just something words do: look up virtually any nontechnical word in the great historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which lists a word’s senses in historical order. You’ll see things such as the extension of decimate happening again and again and again. Words won’t sit still. The prescriptivist position, offered one linguist, is like taking a snapshot of the surface of the ocean and insisting that’s how ocean surfaces must look.

language is a system2

Be that as it may, retort prescriptivists, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Decimate doesn’t have a good synonym in its traditional meaning (to destroy a portion of), and it has lots of company in its new meaning: destroy, annihilate, devastate and so on. If decimate eventually settles on this latter meaning, we lose a unique word and gain nothing. People who use it the old way and people who use it the new way can also confuse each other.

Or take literally, on which I am a traditionalist. It is a delight to be able to use a good literally: when my son fell off a horse on a recent holiday, I was able to reassure my mother that ‘He literally got right back in the saddle,’ and this pleased me no end. So when people use literally to say, for example, We literally walked a million miles, I sigh a little sigh. I know that James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and many others used a figurative literally, but as a mere intensifier it’s not particularly useful or lovely, and it is particularly useful and lovely in the traditional sense, where it has no good substitute.

So I do believe that when change happens in a language it can do harm. Not the end of the world, but harm.

There is another fact to bear in mind: no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens – literally. Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

How can this be? Why does change of the decimate variety not add up to chaos? If one such ‘error’ is bad, and these kinds of things are happening all the time, how do things manage to hold together?

The answer is that language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.

Begin with sounds. Every language has a characteristic inventory of contrasting sounds, called phonemes. Beet and bit have different vowels; these are two phonemes in English. Italian has only one, which is why Italians tend to make homophones of sheet and shit.

There is something odd about the vowels of English. Have you ever noticed that every language in Europe seems to use the letter A the same way? From latte to lager to tapas, Italian, German and Spanish all seem to use it for the ah sound. And at some level, this seems natural; if you learn frango is ‘chicken’ in Portuguese, you will probably know to pronounce it with an ah, not an ay. How, then, did English get A to sound like it does in platenameface and so on?

Look around the other ‘long’ vowels in English, and they seem out of whack in similar ways. The letter I has an ee sound from Nice to Nizhni Novgorod; why does it have the sound it does in English write and ride? And why do two Os yield the sound they do in boot and food?

Nobody in a 15th-century tavern (men carried knives back then) wants to confuse meet, meatand mate

language is a systemThe answer is the Great Vowel Shift. From the middle English period and continuing into the early modern era, the entire set of English long vowels underwent a radical disruption. Meet used to be pronounced a bit like modern mateBoot used to sound like boat. (But both vowels were monophthongs, not diphthongs; the modern long A is really pronounced like ay-ee said quickly, but the vowel in medieval meet was a pure single vowel.)

During the Great Vowel Shift, ee and oo started to move towards the sounds they have today. Nobody knows why. It’s likely that some people noticed at the time and groused about it. In any case, there was really a problem: now ee was too close to the vowel in time, which in that era was pronounced tee-muh. And oo was too close to the vowel in house, which was then pronounced hoose.

Speakers didn’t passively accept the confusion. What happened next shows the genius of what economists call spontaneous order. In response to their new pushy neighbours in the vowel space, the vowels in time and housestarted to change, too, becoming something like tuh-eem and huh-oos. Other changes prompted yet more changes, too: the vowel in mate – then pronounced mah-tuh – moved towards the sound of the modern vowel in cat. That made it a little too close to meat, which was pronounced like a drawn-out version of the modern met. So the vowel in meat changed too.

Throughout the system, vowels were on the move. Nobody in a 15th-century tavern (men carried knives back then) wants to confuse meet, meat and mate.So they responded to a potentially damaging change by changing something else. A few vowels ended up merging. So meet and meat became homophones. But mostly the system just settled down with each vowel in a new place. It was the Great Vowel Shift, not the Great Vowel Pile-Up.

Such shifts are common enough that they have earned a name: ‘chain shifts’. These are what happens when one change prompts another, which in turn prompts yet another, and so on, until the language arrives at a new equilibrium. There is a chain shift underway now: the Northern Cities Shift, noticed and described in the cities around the Great Lakes of North America by William Labov, the pioneer of sociolinguistics. There is also a California Shift. In other words, these things happen. The local, individual change is chaotic and random, but the system responds to keep things from coming to harm.

What about words? There are only so many vowels in a language, but many thousands of words. So changes in the meanings of words might not be as orderly as the chain shifts seen in the Great Vowel Shift and others. Nonetheless, despite potential harm done by an individual word’s change in meaning, cultures tend to have all the words they need for all the things they want to talk about.

In researching Samuel Johnson’s dictionary for my new bookTalk on the Wild Side (2018), I made a startling find. Johnson, in describing his plan for the dictionary to the Earl of Chesterfield in 1747, wrote that

[B]uxom, which means only obedient, is now made, in familiar phrases, to stand for wanton; because in an ancient form of marriage, before the Reformation, the bride promised complaisance and obedience, in these terms: ‘I will be bonair and buxom in bed and at board.’

When most people think of buxom today, neither ‘obedient’ nor ‘wanton’ is what comes to mind (To my wife: this is why a Google Images search for buxom is in my search history, I promise.)

Turning to the OED, I found that buxom had come from a medieval word buhsam, cognate to the modern German biegsam, or ‘bendable’. From physical to metaphorical (the natural extension), it came to mean ‘pliable’ of a person, or – as Johnson put it – obedient. Then buxom kept on moving: a short hop from ‘obedient’ to ‘amiable’, and then another one to ‘lively, gay’. (William Shakespeare describes a soldier of ‘buxom valour’ in Henry V.) From there, it is another short jump to ‘healthy, vigorous’, which seems to have been the current meaning around Johnson’s time. From ‘good health’ it was another logical extension to physical plumpness, then to plumpness specifically on a woman, to big-breasted.

The leap from ‘obedient’ to ‘busty’ seems extraordinary until we look at it step by step. Nice used to mean ‘foolish’. Silly used to mean ‘holy’. Assassin is from the plural of the Arabic word for ‘hashish(-eater)’, and magazine from the Arabic word for a storehouse. This is just what words do. Prestigious used to be pejorative, meaning glittery but not substantive. These kinds of changes are common.

I don’t know how we did without hangry so long in English, because I spent about a third of every day hangry

Two paragraphs ago, I used the words ‘leap’ and ‘jump’. But we see the ‘leaps’ only when lexicographers, looking back, chop up a word’s history into meanings for their dictionaries. Words change meaning gradually, as a small number of speakers use them in a new way, and they in turn cause others to do so. This is how words can change meaning so totally and utterly; mostly, they do so in steps too small to notice.

Again, no chaos results. Every time buxom changed meaning, it could have theoretically left a hole in the lexicon for the meaning it had left behind. But in each case, another word filled its place: in fact, the ones I have used above (pliable, obedient, amiable, lively, gay, healthy, plump and so on). For useful concepts, it seems, the lexicon abhors a vacuum. (I don’t know how we did without hangry so long in English, because I spent about a third of every day hangry. But sure enough, someone coined it.)

There are several predictable ways that words change meaning. Some people insist that nauseous means only ‘causing nausea’. But going from cause to experiencer is a common semantic shift, just as many words can be used in both active and agentless constructions (consider I broke the dishwasher and The dishwasher broke). Yet true confusion is rare. For nauseous’s old meaning we have nauseating.

Words also weaken with frequent use: The Lego Movie (2014) was on to something with its song ‘Everything Is Awesome’, because Americans really do use this word rather a lot. Once powerful, it can now be used for anything even slightly good, as in This burrito is awesome. It can even be near-meaningless, as in Steven Pinker’s lovely example: ‘If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome.’

But do we really lack ways of communicating that we’re impressed by something? No language does, and English-speakers are spoiled for choice from the likes of incredible, fantastic, stupendous and brilliant. (All of which have changed from their etymological meanings of ‘unbelievable’, ‘like a fantasy’, ‘inducing stupor’ and ‘shiny, reflective’, by the way.) When those get overused (and all are in danger of that), people coin new ones still: sick, amazeballs, kick-ass.

The thousands of words in the language are a swirling mass constantly on the move. Again, when one piece moves, threatening a gap or an overlap, something else moves too. The individual, short-term change is random; the overall, long-term change is systemic.

At the level of grammar, change might seem the most unsettling, threatening a deeper kind of harm than a simple mispronunciation or new use for an old word. Take the long-term decline of whom, which signals that something in a question or relative clause is an object (direct or indirect), as in That’s the man whom I saw. Most people today would either say That’s the man who I saw or just That’s the man I saw.

What word is the subject in a clause, and what is the object, is a deeply important fact. And yet, precisely because this is so, even radical grammatical change leaves this distinction intact. Readers of Beowulf are in no doubt that virtually every word in that epic poem is vastly different from its modern counterpart. What those who can’t read Old English might not realise is how different the grammar is. English was a language like Russian or Latin: it had case endings everywhere: on nouns, adjectives and determiners (words such as the and a). In other words, they all behaved like who/whom/whose does (there was even a fourth case).

Today, just six words (I, he, she, we, they and who) change form when they are direct or indirect objects (me, him, her, us, them and whom). In a longer view, modern Anglophones speak godawful, brokendown Anglo-Saxon, lacking all the communicative power that those endings provided. How, one can imagine Alfred the Great asking, do English-speakers know what is the subject of a sentence and what are the objects without those crucial case endings?

The answer is boring: word order. English is a subject-verb-object language. In I love her, case is evident by the form of I (a subject, in the nominative case) and her (a direct object, in the objective case). But the meaning of Steve loves Sally is just as clear, despite the lack of case endings. Subject-verb-object order can be violated in special circumstances (Her I love the most) but it is expected; and that expectation, shared by all native speakers, does the work that the case endings once did.

To my six-year-old, everything is epic, which strikes my ear as awesome must have done my parents’

Why did the case endings disappear? We don’t know, but it was probably sped up as a result of two waves of conquest: adult Vikings and Normans coming to Britain, and learning Anglo-Saxon imperfectly. Then as now, things such as fiddly inflections are hard for adults to learn in a foreign language. Many adult learners would have neglected all those endings and relied on word order, raising children who heard their parents’ slightly stripped-down version. The children would then have used the endings less than earlier generations, until they disappeared entirely.

Once again, the grammar responded as a system. No civilisation can afford to leave the distinction between subjects and objects to guesswork. Word order was relatively flexible in the Anglo-Saxon period. Then the loss of case endings fixed it in more rigid form. The gradual disappearance of case signalling resulted in a potential loss of information, but the solidification of word order made up for it.

We now have a framework in which both the prescriptivists and the descriptivists can have their say. Sound changes can be seen as wrong, understandably, by people who learned an older pronunciation: to my ear, nucular sounds uneducated and expresso is just wrong. But in the long run, sound systems make up for any confusion in a delicate dance of changes that makes sure the language’s necessary distinctions remain. Word meanings change, by both type (a change in meaning) and by force (a change in how powerful a word is). To my six-year-old, everything is epic, which strikes my ear the way awesome must have done to my parents. A lunch just cannot be epic. But when epic is exhausted, his kids will press something else into service – or coin something new.

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.





The Hidden Life of Modal Verbs

The presence of modals introduces nuance and opens up discussion.



…it’s interesting that it can take just a simple element of grammar, boiled down, to make the difference between language that is powerful, and language that seems more uncertain—and perhaps even unbelievable: the boring old modal verb.

You might think nothing can be more grammatically dull and unremarkable than the closed set of function words we call modal verbs, like can, may, must, will, shall and more secondary modal verbs like could, might, ought to, would and should. But using them can have an outsized effect on how information is received by others, and subsequently even how we judge the speaker, their credibility and competence, without actually changing the content itself. Rather than being well-behaved classroom monitors helping the main verbs of a sentence, they are in fact linguistic rebels with an attitude problem.

Modals are weird verbs, syntactically defective in that they don’t inflect like regular verbs, and their very presence essentially messes up simple, direct statements by introducing very confused human feelings of uncertainty, possibility, obligation, permission, and ability into the mix.

Compare a sentence like “she’s the murderer” to “she must be the murderer” or “she might be the murderer.” The first is an ordinary declarative, that could be true or false but sounds objective. In the second and third, the speaker suddenly breaks the fourth wall and intrudes into the statement with their own uncertain beliefs (such as “I’ve deduced from other evidence she’s the murderer” or “I think it’s likely she’s the murderer”), even though the content hasn’t really changed. The presence of modal verbs such as “must” and “might” suddenly injects the speaker and their imperfect judgements into an objective statement, adding a certain kind of nuance, making them seemingly weaker and more tentative, opening it up for further questions. It makes it clearer that what seemed at first to be an objective statement is in fact from the point of view of the speaker.

But it gets worse. Not only do modals make declaratives sound less sure of themselves, they are also often semantically ambiguous, which messes up how you might read them. For example:

You must be very careful (i.e. you are required to be careful).

You must be very careless (i.e. you obviously are careless).

You must be very careful since you are able to paint such delicate pictures (i.e. you obviously are careful).

You must be very careless so that we can scare the guests off once and for all (i.e. you are required to be careless).

In these examples, the interpretation of “must” can only really be resolved by the context of the utterance itself, as Alex Klinge points out, rather than depending on just the lexical semantics of the word. (And how are we to understand an utterance like “you must try some of this delicious cake!” which pretends to be a requirement but isn’t really).

Modals can have multiple meanings, ambiguous readings (depending on context) and can even overlap with each other to mean the same thing in speech. Take the infamous grammar rule that can I is for asking about ability while may I is for asking permission. In common practice the two overlap and can (or may) mean the same thing. As a result of these semantic shifts over time, linguists have been confused about how to adequately categorize them into their core meanings, especially as in pragmatic communication they can often behave in messy, complex ways. This can certainly add to the general uncertainty and weakness that utterances with modal verbs are received than those without.

Scientific and academic writing often contains quite a lot of linguistic hedging.

Declaratives without modals (or other linguistic hedges such as “I think,” “possibly,” etc.) have this straightforward objective power, even if the content is untrue. Compare sentences like “criminals have invaded our neighborhoods” vs. “the devastating floods that may have resulted in hundreds of death could have been due to climate change.” The presence of modals introduces nuance and opens up discussion. Depending on the modal verb used, the speaker can choose to convey varying degrees of certainty, for example the modal verb “will” as in “an average global temperature rise of two degrees celsius will result in higher death rates” has often been assessed by researchers as having the highest certainty, while a modal verb like “might” sounds much less sure.

The register of populist politics is definitive, repetitive, memorable messaging. Your typical politician or civil servant, however, may use longer, obscurer constructions with hedging to avoid being challenged on certain claims. A good example is the elegantly manipulative politician Frances Urquhart’s classic line from House of Cards, “you might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” chock full of modal verbs with a side helping of plausible deniability. We’re used to thinking that someone using this kind of language is probably untrustworthy, with something to hide. In fact, some studies have shown that when people use linguistic hedging, like modal verbs, to temper how sure they are of something, they can be perceived as less credible, competent and authoritative, and more powerless in formal environments like the courtroom.

Despite this, researchers have noted that scientific and academic writing often contains quite a lot of linguistic hedging, such as the use of modal verbs, in the very environment that seems to call for powerful conviction and clarity. Though style and grammar guides sometimes advise scientists to avoid using modal verbs in their work to reduce ambiguity and misinterpretations of what are otherwise evidence-based and often precise findings, scientists and academics can’t seem to help but use them liberally. Some studies have even cautioned that modal verbs and other hedges may cause other researchers to misreport results when citing them.

So if modal verbs are just going to introduce ambiguity and obfuscation, and make people assume you don’t know what you’re talking about, or worse, that you have something to hide, why even use them?

To many, real language is about saying what you mean. That means using the literal, logical, lexical meanings of words. Direct speech and plain speaking is often valued in a way that indirect speech is not, regardless of whether the content is true. I’ve heard from some frustrated folk recently who view indirect speech as a kind of passive aggressive behavior designed to manipulate. Yet indirect speech acts, such as someone answering “I’m too tired” to refuse an invitation, or a superior saying “That’ll be all” to a subordinate as an imperative to leave the room, are very common ways we use to express social politeness and face saving as we negotiate power relationships. As much as we want to assume otherwise, language (as well as science) in practice is messy and often not logical when it comes to using spoken language.

It’s important to understand that language is not just about the bare content of what we say, but also the interpersonal and social functions of how we say it. As an example, I once said “I might go now,” meaning I had every intention of leaving and an American friend immediately joked “Might you? Don’t you know if you are?”

This dialectal difference is important, especially as modal usage has changed greatly over time. Although an American might read the sentence as oddly weak and unsure, a British or Australian English speaker understands that, in a certain context, there’s another subtle nuance here: an indirect form of cooperative politeness. As in, “I intend to leave now… unless you have some reason why I shouldn’t.” This is also true of Appalachian English’s multiple modal constructions, which Margaret Mishoe and Michael Montgomery show are often used when the social situation calls for negotiating politeness, indirectness and saving face, as in this exchange:

[Customer:] […] the car is driving fine. I’m just a little concerned and I thought you MIGHT COULD know right off what it is […].

[Repairman:] […] We MIGHT COULD’VE overlooked something.

The interpersonal aspect of how we use things like indirect speech acts, hedges, and modal verbs in some ways is more important than the literal lexical meaning itself. Crucially, modals and other hedges and indirect speech are commonly used by all of us to indicate a kind of cooperative politeness and reduce face threatening acts (as well as for other purposes, such as when one is unsure or trying to avoid saying something). Scientists increasingly understand, perhaps in a way that the public doesn’t yet, that using hedging language is often necessary to conscientiously convey more accurate degrees of certainty. This doesn’t mean, however, that their findings should be dismissed as not authoritative. That allows for scholars to be more collegial and circumspect in presenting work, which may often challenge and pick apart the previous work of colleagues. Modal verbs used in hedging open up debate, and allow researchers to be more measured about the true certainty of their findings and conjectures, as few things in science are a hundred percent absolute.

So this is not to say that scientists presenting their work should aim to speak in short, definitive statements, because stating something as a fact doesn’t make it true. It’s good to be aware that linguistic hedging, even when it comes to your basic modal verb, may erroneously encourage the public to believe that an expert is unsure of what they’re talking about because of how this language is sometimes viewed in other environments such as politics and the courtroom… but it is exactly this careful and nuanced language of science that we should value and seek to understand.

From: https://daily.jstor.org/the-hidden-life-of-modal-verbs/?utm_term=The%20Hidden%20Life%20of%20Modal%20Verbs&utm_campaign=jstordaily_11152018&utm_content=email&utm_source=Act-On+Software&utm_medium=email

How language shapes our perception of reality

The many subtle differences across languages might actually change the way we experience the world.

Does an English speaker perceive reality differently from say, a Swahili speaker? Does language shape our thoughts and change the way we think? Maybe.

The idea that the words, grammar, and metaphors we use result in our differing perceptions of experiences have long been a point of contention for linguists.

But just how much impact language has on the way we think is challenging to determine, says Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University. Other factors, like culture, meaning the traditions and habits we pick up from those around us, also shape the way we talk, the things we talk about, and hence, changes the way we think or even how we remember things.

Consider the below examples of how language could impact experiences:

● In Russian, there are multiple words for differing shades of blue. Would having a word for light blue and another for dark blue lead Russian speakers to think of the two as different colors? Possibly. Birner says that this could be compared to red and pink in English, which are considered two different colors even though pink is merely a light shade of red.

● If there isn’t a word–and attached meaning–to something, can speakers experience it? The Dani of New Guinea categorize colors as “dark”–which includes blue and green–and “light”–which includes yellow and red. Some studies say that people don’t actually see color unless there is a word for it, but other studies have found that speakers of the Dani language can see the difference between yellow and red despite only having one word for them.

● The Pirahã people of the Amazonas, Brazil, do not keep track of exact quantities with their language.

● The language called Guugu Yimithirr spoken in a remote community in Australia doesn’t have terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, words like “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” are used to describe locations and directions. So if you ask where something is, the answer might be that it’s to the southwest of X, which requires speakers to have spectacular spatial orientation. Because of the vocabulary, English speakers might organize things left to right, whereas a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr might orient them in a mirrored position.

● It’s possible that you would think about events differently depending on the question you’d have to ask yourself when deciding on a verb tense. For instance, English speakers focus on whether the event has happened in the past (“Sarah talked”) or is happening in the present (“Sarah talks”). The Hopi language doesn’t require past or present tense, but has validity markers, which requires speakers to think about how they came to know a piece of information. Did they experience it firsthand (“I’m hungry”) or did someone tell them about it, or is the information common knowledge (“the sky is blue”)? Turkish speakers would also need to think about the source of the information since they’re constantly asking themselves, “How did I come to know this?” Speakers of Russian would have to decide if the event was completed or not when considering the verb tense.

● Numerous studies have shown that people who speak languages with gender markings might categorize non-gender items, say a table or a chair, based on its gender markings. This may differ the way English speakers would categorize items, which is typically by shape or size.

● Cross-linguistic differences may impact how people remember and interpret causal events, and even how much they blame and punish those connected to the events. One study conducted by Stanford researchers found that Spanish and Japanese speakers didn’t remember who is to blame for accidental events as much as those who speak English do. However, speakers of all three languages remember agents for intentional events the same. In the study, participants were given a memory test after watching videos of people popping balloons, breaking eggs, and spilling drinks both intentionally and accidentally. In Spanish and Japanese, the agent of causality is dropped in accidental events, so instead of “John broke the vase,” like an English speaker would likely say, speakers of Spanish and Japanese would say “the vase broke” or “the vase was broken.”

There are also factors so subtle that it’s hard to say whether or to what extent they impact our thoughts. For instance, English speakers think of time as something that can be counted, saved, wasted, and even lost. This would be impossible for a culture where tomorrow is viewed as a day returned and not so much another day.

from: https://www.fastcompany.com/40585591/how-language-shapes-our-perception-of-reality


Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting? By 
“Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.”
“For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.”
German explorer
…Looking again at Sapir-Whorf…
“The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt was among the first to articulate it in a complex form. After studying Amerindian languages in the New World, he came to the conclusion that every language “draws a circle” around its speakers, creating a distinct worldview through its grammar as well as in its vocabulary. In the 20th century, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf elaborated this idea into a broader vision of how language structures thought. Both drew inspiration for their work from their study of North American languages such as Nootka, Shawnee and Hopi.This idea – now usually known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – has had a checkered history in academia. At different times, it has been hailed by it proponents as foundational insight for modern anthropology and literary theory, and blamed by its detractors as the source of the worst excesses of postmodern philosophy. In recent decades, sociolinguists have arrived at a few startlingly suggestive findings concerning the influence of language on colour perception, orientation and verbs of motion – but in general, the more expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.

“Nonetheless, some version of this idea continues to find supporters, not least among writers familiar with shifting between languages. Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Kraków: “This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. “After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? … But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular – urgently.”

Imprisoned in English 

Imprisoned in English 

“In the 1970s, Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist who found herself marooned in Australia after a long career in Polish academia, stood the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head. Instead of trying to describe the worldviews of distant hunter-gatherers, she turned her sociolinguistic lens on the surrounding anglophones. For Wierzbicka, English shapes its speakers as powerfully as any other language. It’s just that in an anglophone world, that invisible baggage is harder to discern. In a series of books culminating in 2013’s evocatively named Imprisoned in English, she has attempted to analyse various assumptions – social, spatial, emotional and otherwise – latent in English spoken by the middle and upper classes in the US and UK.

“Reading Wierzbicka’s work is like peeking through a magic mirror that inverts the old “how natives think” school of anthropology and turns it back on ourselves. Her English-speakers are a pragmatic people, cautious in their pronouncements and prone to downplaying their emotions. They endlessly qualify their remarks according to their stance towards what is being said. Hence their endless use of expressions such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I suppose”, “I understand”, “I suspect”. They prefer fact over theories, savour “control” and “space”, and cherish autonomy over intimacy. Their moral lives are governed by a tightly interwoven knot of culture-specific concepts called “right” and “wrong”, which they mysteriously believe to be universal.


A brief history of singular ‘they’

xe he sheSingular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves his mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well. You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and teachers used singular you when their students weren’t lookingAnyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the formThe New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010)calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone  their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking. Last Fall, a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And two years ago, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, ‘What’s your pronoun?’ because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.

It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ To which they honourably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ‘we wished to conceal the gender,’ and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful ‘when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.’

Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as wellEven people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.


Language Change Myths


Spreading the Word – by Jean Aitcheson – Language Change Progress or Decay (1981)


The central topic of this essay is about conscious and unconscious change in language and how changes actually spread and become adopted into language.


  • The essay uses the simile “as obscure to the majority of linguists as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities” which can help to highlight the point that language change is an obscure thing and although it can be viewed over a long period of time it is also difficult to find.


  • Along with language change comes the idea that although we know it changes “we are unlikely to know who started them or where they began”. This suggests that change is often unconscious and a natural thing as language is dynamic and not a static thing.


  • The essay states that it is “not always possible to categorize changes neatly”. The idea of categorizing things “neatly” is a rather strange one which may actually suggest something about society too wanting to categorize everything. It also reinforces the idea that language is changeable and so is changing even now.


  • The idea of language changing is a quite natural thing, however the essay brings up the idea of differences between things “affect the way a change spreads”. This shows how as language is so broad and diverse multiple things can affect it and the changes which occur.


  • The essay brings to light the fact that “we are now in a position to observe changes” in language. This implies how just as language has changed so has the world and society and that actually the changes all affect each other, and furthermore that over time these changes in our language have become more and more visible.


  • Finally, the essay describes the change in the sound of language as to have “seemingly mysterious origins”. This furthermore implies the idea of change happens unconsciously and is adopted into language quite seamlessly and easily.


Conflicting Loyalties – Opposing social pressures – Jean Aitchison

What is the central contention of the essay?

  1. Elements that already exist within a language are used in a context where they are not considered the norm. These occurrences are then borrowed and exaggerated. Language change occurs when this process happens in two opposing directions as the differing social pressures on men and women tug against one another, thus drawing language apart.
  2. The author argues that language change is a social phenomenon and does not occur without presence of prestige. He argues that change occurs as men are pulling away from the overt prestige and women are pulling towards it.




  1. Language change is a social phenomenon which reflects the changing social situation

Author highlights that language change occurs as the context changes, its changes can’t be described in isolation of society.

  1. Men are pulling away from the overt prestige and the women are pulling towards it

Author argues that gender plays a key role in affecting language change

  1. The progress or regression of a change represents the state of the struggle

Language change can be used to analyse the state of a current social situation – the pressures on men and women.

  1. Social factors provided the answer

Sums up the authors view that language change is influenced by the social context.

Idea that language cannot sufficiently be analysed as a sole entity, contextual factors in particular social factors have to be considered.

  1. (Changes) originate from elements already in the language which get borrowed and exaggerated

Language changes diffuse into society and become more frequently used which enables them to be picked up by others as relationships are enacted.

  1. A change occurs when one group consciously or subconsciously takes another as a model, and copies features from its speech

Idea that the spread of change occurs through enacting relationships with different individuals in different settings.

  1. Changes do not occur unless that have some type of prestige

Author argues that language change and identity are interwoven – how an individual wishes to be perceived.

  1. People either do not notice a minor deviation from the norm, or they over-react to it

Language change is influenced by the personal perceptions of different individuals.


Conflicting Loyalties, Jean Aitcheson, 1981

* “The men are pulling away from the covert prestige form, and the women are pulling towards it.”

* “[Changes] usually originate from elements already in the language which get borrowed and exaggerated”

* “People tend to conform to the speech habits of those around them.”

* “Conscious changes are usually in the direction of speech with overt prestige”

* “desirable masculine attributes”

* “social pressure are tugging against one another”

* “surprisingly, perhaps, the varying vowel sounds turned out not to reflect a straight clash between protestant and catholic, but a subtler tagging, primarily between men and women.”

* “status-conscious”


The Media are Ruining English by Jean Aitchison


In my piece Jean Aitchison is attempting to persuade the reader that it isn’t in fact the media that are ruining English, they’re just portraying changes that are occurring. Aitchison argues against the idea that newspapers are the ones “rotting” the language, and argues that the language isn’t getting worse it’s just changing.


  • “But the media didn’t initiate these changes; they were reflecting current usage.”
  • “The media are therefore linguistic mirrors: they reflect current language usage and explain it.”
  • “If he (Samuel Johnson) looked at a newspaper today he would learn both about the modern language and how to use it clearly.”
  • “They (media) do not invent these forms, nor are they corrupting the language.”
  • “Competition rather than metamorphosis is at the root of language alterations.”
  • “perhaps worriers are working with an outdated view of language,”


The central contention of this essay is the idea that the media doesn’t corrupt language, it reflects words being used in a subsection of society and is able to send it out to a wider spread audience. The media doesn’t create this language that leads to corruption, they reflect the language being used to a wider range of impressionable people, quickly and easily.

  1. “The older words get used less and less often and gradually dwindle away. But the media did not initiate these changes; they were reflecting current usage.”
    • This expresses the view that words become old when they are no longer used, this can mean in the media and real life. When the media stop using certain words, they are reflecting the words relevance in society and incorporating them into an article, for example. They aren’t not using certain words to ruin English, but to reflect on its current use.


  1. “The media are therefore linguistic mirrors they reflect current language usage and extent it.”
    • Again, the central contention that the media is a metaphoric mirror of our society’s language, reporters in no way create new language.


  1. “Journalists are observant reporters who pick up early on new forms and spread them to a wider audience. They do not invent these form, nor are they corrupting the language.”
    • Within this, a positive view of language in the media is taken. This is as it’s conveyed how the media is a quick and useful tool to spread new forms of language as a majority of people have some sort of media source.


  1. “Disliked usage (of grammar, punctuation and vocabulary) are frequently assumed by grumblers to be new, a sign of modern decadence.”
    • This conveys that people dislike new language as it’s different to what they usually use and understand. An example of this is older generations commonly not understanding and disliking slang so, they become “grumblers.”


  1. “In the twentieth century, complaints about the media language have escalated about all because of the advent of radio and television. This has added concern about spoken speech to that about written ‘we are plagued with idiots on radio and television and who speak English like the dregs of humanity’ ”
    • People have the view that the media corrupts our language as there are “idiot” on television and radio. However, this isn’t entirely true and against the central contention of the article as the media doesn’t invent these “wrong” forms of language, simply makes them known.


  1. “According to the ‘dirty fingernail’ fallacy, journalists do not pay sufficient attention to language details: they never bother to scrub their linguistic fingernails clean, as is were. On closer inspection, this is untrue.”
    • This again, expresses people’s negative views on journalists language use/ them inventing language but, they don’t do this within the media.


The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change – Peter Trudgill


The central contention of this essay is that certain people, mainly prescriptivists, think that the meaning of some words are ‘too far gone’ and that they have changed from their original meaning to something very different. An example of this would be the word “nice”. Many of these people would argue that the word should mean “not cutting” due to its Indo-European roots, but in reality, the majority of people will use “nice” to mean “agreeable”.


  • “[change] is a universal characteristic of human languages” – The idea that change is needed for languages to grow and develop into a greater from is much more useful than the idea of keeping words to be similar to their original meaning.


  • “the real meaning of a word” – Again, it argues that there is no right or wrong answer as to how to interpret certain words due there being a possible number of interpretations, it just all depends on the context.



  • “emotive words tend to change more rapidly” – An example of this being the word “awful”. The word originally meant “inspiring awe” but in the 21st Century, it is now known as “very bad”. Also, in the example of “awfully good”, the adverb is simply there to mean “very”. This goes to show that the word has lost all connection with its original definition and that emotive words may have a habit of changing more rapidly.


  • “the context will normally make it obvious which meaning is intended” – This is referring to words with two different meanings, and the example given was the word “interest”. Simply, if I were to say, “I’m very interested in Hollywood films”, someone would understand that I mean I enjoy watching films and not that I am an academy award winning actress, because there would be context to the statement.



  • “languages are self-regulating systems” – words constantly change their meanings especially once the younger generations get their hands on them, “sick” used to mean “ill” yet now means “good”, however due to the context in which a word is said, it’s not difficult to understand what someone is trying to convey.


  • “When is misuse not misuse?” “When everybody does it.” – The take away message of this whole essay. As soon as the majority of people use the word “nice” to mean “agreeable”, you can hardly argue that it should mean “not cutting” because I can almost guarantee that no one would listen and said prescriptivist would most likely be called pedantic.


Spreading the Word – by Jean Aitcheson – Language Change Progress or Decay (1981)


The central topic of this essay is about conscious and unconscious change in language and how changes actually spread and become adopted into language.


  • The essay uses the simile “as obscure to the majority of linguists as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities” which can help to highlight the point that language change is an obscure thing and although it can be viewed over a long period of time it is also difficult to find.


  • Along with language change comes the idea that although we know it changes “we are unlikely to know who started them or where they began”. This suggests that change is often unconscious and a natural thing as language is dynamic and not a static thing.


  • The essay states that it is “not always possible to categorize changes neatly”. The idea of categorizing things “neatly” is a rather strange one which may actually suggest something about society too wanting to categorize everything. It also reinforces the idea that language is changeable and so is changing even now.


  • The idea of language changing is a quite natural thing, however the essay brings up the idea of differences between things “affect the way a change spreads”. This shows how as language is so broad and diverse multiple things can affect it and the changes which occur.


  • The essay brings to light the fact that “we are now in a position to observe changes” in language. This implies how just as language has changed so has the world and society and that actually the changes all affect each other, and furthermore that over time these changes in our language have become more and more visible.


  • Finally, the essay describes the change in the sound of language as to have “seemingly mysterious origins”. This furthermore implies the idea of change happens unconsciously and is adopted into language quite seamlessly and easily.


Language Change: Progress or Decay by Jean Aitchison
1. “As obscure to the majority of linguistics as the sources of disease still are to primitive communities”
* Can be difficult to spot/ find change as it occurs over a long period of time
2. “Did not come out of the blue”
* Language has been influenced by something
* Changes within society may be why language has had to have been adapted
3. “Standard dialect in the area”
* Immigration will have led to more people integrating and adopting their language
4. “Affect the way a change spreads”
* Multiple influences on language due to a variety of factors
5. “Not always possible to categorise changes neatly”
* “Neatly” may suggest that within society we have to have things a certain way
* Enforced the idea that language can change
6. “Consciously adopting the speech”
* People may desire to speak a certain way so want to try and talk like others