By Earl Hunsinger
The English language is changing, and you are responsible! Whether we consider changes in grammar, spelling, pronunciation, or the very vocabulary of the language, you have played your part and continue to do so.
When we first learned basic grammar and spelling, perhaps in elementary school, we might have gotten the impression that these things were sacred. The rules that apply to such things might have been presented as unchanging and unchangeable. While this approach might be beneficial for teaching children, it is far from accurate.
If a language is used, it is changed. The English language, like many others, is a living, growing, ever-evolving thing. This has been true from its beginning. It continues to be true today. Like it or not, you are involved in this change. So is every other English speaking person in the world!
These changes take many forms. Grammar and spelling have changed radically over the years and centuries, with the spelling differences in different countries today a reflection of this. While the language of a thousand years ago might be called English, most of us would hardly recognize it today as the same language.
For example consider the following Old English phrase from about 1000 AD: "Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum."
Rendered in Middle English from 1384 it becomes: "Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name."
In the Early Modern English of 1611 it might be more recognizable: "Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name."
The History of the English Language lists other examples. While such differences are drastic, we don't have to wait centuries to see changes in the English language. Changes take place yearly, and you are doing your part to make this happen! Let's consider a couple of examples.
The first involves changes in the pronunciation of words. Many are familiar with the differences between the British and American ways of pronouncing certain words. In addition to these differences, the pronunciation of many words has changed over the years because of how you have decided to pronounce them. For example, consider the word "err." The traditional pronunciation of this word rhymes with the word "her." Older dictionaries show this to be the primary or only pronunciation. However in recent years, more and more people have been pronouncing it so that it sounds like "air."
According to the 1996 edition of the American Heritage Book of English Usage, 56% of their usage panel preferred the older pronunciation, 34% the more recent, and 10% accepted both. While this usage panel is composed of English professors and other authorities on the language, it is easy to see how their preferences are related to those of the common man. Some newer dictionaries reflect this change by listing the more modern pronunciation as the primary, with the older shown as an alternate pronunciation.
Another change in the language involves the addition and removal of words. The makers of dictionaries decide which words deserve to be officially adopted as part of the English language. Through the centuries, many words have come from other languages. In fact, English has probably done this more than any other language in the world, which is why spelling and pronunciation rules for English have so many exceptions. If you look at the website Words Borrowed From Other Languages you'll probably be amazed by the once-foreign words that you commonly use without realizing it.
You have an even great part in the other source of new words: made up words. Far from holding the English language as sacred, every year dictionary makers add words that have been made up by the general public, by you and me! Maybe you're the one that first used the word unibrow or himbo. Maybe you regularly google things, or put on your bling when going out. These are just a few of the words that Merriam-Webster recently added to their dictionary.
Of course many slang words have been just short-lived fads that have died out quickly. Others though have been adopted by mainstream society and become respectable, as have many technical terms. So then remember, the next time you repeat the newest expression to hit the street, or make up your own words, you may be contributing to the future of the English language.