One way to study language is to take what amounts to a snapshot of a language at a particular moment and write down a description of the language at that moment. (One can argue that there is no such thing as “a language at a particular moment”, because there will always be different dialects and registers, but for now I will ignore that objection.) A grammar book is a kind of snapshot, but most grammar books are prescriptive, that is, they give rules for how people should speak or write. Linguists generally aim for description; their goal is to say how people actually do speak, not how they should speak.
But languages change all the time, and English in Shakespeare’s time was not the same as English today. So another way to study language is to study a language as it changes over time.
These two different approaches are called synchronic and diachronic. Diachronic means sometime like “across time”, and synchronic means something like “at a particular moment of time.” Linguistics in the nineteenth century was mostly diachronic while in the twentieth century linguistics has been mostly synchronic. But you can’t really make a strict division between the two; each needs the other. For instance, a diachronic analysis is sort of like a series of snapshots, a series of synchronic descriptions, just as an old-fashioned movie is a series of still pictures; and a language at any moment shows the traces of what it was like in the past and hints about how it may change in the future.
Sometimes you can watch the language change before your eyes. Changes in vocabulary are probably the easiest to see. Take the word “computer”. A hundred years ago a computer was a person who did computations, particularly someone who was paid (usually not very well) to do the kinds of lengthy and complex computations that were needed, for instance, by astronomers. But then in the 1940s and 1950s machines were developed to do a lot of this work, and they were called “electronic computers”. At that time if you just said “computer” you still meant a human being who did computations, and you had to specify an “electronic computer” if that’s what you meant. But gradually the machines took over from the people and the word “computer” began to change. Today if you say “computer”, without qualification, you mean a machine, not a person, and a person who does lightning calculations might be called a “human computer”. (I first read about human computers in a wonderful book of popular science, “The Day We Found the Universe”, by Marcia Bartusiak; see also “Hidden Figures”, by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was made into a movie I haven’t seen.)
Changes in vocabulary happen all the time. If you read novels of the eighteenth and nineteen century, for instance, you will come across older usages that can initially be confusing. In today’s English, the word “bland” means “mild, not irritating, tasteless.” In the nineteenth century, however, it meant “pleasing”. The word derives from the Latin adjective “blandus”, which meant “flattering, caressing; alluring, tempting”. You can see this something of this meaning lingering still in the word English word “blandishment”, which means “flattery”. Here’s an example of the older usage of “bland” from Charles Dickens’ great (but very long) novel, “Little Dorrit”: “He was crisp, fresh, cheerful, affable, bland: but so surprisingly innocent” (page 615 in the Penguin edition; see also pp. 268 and 320). Dickens likes the word “bland” and uses it frequently.
Some changes in word meaning don’t bother me at all. I have no trouble with computer as a machine rather than a person. But other changes do bother me. Recently a lot of people have come to use the word “epicenter” to mean “the very center”. The prefix “epi” means “upon” or “over”; as a technical term “epicenter” means the point on the surface of the earth above the actual center of an earthquake. I find that my Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists this meaning first, but it also includes the meaning “the center or heart of something”. Well, the job of a dictionary is to list what people say, not what I want them to say, but I would say “the very center” if that’s what I mean. I also wince when someone says “penultimate” to mean “the very last”. The prefix “pen” comes from the Latin “paene”, and it means “almost”. A peninsula is almost an island, but not quite. The penultimate is the next to the last. As a grammatical term, for instance, the penultimate syllable of a word is the next to the last, and the last is the ultima. But these are losing battles, I fear.
In addition to changes in vocabulary you can sometimes see changes in pronunciation happening right before your eyes. A lot of people today pronounce the word “important” with a “d” instead of a “t” in the middle: “impordant”. I first began to notice this maybe five years ago, but I’m hearing it more and more. For instance, a number of the commentators on CNN say “impordant” quite regularly. I don’t expect the spelling to change anytime soon—after all, we still write “knee” instead of “nee”. My grandmother, the one who used to send me books about words for Christmas presents, insisted on the spellings “nite” and “lite” rather than “night” and “light”, but somewhat inconsistently she used “bright” and “fight” and “tight”.
Grammar changes as well. I am not at all bothered that people are now using “they” and “them” as singular pronouns rather than “he/him” and “she/her”. I think it’s very useful to have a gender neutral third person pronoun. And in fact “they/them” has been used as a singular for hundreds of years, even if the prescriptive grammar books didn’t recognize it. We use the plural “you” as a singular, so why not the plural “they” as a singular? I am less happy about the use of “I” as a grammatical object—“George gave it to Sally and I”, “just between you and I”. I have to grant, however, that this usage is now very common. It’s probably an instance of what’s called “overcorrection”—people are afraid to use “me” when they should use “I” (“Me and George went to the party”), and so they use “I” where they should use “me”. Something similar happens with “who/whoever” and “whom/whomever”. For instance, you will often hear something like “Give this to whomever won the prize”. Here “whomever” looks as if it’s the object of the preposition “to”, but it’s really the subject of the verb “won”. I have found myself tripping up on this.
Another interesting change is the use of “of” as an auxiliary verb, as in “I should of stayed home”. This is an instance of what’s called “reanalysis”. The “ve” of “I should’ve stayed home” sounds like “of”, and so people think that’s what it is. I used to find this construction in student papers all the time. I would also find the omission of the final “d” in “used” and “supposed” before an infinitive “to”, as in “I use to do that” or “he was suppose to do that”. We don’t usually pronounce double consonants in English, so some people don’t write them, either.
As a linguist (of sorts) I note these changes in the language without judgment, just as I note that French is no longer Latin. As a writer and a teacher, however, I do make judgments about correctness, while acknowledging that correctness is largely—not completely—a political judgment. That’s what I will talk about in my next post.