Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Evolution Of Language

One of the many podcasts I listen to is Fresh Air, for its insightful spins on current events and the arts. Today’s podcast ended with Geoff Nunberg's commentary on linguistic pet peeves, mostly stemming from a relaxation grammatical rules and definitions.

Nunberg's piece states, "…Kingsley Amis held that it was incorrect to use 'pristine' to mean pure rather than 'original,' and that you shouldn't say, 'I was oblivious to the noise,' since 'oblivious' can only mean 'forgetful.' And in a usage book he published a few years ago, Bill Bryson contended that it was wrong to use 'expectorate' as a synonym for spit, since it really means to cough up phlegm from the chest. The word did originally mean that, but it's been used to mean spit since Dickens' day. And Bryson knows perfectly well that it would be unreasonable to insist on the original meaning..."

Essentially, he's saying that, through common usage, words are being used to mean things which they originally didn't mean, but because the misuses are so common, they're accepted as correct parts of language. I must confess, there are two such misuses which drive me batty, to the point that my friends and family, having been subjected to these particular rants much too often, change the subject whenever I bring them up.

The first of these involves people asking if a particular fruit or vegetable is, "organic." The word organic means a thing is carbon based and was alive at some point. Thus, asking, "Is that apple organic?" is the same as asking if the apple is real or made of plastic. What such people are trying to ask is whether or not the apple was grown using the chemical free organic method. However, since that's a mouth full, they've shortened the question, and have bestowed a second meaning onto what once was a scientifically precise term.

The second peeve of mine is much more baffling to me. The word, "decadent," originally referred to something or someone which was physically or morally decayed and rotten. Somehow, we've begun to use the term to refer to rich delicious foods and other luxuries. The only thing I can figure is that deep down we believe such luxuries are sinful, and thus we're being somehow evil, or decadent, by partaking in such things. If so, this is disturbing on more levels than I'm qualified to identify or address.

When someone asks if an apple is organic, unless it is plastic, I'm always tempted to say yes. When someone offers me a decadent dessert, I'm always tempted to ask for something fresh instead. I'd be a jerk for doing either though, because common usage has expanded the meanings of both words. In fact, common usage is constantly changing grammatical rules and patterns.

Very few, if any, of us know how to correctly alternate between "who" and "whom." Even writers who know how to use "whom" correctly, can no longer write dialogue using the word without having their characters come across as phony, or overly highbrow, simply because it has been all but expunged from our vocabulary.

As a whole, we’ve pretty well accepted the notion that punctuation is, for some reason, unnecessary within emails, text messages, and tweets. We don’t even need to be able to spell, when using these types of communication, since most phrases are abbreviated. A “bff” is a best friend forever. When a texter has to use the bathroom, they type “brb” to let fellow texters know they’ll be right back.

With these forms of communication becoming ever more common place, I’m forced to wonder how our language will evolve in the future. Will such things as commas, apostrophes, and capital letters at the beginning of sentences fall by the same wayside as “thee,” “thou,” and “whom?” Someday, will there be a best selling novel in which the protagonist’s bff will brb? Personally, I hope not, but we’ll see.

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