A fascinating guest post from Current Flow Language Learning, a language learning platform which I’m happy to promote. Links below:
“Survival of the fittest” is a term that refers to the survival of organisms best adapted to an environment. Languages follow a similar pattern, changing over time and adjusting to new circumstances. Just as many organisms have had to make necessary adaptations to survive, people make adjustments to languages in order to make them more efficient.
As an English language teacher, one of the challenges I face when teaching is explaining the difference between the way English works in theory and the way English works in practice. We always must differentiate formal English from informal English. For example, you probably won’t find the word “gonna” in a textbook (in fact my spell check just marked the word red). ‘Gonna’ is a contracted, informal way of saying “going to.” ‘Gonna’ is also a commonly spoken word in American English, despite the fact that it is not proper English. If you were to read an article in the New York Times or listen to a lecturer at Harvard, you might not see or hear this form of my native language. However, in a regular conversation with the average English speaker, it is likely that you will hear words such as ‘woulda’ ‘go head’ and ‘y’all.’ None of these commonly used words are new, in fact, they have been parts of the English lexicon for decades now, yet these words remain improper and informal English. Why is that despite what people are taught, words and phrases go through various evolutions?
According to the Linguistic Society of America, every language is “always changing, adapting, and adapting to the needs of its users.” The problem with these constant evolutions and adaptations is that English language textbooks, dictionaries, classes, and curriculums do not keep pace. It is not realistic for English language resources to keep up with every minor adjustment to the English language but in my opinion, the average English language resource is well behind the current state if the English language. For example, despite its common usage, ‘kinda’ is not even listed in the Merriam Webster dictionary. ‘Gonna’ however was able to gain admission into this prestigious institution. The criterion for induction into “official” English resources is a topic I’ll go more into detail in another post. The question I want to focus on now is whether or not it’s ‘wrong’ to use improper or informal English?
To answer this question, context plays an important part. It is definitely wrong to use words like ‘y’all’ and ‘woulda’ when writing a paper for an English composition class. The truth is that two people having a casual conversation will not speak perfect ‘textbook’ English. The average person most likely won’t nitpick over grammar errors as long as they can understand what is being said. Despite what some people may think, informal English has its own set of unspoken rules. For example, ‘ain’t’ is a contraction that means am not, are not, or is not. “I ain’t goin to school.” (I am not going to school). The improper word can also mean have not or has not. “I ain’t been to school all week” (I haven’t been to school all week.) What’s important to notice here is that whether you consider the word to be ‘real’ English or not, it’s usage is generally used within a specific set of parameters. People who regularly use the word ‘ain’t’ know when and how to use it, but they also know when it is being misused. ‘Ain’t’ would never be used as a noun or an adjective. This disputed word can best be described as a contraction of various auxiliary verbs and the word not. Likewise, in the unwritten rules of informal English, ‘kinda’ is an adverb that shares the same meaning as its counterpart ‘kind of.’ To be clear, ‘kind of’ itself may be considered informal by some English speakers. Standard English can be understood as one of the many dialects of the English language. Every dialect has a set of rules that are followed whether proper or improper.
The most important factor in determining whether an alternate English dialect is wrong or not is whether or not the speaker or writer can be understood. At the end of the day, languages are primarily used for communication. The standard I use for casual conversations, text messages and non-commercial social media posts, is, “Does what you just said make sense?” I know that my friends and family understand English well, so if wife sends me a text message that says, “I forgot the diapers, can you bring em to the daycare?”, I would not admonish her for improper grammar. “Em” is a shortened version of the word “them” and is commonly used by American English speakers. Most English resources will tell you it’s not a word despite the fact that it’s a word people use. When my wife sends me that text, I know exactly what she means, the communication is clear, and she used the word in the correct context. My wife’s English is not wrong in that scenario. However, if one of my students used a word like this, I would just check to make sure they were aware the word is not standardized English. Otherwise, I have no problems with people using a word that may or may not be considered ‘proper’ English.
Words don’t just get contracted and shortened, in some cases of language evolution, the meaning of a word changes slightly or entirely. The etymological fallacy means that a word “need not mean exactly what its Greek and Latin roots once literally meant.” For example, the word persona used to mean a literal mask rather than a figurative one. Another example is the word “decimate” which originally meant to “destroy every tenth of.” The etymological fallacy doesn’t only apply to the Latin roots of the English language. Over time, due to various factors and experiences, the meanings of words may change. Technological advances have been major factors in the evolution of words. The phrasal verb, ‘hang up,’ used to literally mean hanging up the telephone handset on the part of the telephone mounted to the wall. Today ‘hang up’ means pushing a button on a cellular phone to end a phone call.
Nikhil Swaminathan, a former reporter for Scientific American, wrote that the most commonly used words are the least likely to evolve. There is more the evolution of language than that. The experiences of collective groups of people sculpt and molds a language over time. The English of a person born in raised in South Africa will sound a bit different from the English of a man born and raised in Wales. Likewise, The French in France is noticeably different to a francophone from the French in Quebec. The way we perceive, understand, interpret, and use our tongues is heavily influenced by our experiences, friends, family, perceptions, technological advances and geography. Because of this, the way we communicate will constantly change and in some cases, improve.