4 Subtle Changes to English People Hardly Notice

iStock
iStock

Everyone knows that language changes. It's easy to pick out words that have only been recently introduced (bromance, YOLO, derp) or sentence constructions that have gone out of style (How do you do? Have you a moment?), but we are constantly in the middle of language change that may not be noticeable for decades or even centuries. Some of the biggest and most lasting changes to language happen slowly and imperceptibly. The Great Vowel Shift, for example, was a series of pronunciation changes occurring over 350 years, and not really noticed for over 100 years after that. It resulted in an intelligibility gap between Modern and Middle English and created the annoying misalignment between English pronunciation and spelling. But it was impossible to see while it was going on.

These days, however, it is possible to spot subtle linguistic changes by analyzing large digital collections of text or transcribed speech, some of which cover long periods of time. Linguists can run the numbers on these large corpora to determine the direction of language use trends and whether they are statistically significant. Here are 4 rather subtle changes happening in English, as determined by looking at the numbers.

1. SHIFT FROM "THEY STARTED TO WALK" TO "THEY STARTED WALKING"

There are a number of verbs that can take a complement with another verb in either the "-ing" form or the "to" form: "They liked painting/to paint;" "We tried leaving/to leave;" "He didn't bother calling/to call." Both of these constructions are still used, and they have both been used for a long time. But there has been a steady shift over time from the "to" to the "-ing" complement. "Start" and "begin" saw a big increase in the "-ing" complement until leveling out in the 1940s, while emotion verbs like "like," "love," "hate," and "fear" saw their proportion of "-ing" complements start to rise in the 1950s and 60s. Not all verbs have participated in the shift: "stand," "intend," and "cease" went the "to" way.

2. GETTING MORE PROGRESSIVE

English has been getting more progressive over time—that is, the progressive form of the verb has steadily increased in use. (The progressive form is the –ing form that indicates something is continuous or ongoing: "They are speaking" vs. "They speak.") This change started hundreds of years ago, but in each subsequent era, the form has grown into parts of the grammar it hadn't had much to do with in previous eras. For example, at least in British English, its use in the passive ("It is being held" rather than "It is held") and with modal verbs like "should," "would," and "might" ("I should be going" rather than "I should go") has grown dramatically. There is also an increase of "be" in the progressive form with adjectives ("I'm being serious" vs. "I'm serious").

3. GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO

It's pretty noticeable that words like "shall" and "ought" are on the way out, but "will," "should," and "can" are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. "Going to," "have to," "need to," and "want to" cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

4. RISE OF THE "GET-PASSIVE"

The passive in English is usually formed with the verb "to be," yielding "they were fired" or "the tourist was robbed." But we also have the "get" passive, giving us "they got fired" and "the tourist got robbed." The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject—getting fired, getting robbed—but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger.

This article draws on work by Mark Davies, Geoffrey Leech, and Christian Mair.

How LEGOs Are Helping Kids Learn Braille

LEGO
LEGO

Children with visual impairments will soon have a new, creative way to learn Braille. The LEGO Foundation and LEGO Group announced yesterday at a conference in Paris that the company would be launching Braille Bricks kits in 2020. Each set has about 250 bricks containing studs that represent the letters and numbers of the Braille alphabet, which empowers people to learn spelling and punctuation, read books, type on a keyboard, and more.

In the U.S., only 10 percent of blind children are learning to read Braille, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Philippe Chazal, treasurer of the European Blind Union, says this trend—which extends beyond the U.S.—is due to the availability of audiobooks and computer programs. “This is particularly critical when we know that Braille users often are more independent, have a higher level of education, and better employment opportunities,” Chazal said in a statement. “We strongly believe LEGO Braille Bricks can help boost the level of interest in learning Braille, so we’re thrilled that the LEGO Foundation is making it possible to further this concept and bring it to children around the world.”

The idea was originally pitched to LEGO in 2011 by the Danish Association of the Blind, and a Brazil-based foundation also supported the concept in 2017. Currently, the Braille Brick prototypes are being tested in Denmark, Brazil, Norway, and the UK, with each set being adapted to the predominant language spoken in those regions.

Because braille is a tactile alphabet rather than a language, it can be used in just about any language, including Chinese, Arabic, and Hebrew. LEGO also plans to test French, Spanish, and German versions of the Braille Bricks this year. The kits will be provided free of charge to some organizations around the world.

Check out the video below to learn more about the project.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

iStock.com/xxz114
iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER