4 Subtle Changes to English People Hardly Notice

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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.

From Farts to Floozy: These Are the Funniest Words in English, According to Science

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iStock.com/jeangill

Fart. Booty. Tinkle. Weiner. We know these words have the ability to make otherwise mature individuals laugh, but how? And why? Is it their connotations to puerile activities? Is it the sound they make? And if an underlying structure can be found to explain why people find them humorous, can we then objectively determine a word funnier than bunghole?

Chris Westbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, believes we can. With co-author Geoff Hollis, Westbury recently published a paper ("Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?") online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The two analyzed an existing list of 4997 funny words compiled by the University of Warwick and assessed by 800 survey participants, whittling down the collection to the 200 words the people found funniest. Westbury wanted to see how a word's phonology (sound), spelling, and meaning influenced whether people found it amusing, as well as the effectiveness of incongruity theory—the idea that the more a word subverts expectations, the funnier it gets.

In an email to Mental Floss, Westbury said that a good example of incongruity theory is this video of an orangutan being duped by a magic trick. While he's not responding to a word, clearly he's tickled by the subversion of his own expectations:

With incongruity theory in mind, Westbury was able to generate various equations that attempted to predict whether a person would find a single word amusing. He separated the words into categories—insults, sexual references, party terms, animals, names for body parts, and profanity. Among those examined: gobble, boogie, chum, oink, burp, and turd.

Upchuck topped one chart, followed by bubby and boff, the latter a slang expression for sexual intercourse. Another equation found that slobbering, puking, and fuzz were reliable sources of amusement. Words with the letters j, k, and y also scored highly, and the vowel sound /u/ appeared in 20 percent of words the University of Warwick study deemed funny, like pubes, nude, and boobs.

In the future, Westbury hopes to examine word pairs for their ability to amuse. The smart money is on fart potato to break the top five.

[h/t Live Science]

15 Fun Phrases Popularized During Prohibition

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Prohibition ended 85 years ago—on December 5, 1933—but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about will live on forever. Here are just a handful of them.

1. Blind pig

An illegal drinking establishment, a.k.a. a speakeasy, that attempted to evade police detection by charging patrons a fee to gaze upon some sort of exotic creature (i.e. a blind pig) and be given a complimentary cocktail upon entrance. Also known as a blind tiger.

2. Juice joint

Yet another term for an illegal drinking establishment.

3. Jake walk

A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a legal substance with an alcoholic base. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot.

4. Ombibulous

A term made up by writer H.L. Mencken to describe his love of alcohol; he noted, “I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken was also fond of referring to bootleggers as booticians and is alleged to have invented the term boozehound.

5. Skid road

A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers.

6. Brick of wine

Oenophiles looking to get their vino fix could do so by simply adding water to a dehydrated block of juice, which would become wine. (And you thought a box of wine was bad!)

7. Bathtub gin

A homemade—and often poorly made—gin that was preferably served in a bottle so tall that it could not be mixed with water from a sink tap, so was mixed in a bathtub instead. Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.

8. White lightning

The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

9. Teetotaler

A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believe to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers). 

10. Dry

A noun used in reference to a man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents (though corruption among this crew ran rampant). As an adjective, it describes a place where alcohol is not served. 

11. Wet

The opposite of dry, a wet is a person who is for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages or a place where liquor is in full supply.

12. Whale

A heavy drinker. 

13. Blotto

Extremely drunk, often to the point of unconsciousness.

14. Hooch

Low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s. 

15. Giggle water

An alcoholic beverage.

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