Language is in a constant state of change. Every year, hundreds of new words are added into dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. On September 18th, Merriam-Webster updated its dictionary to include 250 new words and definitions that have gained popularity in the past year. Examples of these new additions include “froyo – an abbreviation for frozen yogurt” and “troll – to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”
Before they make their way into the dictionary, these words gain traction in everyday conversation, especially on the internet. Over the last 20 years, linguistic change has been more rapid and apparent than ever before. Smartphones and other new technologies have fundamentally altered the ways in which humans communicate with one another. For example, the introduction of SMS texting, which limited communication to 160 characters, forced users to adopt new abbreviations like “LOL” (laughing out loud) and “BRB” (be right back), which are now omnipresent in our culture less than two decades later.
For many people, it has been difficult to adapt to the current state of linguistic change. Nontraditional word usage inspires a range of emotion — from irritation to extreme anger. The controversial use of “literally” to mean “figuratively,” or of “like” as a discourse particle or filler word, can incite heated debate among those who feel these changes are detrimental to the continuation of the English language. Developments in intonation and cadence, such as Valley girl speak and vocal fry, are denigrated as ditzy and immature.
Linguist and Columbia professor John McWhorter has a different view of these changes. In his popular book, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t — and Can’t — Sit Still (Like, Literally), he argues that they are simply part of the natural progression of language. In previous centuries, however, the rate of change was slower and perhaps less obvious. It is impossible to ignore the fact that we speak differently than we did five years or even one year earlier.
McWhorter’s book is especially fascinating because it examines the history of linguistic change and the motivations behind it. One particularly illustrative example is the word “silly.” Silly was originally used to mean “blessed” or “made holy,” and was directly tied to religious approval. Over time, it evolved to mean “innocent,” because people who were described as holy would also be absolved of sin or innocent. Over time, innocence progressed to naivety, and silly took on a new meaning of naive or weak-minded. Eventually, “silly” achieved its present meaning of “foolish” or “unintelligent.” For those who use the word today, its meaning may seem definitive, but that is far from the truth. It is easy to see how other words (such as “like” or “literally”) are currently undergoing a similar change.
The abbreviation “LOL” is a perfect example of how this change is evident today. Just 10 years ago, “LOL” was used to express amusement, as a stand-in for the phrase “laughing out loud,” which might have been too long to fit into a 160-character SMS text. The catchphrase quickly became popular among younger generations, and its popularity led to an evolution. As more and more people used “LOL” more often, it developed into a grammatical expression that is used to convey empathy. When a person texts “LOL” at the end of a sentence that is in no way humorous, he or she is professing kindness and easing tension. It is impossible to know what “LOL” will mean in 2027, but it is safe to assume its meaning will have progressed further and come to be more defined.
While everyone plays a role in linguistic change, there are some populations that have an especially large impact. In particular, young women have led these changes for centuries. A fascinating study of personal letters written between the 15th and 17th centuries shows that female writers adapted to language change faster than male writers. Unfortunately, women are often criticized for this adaptability and shamed for their nontraditional use of words.
McWhorter’s optimistic take on change would suggest that young women are not ruining the English language, but rather perpetuating an inevitable evolution. Rather than mock teenage girls for using vocal fry, established writers and grammarians should observe their communication and learn from it.
In a similar vein, IVY Thought Leader Jeremy Liew described what inspired him to become one of the first investors in Snapchat. He noticed his teenage daughter and her friends using the app, quickly saw its potential and invested, earning millions. “What young women are doing today,” he said, “we are all going to end up doing in a few years’ time.”
When it comes to language, there may not be millions of dollars at stake, but for those who are interested in staying on top of the latest trends in language, young women are a great source of information. For an even better source, meet John McWhorter in person at IVY’s next Ideas Night in NYC: The Future of Language.
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