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The thingis is I’m a maker upperer of words, innit?

19 May

This is a three-part post about curious and apparently new constructions I’ve noticed in English over the last decade. I’m not talking about new words or slang phrases, about which too much is said and not much of it of any substance, but rather what look like new-ish constructions, or words changing their syntactic distribution (that’s where and how they show up in sentences). I’ve observed each of these for a full decade now, and over several continents, and none of them show any signs of disappearing. Fear not, I’m not about to launch into a technical morphosyntactic analysis of these phenomena (mostly because I don’t have one), but I thought each of them curious enough to warrant a mention – maybe to see if anyone has noticed these or similar.

The three constructions I’m going to talk about are all exemplified in the title of this post. I’ll deal with one a week for the next three weeks. The first one I’m going to look at is a change which appears to be taking place in the standard varieties of English in the US, Australia, and possibly also in the UK (though I don’t have a lot of evidence for the latter). That is, it’s not a change that’s happening in slang or colloquial English, but is actually affecting the language of the educated middle classes and the mainstream media.

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Shakespeare invented English

2 Mar

Well, obviously not, but it’s no more outrageous than the claims made, some in books by reputable publishers, that Shakespeare invented some thousands of words. Shakespeare may have invented some words, maybe even a few hundred, or he may have invented no words at all. The truth is we’ll never know. So what’s the source of these claims? Essentially it’s a confusion between written and spoken language, the assumption of the primacy of the written word, failing to understand that Shakespeare’s texts are now heavily edited, and a lack of understanding of how language changes and is documented.

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The Americans Are Ruining Our Language

16 Feb

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First of all, nobody’s ruining the English language. And for anyone to call it “our” language is repugnantly colonial. Language spreads and language changes. English is spoken across the globe by more people (as a first, second or foreign language) than any other, and has the third highest number of native speakers (only Mandarin and Spanish having more). The United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English (the USA has almost 60%). The language has many different and distinct ‘standard’ or ‘official’ varieties (Standard British, Standard American, Standard Australian…) and innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins. Some of these non-standard varieties are spoken in England (Cockney, Yorkshire Scouse, Brummy) and differ far more from Standard British English than does Standard American. The phonology (sound pattern, including pronunciation) of some prestige varieties of British English, such as the “Upper RP” spoken by some remnants of English nobility, differs greatly from Standard British, so that much of it needs subtitles in order to be understood by speakers of ‘ordinary’ standard Englishes around the world. Continue reading