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Introduction

Noonemindsthattodaythecloudsareneitherinthesamepositionnorinthesame
shapestheywereyesterday.Yetmorethanafewmindthattodaythewaypeopleare
talkingisalwayschanging.
Ofcourse,ifpolled,fewofuswouldputachecknexttothestatementIthinklanguage
shouldneverchange.However,sooftenwedontlikeitwhenthechangeactually
happens.Somehowitseemsthatlanguageisalwayschanginginthewrongways.
Itwouldseemthatwhenmostpeopleexpressapprovaloflanguagechanging,theyare
thinkingofsomethingrelativelynondisruptive:roughly,mattersofkeepingthelanguage
uptodate.Certainlywewillalwaysneednewwordsfornewthings.Historical
transformations,especially,willchangethelanguageitseemsnaturalthatourEnglish
isvastlydifferentfromtheEnglishofpeoplesevenhundredyearsagolivingundera
feudalistmonarchywithoutelectricity,photography,jazz,orpenicillin.Andmostofus
areokaywithsomeslangcomingandgoingalthough,evenhere,manywouldseemto
preferthatitbeonlysomuch.
Beyondthat,thingsgettouchy.Whenitcomestopeopleusingliterallytomeanwhat
wouldseemtobeitsopposite,figuratively(IwasitchingsomuchIwasliterallyabout
todie!),orlikewithafrequencythatmakesitsoundmorelikepunctuationthanaword,
thelinguistmaypreachtothepublicthatourlanguageisdynamic,buttomany,thebetter
wordwouldbedegraded.
WhenSamuelJohnsonstartedassemblingwhatwouldbecomethefirsttruedictionaryof
theEnglishlanguage,inthemideighteenthcentury,hefeltthesamewayaboutthe
changesinspeechhehadheardthroughouthislife.Atfirsthehopedthathisopuswould
helpstopthismessinessonceandforall,byenshriningthelanguageinthefrozenstateof
print.Yetbythetimehefinishedtheproject,hehadcometorealizethatthiswasan
impossibletask:
Welaughattheelixirthatpromisestoprolonglifetoathousandyears;andwithequal
justicemaythelexicographerbederided,whobeingabletoproducenoexampleofa
nationthathaspreservedtheirwordsandphrasesfrommutability;shallimaginethathis
dictionarycanembalmhislanguage,andsecureitfromcorruptionanddecay.
Johnsonsurelysoundswise,aheadofthecurve.YetamodernEnglishspeakermay
easilyreceiveJohnsonsopinionaswisdomwhileatthesametimegnashinghisteeth
overpeopleusingliterallythewrongway.Afterall,Johnsonlivedaverylongtime
ago;onemayfeelonacertainlevelthatwhenitcomestolanguageasweliveand
breatheittoday,thingsaredifferent.

Buttheyarent.Oneofhardestnotionsforahumanbeingtoshakeisthatalanguageis
somethingthatis,whenitisactuallysomethingalwaysbecoming.Theytellyouawordis
athing,whenitsactuallysomethinggoingon.
Yet,inrealtime,awordsgoingonoftenfeelsmorelikeitsgoingoffasinoffthe
rails.Rathermarvelous,then,isthatpreciselythekindsofthingsthatsoundso
disorderly,soinattendant,sowrong,arepreciselyhowLatinbecameFrench.Theway
peopleunderacertainageusetotallyandthepronunciationofnuclearasnucularare
notsomealternatekindoflanguagechangesittingalongsidetherealkind.Language
changelikethisisalltherehaseverbeen.
Itisntthatlanguagechangesonlybecausenewthingsneednamesorbecausenew
developmentsbringpeopleintonewcontacts.Languagechangesbecauseitsvery
structuremakestransformationinevitable.Towit:evenifalanguagewerespokenbya
communitymysteriouslycondemnedtoliveformillenniainacave,understaunchly
unchangingconditions,afterthreethousandyearsthelanguageofthatcommunitywould
bevastlydifferentfromtheonespokenwhentheywerefirstherdedintothecave,and
outsiderswouldmostlikelyhearitasadifferentlanguageentirely.InOldEnglish,for
example,thewordpronouncedGAHSTlitchmeantspiritual,butassoundsshuffled
aroundorworeawayanditsverymeaningdriftedalong,itbecameourmodernEnglish
wordghostlyimaginethatkindofthinghappeningtothousandsofwordsbitbybit.
Yet,obviously,littleofwhatwecouldcalldynamicwouldhavehappenedinthecave.
Thechangewouldhappensimplybecausemutabilityisasinherenttotheverynatureof
languageasitisforcloudstobeeverintransformation.
Withclouds,changecomesastheconsequenceofwindcurrents,temperature,and
barometricpressure,thingsstructurallyeternal.Inasimilarway,permanentaspectsof
humananatomyandcognitionarewhylanguageisaschangeableascloudsare.Buzzing
quietlyaroundawordsmainmeaningareassortedsubmeaningsandimplications,which
haveawayofcreepingintohowweactuallyusetheworduntilitsverymeaningis
forevertransformed:henceawordmeaningspiritualcomestorefertoaparticularkind
ofspirit,ghosts.
Weshould,forinstance,beabletosaythatwefind2001:ASpaceOdysseyandCitizen
Kaneadorable.Afterall,somanypeopledoadorethosefilms.Yetthereisacertainquiet
kickinapplyingthevastnessofadorationtosomethingsmall,suchasachild,orto
someoneperceivedassmallinanextendedsense.Tograntadorationtothesmallfeels
generousandthussincere.Enoughpeoplesavoredthatgoodfeelingthataftera
while,adorablemeantsomethingmorespecificthanadmired:itcametomean
charming,pleasinginawayassociatedwiththatwhichislittle,immature,inferior,or
deartous.(Theintersectionbetweenthosefourtraitsis,initself,vaguelyalarming!)
CuriousGeorgeisadorable;theStatueofLiberty,notsomuch.

Meanwhile,soundsareslightlymisheardbyeachgenerationsears,witheachgeneration
makingthesoundsslightlydifferently.Awordmanyoncepronounceddafternowis
onlypronounceddawter;henceourfamiliardaughter.(Theresareasonitsspelled
likelaughter!)Thisismuchofwhytheactorsinoldmoviessoundincreasinglyoddtous
asthedecadespass.ItsnotonlythattheyaremakingreferencestoCalvinCoolidgeand
callingthingsswell,butthatourveryaccenthasmorphedonfromtheirs.
Processeslikethisareexactlywhatcreatesthelanguagewespeakasopposedtotheway
deadpeopledid.Yetwetendtohaveaneasiertimewithweatherthanwithlanguage
change.Muchofthereasonforthatissomethingasmajesticinitselfasdictionaries.
SamuelJohnsonsgifttothelanguagewasalso,inanunintendedway,acurseuponits
speakers.Weareaccustomedtowritersopeninganexplorationofaconceptbycitinga
wordsdefinitioninthedictionary,withtheimplicationthatwordshaveeternalmeanings
justasnumbershavevaluesandatomshavecertaincombinationsofsubatomicparticles.
Dictionariesarelarge;thedenselyprintedpagespackedwithinformationarefinemusic
toanybookperson;dictionariesalsotendtosmellgood.Onelovesthem.Yettheweird
truthisthatforalltheirartifactualsplendor,dictionariesarestarklymisleadingportraits
ofsomethingasendlesslytransformingaslanguage.Intermsofhowwordsactuallyexist
intimeandspace,tothinkofawordsgenuinemeaningastheoneyoufindupon
lookingitupislikedesignatingamiddleagedpersonshighschoolgraduationsnapshot
aswhattheyreallylooklike.Theresacharmingwhimsyinit,butstill.Aperson
receivingsuchacomplimentoftensays,Oh,please!andwords,iftheycouldtalk,
surelywouldaswell.
Butwordscanttalk.Meanwhile,dictionariesarethere,inalltheirweight,permanence
fragrance,even.Theancientbrownoneslookespeciallyeternal,granitic,liketheold
librarybuildingstheyareoftenfoundin.Surely,hereiswherealanguageresides.
Naturally,departuresfromthedictionarycomeoffasdecayandchaos.Maybenew
wordsfornewthingsareokaybuteventhere,manyhaveahardtimewith
lexicographersdeemingvapeandNot!asrealwords,nomatterhowcommontheyare
inourexperience.
Buttheresalotyoucanmissinadictionary.Ifyoucantcreatevapefromvapor,then
whydodictionarieshavepeddlewhentheworddidntexistuntilpeoplemadeitupfrom
thewordpedlar?WhydoesDarn!makeitinwhenitcamefromaquietmashupof
thedamnindamnationandtheternpartofeternalwhenpeopleweregivento
sayingEternaldamnation!alot?(ThatTarnation!expressionweassociatewitholdgold
prospectorswasamiddlestepintheprocess.)Weareunlikelytocatchthosethingsamid
themassivenessofthedictionary,andbesides,peddleandDarn!are,well,
olde.VapeandNot!arejustdifferent?Itshardnottothinkso:lifeisslow,
dictionariesarebig,andnoveltyisunsettling.

Butnoveltycanalsobealotoffun.Someconsideritthestaffoflife.Itscertainlywhat
keepsmostlinguistssointerestedinlanguagebutwedontshareitenough.Inthisbook
Iwanttohelpchangethat.
Itmustbeclearthatthiswillnotbeonemorebookaboutacertaincollectionofwhatwe
mightcallblackboardgrammarrules.Largely,thatdebatehascometoaprickly
stalemate,andnonewargumentswilllikelymakemuchdifference.Manyoftheserules,
suchastheideathatoneistosayItisI,andnotsplitaninfinitiveorendasentencewith
apreposition,aremorediscussedthanactuallyobservedtoday.Formostoftheothers,
suchasthatoneistosayBillyandIwenttothestoreratherthanBillyandme,thatoneis
neithertoentirelydismisswhomnortousedoublenegatives,thattherearefewer,not
less,books,andthatoneistosayGoslowlyratherthanGoslow,theverdictisessentially
in.Linguistsendlesslyremindusthattheserulesarearbitrary,unconnectedtoclarityor
logic.Yetnolinguistdeniestheotherreality,whichisthattheserules,havingbeen
entrenchedinsocietyasmeasuresofformalityandsocialworth,mustbefollowedin
formalcontextsandtaughttoyoungpeople.Itisinevitableforhumanstorank,tocreate
hierarchiesofestimation,oftenonthebasisofdifferencesunparseablebylogic:the
properanalogyiswithfashionsinclothing.*
Inthewakeofconclusivediscussionsofthesegrammarrules,suchasmanyofDavid
Crystalspublicationsand,mostrecently,StevenPinkersbookTheSenseofStyle,there
islittleneedtodwellonthemfurther.Thisbookwillfocusonsomethinglarger,inaway,
thanthatcompactcollectionofgrammaticalnonos:thegeneralsensethatwhenEnglish
ismorphingalonginanyway(newaccents,newmeanings)weareseeingnot
transformationbutdisruption.Iwanttoproposeasunny(and,frankly,scientifically
accurate)wayofhearingthespeecharoundus,asasubstituteforaviewofEnglishasa
collectionofwordsembalmedbetweenthecoversofdictionaries.
Inaway,Iwanttotakeyoubackward.Itwasnotuntiltheeighteenthcentury,asthe
middleclassinEnglandandtheUnitedStatesbecamenumerousandpowerfulenoughto
developafocusedselfconsciousnessabouttheirselfpresentationasmembersofsaid
class,thatthisglum,condemnatorysenseofthelanguagearoundustrulysettledin.The
acridviewsexpressedaboutcolloquialspeechinonlinecommentssectionstodayisa
relativelynewviewoflanguage,fosteredbyacombinationofbourgeoissensibilityand
thedominanceofunchangingdocumentssuchasdictionaries,bothofwhichsubtlybut
powerfullydistractusfromthedynamicrealityoflanguagesessentialmechanisms.
Indeed,thewaywearetaughttoprocesslanguageisasantiqueasourancestorssenseof
hownatureworked.Thefirstgenerationsofpeoplelivingundertodaysconceptionof
Englishinthelateeighteenthandearlynineteenthcenturywerealsotaughtthatallthe
worldsanimalswerecreatedatonetime,unawarethatanimalsaretheproductofendless
evolutionovervastperiods.WhenCharlesDarwinpresentedthelatterproposition,
peoplewereatfirstdeeplyskepticalbutconsensusmovedon.Tocarrytheanalogy
further,justasmanytodayaremostcomfortablewiththeideaoflanguagechangingin

responsetolargescalehistoricalevents,therewerethosewhosubscribedtothenaturalist
GeorgesCuviersideathatfossilsofnowextinctanimalsshowedthatanimalshadbeen
createdanewaftereachofaseriesofglobalcatastrophes.But,inretrospect,eventhat
concessionisallbutunrecognizabletoustodayasscience.
Andjustaswecherishsciencebecauseitteachesusnewthingsratherthanjust
describingwhatwealreadyknow,underascientificviewofwhatthelanguagearoundus
islike,soverymuchmakessenseinsteadofseemingmerelycurious.Whyis
Shakespeareanlanguageharderforustounderstandinperformancethanitwasfor
peoplefivehundredyearsago?Whydoyoungerpeoplesoundliketheytalkinquestions,
withtheirpitchrisinguUPattheendoftheirsentences?Whydocivilizedeuphemisms
suchasdisabledsooftengetreclassifiedasquaintoreveninsulting?Whydoesthat
womanyouknowpronounceherbossNicksnamemorelikeNeck?Whyisitsohard
totrulyacceptthatthereisadialectcalledBlackEnglish?WhydoesWilliamPowell
inTheThinMansaythatheisgoingtoroundupallthesusPECTSinsteadoftheSUS
pects?(Imsureyouvealwayswonderedaboutthat!)Whyhaveemoticonscaughtonto
suchadegree?Whydowomensayummorewhilemensayuhmore?(Actually,on
thatonenobodyknows!)
Thisbookwillanswerallthosequestions(or,inthecaseofthelastone,refertoit)and
manymore.Theanswersrequireunderstandingamerefivewaysthatlanguagechanges.
Thequestionisnotwhetherawordwillundergooneormoreoftheseprocesses,but
whichonesofthemitwillgothrough.Wedonotwatchaparadeandwonderwhythose
peopledontjuststandstill.Languageisaparade:thewordwhosesoundandmeaning
staysthesameovercenturiesistheexceptionratherthantherule.Ifthatkindofchange
ispreciselywhywespeakModernEnglishratherthanthelanguageofChauceranddont
mindabit,thentodayschangesoughttoinspirecuriosityratherthanperplexity:
Wheresthelanguagegoingnext?ratherthanWhatsthatallabout?
Thisbookwillshowuswhatitsabout,gettinguspasttheperceptualdetourEnglish
speakershavebeenshuntedintooverthepastfewcenturies,andbacktothewayearlier
generationssawthefluidityoflanguagearoundthem.Letusgo,asitwere,backtothe
future.