26 February, 2013

Changing Language

I recently read a text book about the origins of English words. Completely fascinating. It caused me to think about something i had thought about previously, words which have changed or emerged in mine own lifetime. It is possibly easier for me than for the average person to notice such new words or usages, because i have lived in several place over my life, and have returned to where i started from many years ago, where i first learned the language; changes are evident to me because the people around me now have a slightly different usage to mine. I have noticed, in particular, three changes.
One of these is a specific word which has clearly changed its meaning since i last lived here. Cheers used to be a word used before you take a drink, with almost no other usage. Now it is used ubiquitously, as a generic conversation-ending; at the end of serving or being served in a shop, typically you hear, “Thanks, cheers, good-bye”, all three. It took me a while to learn to feel comfortable with it, but now i say “cheers” to most of my customers at one point or another.
The second word seems to me to be a development of a previous word which is now almost never heard, if used at all. To whine is to make a, perhaps high-pitched, complaining tone as you speak. It appears that this word has been changed, and now one hears of people whingeing about this or that. The usage does not seem to carry so much meaning about the tone of the voice during the action as whining did, rather there is more emphasis on the fact of it and, on many occasions, the unjustifiability of the complaint.
I remember exactly where i was when i first ran across this word. I was living in the US at the time, outside a tiny village in New York State called Virgil, and i obtained some British software for my computer; within the documentation was a section about feedback, with the word whingeing defining that which would not be accepted. I took it as a misprint, laughed, and moved on. It appears that the joke was on me, as the word is surprisingly popular here, now that i live in the UK again.
In all probability i could use the word, add it to my vocabulary, and do so in such a manner that those talking with me or reading my writing would not realise that it is not a natural part of that vocabulary. The problem is that i would realise, i would feel awkward, artificial even, using it, and it would not feel natural to me. And one of the central things that i aim for it naturalness in my speech and writing (the latter being largely the same as the former, except on paper or screen, as i am not one who dramatically changes patterns of word usage between writing and speech), so using it would not feel honest.
The silly thing about this prejudice, if that it the best term for my feelings towards whinge, is that when we first moved here, as i implied above, i felt similarly about using cheers but, as i say, it has now become a firm part of my vocabulary. I can only feel my way to an understanding, but i suspect that the difference is that the latter is a word i already knew and was capable of using, if in different circumstances, whereas the former is not. To me it feels like a new coining, which i disapprove of. I suppose you could say that the previous five hundred words have been me whingeing about it.
The third change might be related to the second, in that it is a spelling and pronunciation change similar to whingeing. When i grew up, in the UK and then in Canada, and throughout the two decades i spent in the US, the present participle of swing was swinging; indeed, it still is, i think, in a sentence such as, “My son is swinging from the rafters” ~ which could well be true, though i hope it isn't. It appears to have picked up a different spelling and pronunciation, though, when the subject is finance and government; under these circumstances one hears or sees sentences such as, “The Chancellor is being forced to make swingeing cuts to that budget” ~ which seems to be consistently true. Where did that extra e come from? Why is it there? What was wrong with swinging? I cannot answer these questions.
Three changes, then. One i have adopted and use daily; one i dislike and don't use; and one i don't use because i never talk about the limited topics it is used for. What changes in your language have you noticed over the years?


Anonymous said...

I used to hate bad grammar, but since moving north I am becoming more affectionate towards it, because, it is used more like an accent or dialect than just pure laziness.

Elsie Wilson said...

My trouble is ~ as you doubtless know ~ that i am too conservative, and therefore tend to the prescriptive rather than the descriptive when it comes to grammar. Bully for you, though, Eeelis, if you can change your perception like that and feel affectionate.