SUBTLE CHANGES.

Arika Okrent, a longtime LH favorite (see this post), has a mental_floss post called “4 Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening,” and it’s just the kind of language reporting I like to see, focused on something other than the usual funny-word or dubious-press-release material. She starts off:

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.

And she goes on to discuss the increasing use of “-ing” complements, the progressive tense, the modals “going to,” “have to,” “need to,” and “want to,” and the “get” passive. Fun and educational!

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve noticed some of these, and have come to use the “get” passive pretty often.

  2. Another slow change is kids pushing aside children, in ever-increasing contexts. Will children be obsolete in another 100 years?

  3. What about “people” becoming the plural of “person”?

  4. I assume that the article is discussing changes in American English. For one thing, the use of the get-passive seems unexceptional to me.
    “Kids” instead of “children” is interesting because in an EAP textbook I used to use, the lecturer kept referring to “the kid”, which struck me as stylistically inappropriate in a formal context. I don’t believe that “children” is about to vanish any time soon.
    At least in my English, “people” is the (suppletive) plural form of “person”, and I’m very hard pressed to think of situations where I might pluralise “person” myself, though it may be used in old-fashioned, formulaic language. I wonder whether I might use “persons” to mean “people of significance”, but I can’t be certain.

  5. Another change is in the syntax of past counterfactual conditions. Kids These Days say if I would have gone instead of if I had gone.

  6. Something that sneaked up (snuck up!) on me in the last few years is the use of a comma before a “too” that completes a sentence. Examples: “He enjoys fishing and hunting, too.” “She raises chickens and tortoises, too.” I may have first seen this usage in the International Herald Tribune (aka world edition of the NYT), but now see it just about everywhere. Comments from the comma corps?

  7. ..and who started the really annoying habit of beginning answers to interviewers questions with ‘so’?
    As in: ‘So, first we researched long chain polymers…’ or ‘So, according to recent data, most investment bankers…’
    Is it taught at communication school? Is it a trick to give thinking time?
    It seems new to me, but perhaps that’s just heightened awareness now that I’ve decided to be irritated by it.

  8. PK, it’s not just answers to interviewers’ questions that now begin with “So”, it’s entire blog posts, blog comments and the rest. Is it meant to give a flavour of more informal discourse to what is being written? Can we blame Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Hwaet”, the first word in Beowulf, as “So”? I’d like to think we can. (I’d like to think we can, but we can’t.)

  9. Paul Ogden, I’m pretty sure I learned to put that comma before “too” in school in the 1960s.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Kids These Days say if I would have gone instead of if I had gone.
    It is not just “kids”, middle-aged persons also say that a lot.

  11. I thought the omission of the comma before “too” was the new thing.

  12. Something that sneaked up (snuck up!) on me in the last few years is the use of a comma before a “too” that completes a sentence. Examples: “He enjoys fishing and hunting, too.” “She raises chickens and tortoises, too.”
    I don’t agree. As far as I know, the sentences with and without the comma are equally correct; the only difference is that the inclusion of the comma—He enjoys fishing and hunting, too—makes explicit that he enjoys fishing and hunting as well as other, previously named, activities, whereas He enjoys fishing and hunting too could mean that he enjoys fishing, and he enjoys hunting as well.
    I would, of course, be interested in seeing a historical analysis if anyone has done one.

  13. Could someone explain persons? I just thought it was a word policemen use, like individuals.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Intial So!:
    It seems to me that “So!” means something like ‘Now let’s get down to business’. Interviews (even live on radio or TV) are usually preceded by unbroadcasted (?) conversations that go over the points of the interview so the interviewee is not taken aback by unexpected questions and will not remain speechless or say “er… er… er…”, annoying the audience and causing them to switch to another program. Then “So!” signals the beginning of the actual public interview. This can also happen with other kinds of conversations, such as with a professional (lawyer, etc) or potential hirer who might begin with some small talk but is now coming to the matter under consideration. With blogs it is possible that the blogger is figuratively being interviewed by readers, or is continuing a train of thought begun earlier, and “Now!” starting to write in earnest.

  15. I can’t say I’ve noticed any native English speakers of any age saying If I would have gone, but I’ve certainly noticed a German friend with very fluent English use it frequently and I always stop myself from correcting her.
    I had thought it must’ve been an artefact from her German but now I’m wondering if she picked it up from younger English speakers.

  16. Cops, lawyers, and pedants, Crown. But even person was mostly used in those domains until very recently, after all. For almost all purposes you could use man, and even where you couldn’t use it, people used it anyway.
    Not that this sense of people is at all new. The OED gives us “The paleys ful of peple up and doun, Heere thre, ther ten” from 1385, and “Peple honoure noo thynge in theyme [sc. images of Saints] but God or … seyntes, whiche they represente to us” (1475).

  17. My personal favorite is the re-analysis of prepositions into some kind of applicatives to make a relative clause, so that “Fuck you and the horse on which you rode in.” becomes “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”
    The persons vs. people thing – “persons” sounds bureaucratic or legalese to me. It may turn out to be confined to that domain.

  18. Heaney’s “So.” reflects his own oral experience. And I think m-l has it right, and it’s the same meaning that Heaney gives: “in that idiom, ‘so’ operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

  19. Rodger C says:

    Instead of “So,” I often hear common folk in radio interviews (I associate this with middle-aged Midwesterners) start utterances with “Okay.” It sounds a bit odd to me.

  20. JC: ‘so’ operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”
    Well explained, John. That is why politicians use it so much in TV interviews when they’re trying to make a case. It’s been going on for about five or ten years now.

  21. Thanks LanguageHat! The point that I was trying to make that I think got lost in almost all of the reaction to the piece is that the biggest, most lasting changes, the ones that end up transforming language structure (rather than just introducing new ways of saying things) are not noticed at all when they are happening. They never get on our nerves. The things we do notice, because they do get on our nerves for whatever reason, often turn out not to be big changes (or even real changes) at all when we look at the data. To most people change means “bad, wrong, annoying,” but here are some changes so boring and unattached to social prejudices (yet potentially of great importance to the future structure of the language) that people don’t see them. Alas, I think this point was too subtle, or not clearly enough expressed, for the audiences it was published for (and the one disaster NPR interview I did about it), so it’s nice to have it introduced to the LanguageHat crowd.

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    I think “people” used to mostly not work as if it were a plural count noun, which created a need for an alternative plural of “person” in some circumstances. So (oops, i did it) if you use google n gram to compare, e.g. “four persons” with “four people,” the trendlines don’t cross in favor of the latter until the 1970′s. The same is true if you swap in 5, 6, and 11 as the number (these are the only ones I’ve tried – feel free to poke around for further confirmation or disconfirmation).

  23. I’ve read, in some books to learn English written in the 70’s, some interrogative sentences like: “Has Peter an old bicycle?” Now my teacher would shoot me if I write it.

  24. Alas, I think this point was too subtle, or not clearly enough expressed, for the audiences it was published for (and the one disaster NPR interview I did about it)
    Oh, I think it was quite clearly expressed; it’s just that people have a hard time assimilating new ways of reacting to things they have hard-wired reactions to (modern art, the Middle East, language change), and that goes double for newspeople. No offense, newspeople, I love it when you doggedly go after information powerful people are trying to conceal, but you can’t deny you tend to adhere doggedly to the Received Narrative about things.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    But “people” hasn’t been a garden-variety mass noun for a very long time, because “many people” is a lot more common than “much people” all the way back to the beginning of the n-gram viewer in 1800. “Much people” is more common than “many people” in the KJV, but by about a 60/40 proportion, so they seem to be happily co-existing. (I haven’t gone through the hits to see if there’s an obvious pattern as to when it’s “much” and when it’s “many.”) From this I conclude that “people” is a peculiar word. (“Cattle” may be a peculiar word in some of the same ways. Any other nominees for this category?)

  26. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Newspeople” sounds like a modern coinage (to avoid the possibly-giving-offense-to-some baggage of “newsmen”) and indeed it’s hard to find examples before the 1970′s, but there’s at least one genuine instance all the way back in the 1860′s, in a book entitled “Christopher North: A memoir of John Wilson, late professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.” Go figure.

  27. dearieme says:

    I know an old fellow who tells me that his American grandchildren all seem to understand his use of “get”.
    Git’s gets’ gets get “get”.

  28. Greg Lee says:

    Her view that the Great Vowel Shift was imperceptible until long after it was complete is exaggerated. The Wikipedia entry for John Hart says “His discussion of vowel pronunciations is particularly interesting to historians of the English language, because it documents the spoken English at an intermediate point during the Great Vowel Shift, which during Hart’s days was radically transforming the vowel system of English.”

  29. Here‘s the John Hart in question (there are dozens of John Harts); I don’t see how his discussion of vowel pronunciations has anything to do with Okrent’s statement, unless you’re claiming that Hart explicitly pointed out that those pronunciations represented such a shift—”it documents the spoken English at an intermediate point during the Great Vowel Shift” is a very different matter.

  30. Greg Lee says:

    The reference you give distinguishes this John Hart as the spelling reformer. Why would he be proposing spelling reforms unless he realized that the conventional spelling of his day was not like the pronunciations he observed? I guess I don’t understand your comment.

  31. One trend that is possibly too noticeable to be included with Okrents’ is the gradual retreat from ‘have got’ towards ‘have’ in colloquial English.
    I’d almost say that ‘have got’ is a Commonwealth thing and ‘have’ is American, and that English-language usage is increasingly coming under American influence. But ‘have got’ must have been around in American usage, too, because ‘I gotta’ is obviously from ‘I have to’ via ‘I have got to’.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Greg Lee: about John Hart: Why would he be proposing spelling reforms unless he realized that the conventional spelling of his day was not like the pronunciations he observed?
    The point is not that his observations were inaccurate or his proposals inappropriate, but that the Great Vowel Shift represents a connected set of changes with an overall directional pattern. While the individual changes were noted, the overall pattern was probably not understood or even understandable while it was in progress.

  33. Why would he be proposing spelling reforms unless he realized that the conventional spelling of his day was not like the pronunciations he observed?
    Of course he did, but that does not in any sense imply that he understood the Great Vowel Shift or indeed had any sense of historical change. He just knew people were spelling things wrong and needed to be corrected, an idea hardly unique to him.

  34. Well explained, John.
    It’s Heaney’s own explanation, for which I can take no credit. I doubt, however, if it has spread from “big-voiced Scullions” of Northern Ireland to British politicians in the last ten years, so I’d say the “So.” and “So,” openings are a fairly basic resource of the English language.
    have vs. got:
    To me, I(‘ve) gotta go and I hafta go mean the same thing, but I have got to go is by no means obsolete, though it is emphatic: I have got to go to this meeting, or my job is toast. Because of the persistence of gotten in AmE, have got does not need to serve the role of ‘have obtained’.

  35. I was waiting for JC to comment and throw some light on the situation. I’d forgotten about the complicating role of “gotten”.

  36. ‘It started …ing’ and ‘it started to…’ don’t seem completely interchangeable. ‘It started to rain’ sounds much more natural than ‘It started raining’. I think that ‘to start doing something’ involves something or someone with a will rather than natural phenomena. Is it possible that usage will gradually split along those lines?

  37. Continuing with those annoying commas, here’s a sentence from a recent article about Eliot Spitzer in the New Yorker:
    “He knows better than anyone that he will never fully live down the prostitution scandal that drove him from the governor’s office, in 2008.”
    I know that comma placement can be subjective, but what’s the point of putting one in this sentence? To me, it only disturbs the reading flow.
    Paring down the sentence, I get: “He will never live down the scandal that drove him from office, in 2008.” How many Hatters would put a comma there?
    The point I was trying to make earlier was that placing a comma before a short last phrase in a sentence seems to me both newly fashionable and entirely unnecessary.
    Bonus treat: I looked up comma usage in my 1912 edition of Advanced English Grammar by Kittredge and Farley. A footnote to the appended rules of punctuation reads: “The main rules of punctuation are well fixed and depend on important distinctions in sentence structure and consequently in thought. In detail, however, there is much variety of usage, and care should be taken not to insist on such uniformity in the pupils’ practice as is not found in the printed books which they use. If young writers can be induced to indicate the ends of their sentences properly, much has been accomplished.”

  38. Breffni says:

    marie-lucie, I don’t think you’re talking about the same ‘so’ as PK. The let’s-get-down-to-business ‘so’ used by interviewers occupies an intonation unit of its own (‘So. I’m joined in the studio today by…’). Possibly distinct from this is the unstressed preface to questions on a new topic (‘So how was your trip?’).
    But PK is talking about unstressed ‘so’ initiating responses – ‘So how was your trip?’ – ‘So the hotel turned out to be in a bad part of town…’. Whereas the other two are long established, this one seems new to me. I first noticed it a few years ago from an American colleague and one or two of his (non-American) students. It’s not confined to interviews, and actually it’s not confined to responses either: it can kick off narratives for example.
    I agree with zythophile that it gives an informal feel when used in blogs and comments and the like, but it does that by echoing spoken usage. It would be interesting to know how recently it came to be used in informal speech, and what its function is.

  39. The New Yorker, even more than Americans generally, has been in a “commatose condition”, as James Thurber put it, for a very long time. From his informal history of the magazine, The Years With Ross (1959):

    [...] A professor of English somewhere in England wrote me ten years ago a long, itemized complaint about the New Yorker comma [...]. He picked out this sentence in a New Yorker casual of mine: “After dinner, the men went into the living room,” and he wanted to know why I, or the editors, had put in the comma. I could explain that one all right. I wrote back this particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up. [...]
    [...] I once sent Ross a few typed lines of one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, repunctuated after his exasperating fashion:

    She lived, alone, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be,
    But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference, to me.

    [...] There was a day when he came to [E. B.] White’s office — I happened to be there, too — wondering what the New Yorker‘s stle should be on “the red, white, and blue.” That happens to be the way he decided it should always be punctuated. What had bothered him was a “red, white and blue” he had stumbled over in some manuscript. I suggested, and still think I was right, that the style should be “the red white and blue” and I told Ross that. “All those commas make the flag seemed rained on. They give it a furled look,” I said. “Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be.” “Very funny. Very pretty, too,” Ross said. “Get it down on paper [a frequent Rossism]. Write a piece about it, and I’ll punctuate the flag any way you want it — in that one piece.”

  40. Love that ‘commatose condition’!

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Both stressed and unstressed so are analogous to German also.

    I thought the omission of the comma before “too” was the new thing.

    Seconded.

    “He knows better than anyone that he will never fully live down the prostitution scandal that drove him from the governor’s office, in 2008.”
    I know that comma placement can be subjective, but what’s the point of putting one in this sentence? To me, it only disturbs the reading flow.

    Also seconded.

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