No doubt you have sometimes sat pondering the mysteries and minutia of life. In amongst your sudden flashes of insight about the nature of existence, perhaps you even said to yourself, “I wonder whether articles published in pharmacy research journals would have good examples of how the English language changes?”
As a person who currently spends the day editing pharmacy research articles, let me answer that for you. They do not have the best examples, no. But even a pharmacy research article will show the changes that happen, albeit more slowly. Let’s jump back in time for a moment, to briefly glimpse where we’ve come from.
Beowulf (around the year 800, more or less)
Ðá wæs on burgum Béowulf Scyldinga
léof léodcyning longe þráge
folcum gefraége fæder ellor hwearf
You get the idea, and seriously, that really is English. It’s just been changing a lot since then.
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (around 1400)
At lucifer, though he an angel were,
And nat a man, at hym wol I bigynne.
For though fortune may noon angel dere,
From heigh degree yet fel he for his synne
Still hard as hell to read, but some of it looks like English.
Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)
There’s his chamber, his house, his castle, his
standing-bed and truckle-bed; ’tis painted about
with the story of the Prodigal, fresh and new.
Shakespeare can still be extremely difficult, but he is already considered modern English.
Naam Brigade, Early in the Game (2002)
I snatch don’t go and get paid
I crack eggos, break gats down like Legos
Bring ’em home for toys
Mami bitch roll on my woods
The last example is taken from the lyrics of a rap song, and while not all rap songs push the edge of the language so hard, any modern artform using language might do this, including modern novels.
Why does a language change so much? I’m sure no one can really say. Why don’t you use exactly the same words your grandmother used? Why don’t you pronounce every word exactly the way your parents did? Ultimately, it somehow comes down to human behavior, that even without knowing it, we mess around with things and change them. Maybe we just get bored. Maybe that’s all it is.
With language, the process is usually fairly slow. We can’t witness a change as dramatic as going from Beowulf to Chaucer. Yet, we actually can see some of the changes happening, and I’ll give you three examples of something more than merely making up new words: (1) losing a word, (2) a word changing its basic function, and (3) a word shifting its meaning.
First off—and this is the real point—nobody says “whom”. Other than a possible freakish grammar child here and there, no one grows up speaking with this word. As I used to tell my students, it is being kept on artificial life support by English teachers. Students get it wrong constantly, using it as a subject, as in “We were talking to the mayor, whom said the council would vote soon.” When used correctly, “whom” is always an object, like “him” and “them” (notice those “m” endings?). For now, this word is like Vladimir Lenin, still on creepy public display and not yet buried. In 50 years, or much less, it will be gone entirely.
“Which” ain’t going anywhere anytime soon, and in fact, it is expanding (or changing?) its function. If you disagree with what I’m about to say, then you haven’t been paying attention, including paying attention to what comes out of your own mouth. Formally, “which” is a pronoun that refers to a previous noun: “We drove down the coast to Makala, which is a small city made entirely of white stone.” In that case, of course, “which” refers back to Makala and in doing so, becomes the subject of its own clause and takes the verb “is”. Now here’s the radical change—“which” is turning into a conjunction that joins two sentences, the same as “and”. Scoff. I don’t care. You’re wrong. On TV, on the radio, in person, you can hear people say sentences like “Nancy takes her kids to school every day, which she has to drive about 20 minutes to get there.” In this case, “which” is followed by “she”, and “she” is the subject that takes the verb “has to drive”. Replace “which” with “and” and read the sentence. Personally, I think this is weird, but it’s true.
“Grow” of course means to nurture something and watch it expand and become larger, more mature. Until recently the word was used only for things that are alive and can naturally do this. Now, initiated, I believe, by some smart-ass political speech writer, the word has expanded to cover things that are not alive, most commonly the economy. “We’re going to grow our economy and create jobs.” Of course it’s a metaphor process, as “economy” is being compared to plants.
Whether I like this process or whether you like it, who cares? None of us can stop it. And really, it’s interesting to see that this happens, that languages change. It’s a cool thing, really, to see that language is alive, that it expresses the constant ferment of the human mind. Except for “grow the economy”. I hate that shit.