The Changing Faces of English

All living languages change over time. It’s a fact of life. But some things change faster than others, and some changes seem more welcome than others. This is perhaps especially true of English, which is spoken as a native language by people living in very different environments all round the world and also as an international language by people from absolutely everywhere. But let’s begin by looking at a couple of things that don’t change much.

In the time of William Shakespeare, spelling was going through its Wild West period; pretty much anything was acceptable, even Shakespeare’s name; there are six of his signatures still in existence, and they all seem to use different spellings, though his handwriting, which by modern standards is horrible, probably contributes to that. Nowadays, though, the variations in spelling in English are minimal. There are some well-known differences between British (honour, traveller, practise, organisation) and US English (honor, traveler, practice, organization), but that’s about it. If you don’t believe me, visit the web pages of newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald, The Times of India, Kenya’s Daily Nation, or Toronto’s Globe and Mail. You’ll have no problems at all with the spelling there.

   Another one is grammar. I can promise you, for example, that you are never going to wake up one day and find that a new verb tense has been added to the language; that hasn’t happened for centuries.
In fact, grammar only changes in very small ways and usually at a speed that makes a glacier look fast. It also leads to bitter opposition from linguistic conservatives who dislike the changes that do occur.

   One example is the word ‘fewer’, which you have probably been taught is used with countable nouns, while uncountable nouns use ‘less’. Traditionally, this was correct, but these days ‘fewer’ is being used, well, less and less. I remember hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury say on the radio that “Less and less people are going to church,” and I don’t think the reason for that is that they are shocked by his bad grammar. I figure that if someone like him, who is, by definition, educated, quite old, and conservative, uses ‘less’ in this way, then the battle to save ‘fewer’ is lost.
   Another is what is known as ‘the greengrocer’s apostrophe’, which is the use of an apostrophe to make a plural. It’s called this because you can see it a lot on displays of fruit and vegetables outside shops, for example, CABBAGE’S 95p EACH or APPLE’S £1 A POUND. But now it’s becoming more and more common elsewhere too; the possessive ‘its’, as in “What’s its name?”, is often rendered as “What’s it’s name?” and you can also see it in more educated surroundings than shops; I have seen it in respected British newspapers. At the moment it is still generally considered wrong, but if it continues to spread the time may come when people who dislike it will be considered dinosaurs.

   An area that has changed rather more is pronunciation. Standard forms do exist. In the USA there is Standard American, while in the UK there is ‘BBC English’ or ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP). It’s used a lot in textbooks, but only about 2% of the UK population speak it, and even on the BBC, you will hear a lot of other accents too. Predictably, one of those who does speak RP is the Queen, but even she doesn’t speak the way she used to sixty years ago. Researchers have studied recordings of her speech, and it is clear that the way she speaks now, while still ‘posh’, is less so than in the past.
Partly because of social change and partly because of the massive globalisation of English, trying to sound like a BBC newsreader from the 1950s is not considered particularly desirable in most places. In fact, most of the RP speakers I have met in recent years were university teachers from Poland and Russia.
For most of us, whether we are native speakers or not, these days it seems that the two key features of pronunciation are comprehensibility, which means that people can understand you when you speak, and source authenticity, which means that it is OK to sound like somebody who comes from where you come from (that could be Liverpool, Olomouc, Trnava, Ulan Bator, or a million other places). But of course, it’s not good to be so source authentic that nobody can understand you.

 The final area I want to consider is vocabulary. This is, and always has been, the one place where the really big changes take place, and at the moment the pace of change is faster than ever. One of the reasons for this is the process of globalisation. Another is the fact that the new technologies make the spread of information, and therefore the language needed to describe it, almost immediate. But in your case you will have to wait till the next issue of Friendship, because sadly there is no more space today. Till the next time!

Simon Gill