Txters and tweeters: Language geniuses


Submitted by Dr. Eden Kaiser, ELL Teacher

Have you ever heard someone use the word “firstable”? How about “upmost”?

These two words are still relatively rare and recent eggcorns, a linguistic term signifying a word or phrase that has been reanalyzed by a listener to somehow make more sense in their minds. Other common or perennial eggcorns are, “coming down the pike” as “coming down the pipe,” “Hollandaise sauce” as “holiday sauce,” and “champing at the bit” as “chomping at the bit.” Most of these eggcorns will just die out and never be seen again, while a few of them will become regular options for speakers, some even overtaking the originals.

That is only one way in which potential changes are introduced into language. Another way is through pronunciations that start out as mistakes. For example,  “squeeze,” “varsity,” and “leprechaun” started out as “quease,” “versity” (as in UNIversity), and “luchorpan.” And “an apron” was originally “a napron,” but at some point, people started hearing the “n” as part of the article and not the noun itself.

Most language change is not deliberate (or even conscious), as most of the previous examples show. However, a small number of words are added deliberately into the language, such as “bedazzled,” “eyeball,” and “fashionable,” all introduced by the venerable William Shakespeare hundreds of years ago. More recently, our language has been enriched with such colorful terms as “adorbs,” “cray” (or “cray cray”), and “totes.” (If you’re not sure what these last three words mean, ask a teenager or look them up in urbandictionary.com.) Perhaps one day, these words will be used a regularly as “eyeball.” Someday, we may look back on 2014 as the year that the world first began using “totes.”

Mysteriously, speakers are often loathe to allow new changes into their language, whatever language they may be speaking, but no one seems to bat an eye at changes that were introduced in past decades or centuries. The truth is that any given change is rarely, if ever, going to send the language to the proverbial garbage dump. We are simply choosing from a different set of linguistic choices than a person from another time period, region, or social group.

The problem comes in when people judge these linguistic innovations based on established writing conventions, which are simply that: conventions. There is a more-or-less mutually agreed-upon standard for modern academic writing. These writing conventions are conservative; they take many years to catch up to spoken language, and sometimes hold fossilized ideas of language that people hold onto for no good reason, such as the following: “Never end a sentence with a preposition.”

And yet, so often we observe people explicitly judging others’ character, ability, honesty, or worth based on their use of language. Unfortunately, this is one of the few kinds of open discrimination that is still socially accepted. And when we pick apart the issue, we can see that the argument is fundamentally flawed (as are most arguments in favor of discrimination)—use of innovative language does not signal a speaker who is too lazy to open a dictionary or texts too much; rather, it gives us a window into how language is processed in the brain and how speakers use language in clever and helpful ways.