English is a versatile language that continues to change, evolve and adapt. Over time, it has crossed many borders and has not been restrained to one particular place or country. English words and phrases are constantly changing to reflect what is taking place in each society and to fulfil the needs of its users. Many of the changes that do occur originate with teens and young adults: as young people interact with others their own age, their language grows to include words, phrases, and constructions that are different from those of the older generation.¹ Words that may be considered teenspeak now, could make it into the Oxford English Dictionary in the years to come.
Origins Of English
English is a blend of many languages and is known to have ‘borrowed’ words from countless other languages. Its story is both fascinating and complex and the summary below is a brief look at some of the languages and people who have had an impact on its evolution.
- The term ‘English’ is derived from Anglisc, the speech of the Angles who were one of the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain during the 5th century.
- When the Vikings invaded England in the 8th century, they added many words to the English language. Some of them are still used, for example, berserk, ransack and slaughter.
- In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy, France, invaded Britain which led to the spread of the Anglo-Norman dialect. However, the ruling elite were French and so French words were introduced into the English language during this period.
- In the 13th century, a further evolution of English took place when a new version of the language, known as Middle English, became more popular than the Anglo-Norman dialect.
- The European Renaissance then brought about more changes as Latin and Greek words became increasingly commonplace.
- One of the major innovators of the English language was William Shakespeare who lived during the Elizabethan era (1558-1604). Shakespeare is responsible for inventing at least 2,000 new words and phrases in his lifetime. He gave us uniquely vivid ways in which to express hope and despair, sorrow and rage, love and lust.²
Changes Due to Technology
Throughout history, new inventions and mediums have brought with them new conventions, new rules and new expressions.3 Texting, emailing and instant messaging have introduced many new words and expressions. The rise in popularity of internet slang has seen phrases such as ‘LOL’ (Laugh Out Loud), ‘YOLO’ (You Only Live Once) and ‘bae’ (an abbreviated form of babe or baby) became firmly embedded in the English language. While LOL has long been an entry in the so-called urban dictionary, its common use also earned it a place as an official acronym in the English dictionary in 2011.4
Along with textspeak, the growth in popularity of the emoji has been astonishing. In 2015, the emoji tears of joy was the word of the year. Emojis are emerging as a new pictorial ‘language’ and provide the non-verbal emotional cues that body language provides when we are speaking to someone. They enhance and enrich our digital conversations by adding affection, humour or even anger to the most concise message.
Activity: Look up the etymology of ‘emoji’. Are you surprised by what you find?
The Oxford Word of the Year: Vax
The Oxford Word of the Year is a word or expression that is chosen because of the interest it has attracted in a calendar year. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has 250 lexicographers who research and update language information, and last year, after analysing 14.5 billion words, they chose ‘vax’ as the word of the year.
Words related to vaccines increased in frequency in 2021 due to COVID-19 with ‘double-vaxxed’, ‘unvaxxed’ and ‘anti-vaxxer’ all seeing a surge in use.
The word ‘vax’ was first recorded in 1799, while ‘vaccinate’ and ‘vaccination’ both first appeared in 1800. These words come from the Latin word vacca, which means cow. According to the OED, this is due to English physician and scientist Edward Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination against smallpox using cowpox—a mild infection that occurs in cows—in the late 1790s and early 1800s.5
Previous words of the year
In pairs, look up the words selected as words of the year by both the OED and the Collins Dictionary and choose one of them. Take note of the year and think about why that word attracted so much attention at that time. For example, in 2013, the OED word of the year was ‘selfie’. What does this reflect about society at the time? Share your findings with the class.
Some interesting words that we no longer use
- Groak – to watch someone silently as they eat, in the hope that you will be invited to join them.
- Brabble – to argue stubbornly or loudly about something inconsequential or petty.
- Sluberdegullion – there are a few definitions for this word, and it seems to mean anything from slovenly or lazy behaviour to a dirty fellow or a cheeky rascal.
Activity: Find another two words that we no longer use that you think are fun or interesting.
- What do the following abbreviations stand for? Say whether each one is an acronym or initialism.
- ITOY: I’m thinking of you (initialism)
- FOMO: Fear of missing out (acronym)
- AMA: Ask me anything (initialism)
- IRL: In real life (initialism)
- Add two of your own:
2. Write down the definitions for a) neologism and b) portmanteau. Think of all the technical/computer jargon that you know, and find two examples of a neologism and two examples of a portmanteau.
- Neologism – a new word or expression e.g., avatar, meme, google etc.
- Portmanteau – a word derived from blending two or more distinct words or forms e.g., email, emoticon, podcast, etc.
3. The words below have all acquired new meanings through technology. Provide their original meaning and their new one.
- Hot spot
Original meaning – popular locations in travel guides or an area of intense activity
New meaning – an area where access to wireless internet is available
Original meaning – a cave dweller
New meaning – an anonymous person who posts inflammatory, rude or hurtful online comments.
Original meaning – a tinned meat product
New meaning – annoying junk emails
Original meaning – water vapour floating in the atmosphere
New meaning – a network of servers where data are maintained, stored and backed-up remotely
Original meaning – a crawly insect or a harmful microorganism
New meaning – unwanted pieces of code that prevent a programme from functioning effectively
4. As a class, discuss whether or not language should be seen as the pinnacle of human evolutionary achievement.
If you are using the Achieve Careers English HL Programme, the following information is recommended to support the facilitation of these topics.
- Grade 8 ENG HL: Section 1 Class and group discussions
- Grade 9 ENG HL: Section 2 Dictionary skills
- Grade 10 ENG HL: Section 1 Discussions
- Grammar Guide: Abbreviations, portmanteau
Important dates this month:
21st May: World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development
- The Linguistic Society of America. Is English changing? [Online], Available: ly/EngChanging[2 May 2022]
- Anderson, H. (2014), How Shakespeare Influences the Way We Speak Now, [Online], Available: in/387jHDn[2 May 2022]
- Beaumont, N. (2021) The Impact of Technology on the Words We Use, [Online}, Available:ly/TechWords [2 May 2022]
- Zazulak, S. (2016) How the English Language has Changed Over the Decades, [Online], Available:ly/HowEngChanged [2 May 2022]
- BBC News. (2021) Vax Declared Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year, [Online], Available: in/3FqrBE1[2 May 2022]