The Purpose of Words, and Style

Pronouns are like kaleidoscopes, how you see them kind of changes but the colors, shapes and origins of the design stays the same. Pronouns come in and out of fashion, and they seem right or wrong, but it’s all just a matter of the times. McWhorter spends some time explaining this with examples of such common “wrong” assumptions as “Tell each student to hand in their paper” and “Billy and me”. The logic behind these mistakes is faulty, and often goes back to the imposing of Latin structure onto English.

Clear examples of changing pronoun use include such outdated words as Thee, Thou, and Yee. No one really knows why these things change, they just do, and it’s really not a big deal – it’s fashion. During the transition, however, people will often criticize and complain about poor English. McWhorter gives an example of a guy named George Fox who complained about such things a few centuries ago, in the same manner that in any comment section on the internet today we see people complain about the disintegration of language.

There are distinctions, for sure, but important to keep in mind is the logical vs formal distinction in language use. Often what we are taught in school is formality, not logical. This provides some difficult situations as an EFL teacher, because students often can’t see the difference when their mind is wrapped around learning correct English to pass a test. I often found myself teaching in two different directions, so to speak, because of this formal vs logical distinction.

Another point is again brought up, that the printed page allowed people to think of earlier language as a sort of standard. If this was the case, then the electronic word has maybe liberated this concept of a standard for visual language. With today’s technology, we are well on our way to contextual based standards because of the milieu of styles that the digital medium creates.

McWhorter continues on about Fashion and Language in Lecture 12, bringing up irregular verbs again. Many such atrocities were considered bad-form back in the early 1800s, only to eventually be accepted. Or, vice versa. Google Ngrams is fun to play around with – as you can see here for the verb Baken, which used to be the past tense form of Baked, I guess. Or, in the image below for the word Thee.

Pronunciation has also changed over time, as illustrated by rhyming poetry and by semi-literate people who would write phonetically. Words like slaughter or daughter were pronounced in the same way we pronounce the word laughter (and sometimes spelled similar – dafter, for example). There were no audio recording technologies back then, so I wonder what that means for the future of pronunciation. Perhaps the spoken word has hit a standard?

Link to the first post in this series is here.

Ngram for Thee


One thought on “The Purpose of Words, and Style

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s