Evolution of language and the way of the dodo


I have, for about ten years, maintained a low-key campaign against the use of the word “transition” as a verb. Indeed, the intransitive verb is in our dictionary, but if anyone can remember the days when American dictionaries labeled certain words “americanism”, this is how I regard the verb “transition”; in other words, if enough people insist on using a word in a certain way, it will become accepted use.

I accept the idea that language is dynamic and evolving, but mark that word: evolving. We tend to regard evolution as improvement, although it is possible to “evolve” right out of the scheme: if an adaptation is disruptive enough, or inadequate in response to changing environmental demands, extinction becomes possible. Of long-extinct animals, we say, “They just didn’t evolve.”

It seems to me, then, that if language is dynamic and evolving, that evolution ought to improve the language. As the function of language is communication, it seems reasonable to assert that improved language should result in improved communication.

This is why such things as spelling and punctuation are important. I have seen, for instance, the word “capiche” spelled “koppish”, and while the placement of the word in the sentence made it clear what the word was, I did, actually, ask what “koppish” meant. When it was clear that the word was the famous mobster-stereotype word for “understand?” I made the hideous mistake of admitting I’d never seen it spelled that way. But language is dynamic, I was reminded. Vry wel. But I wud lyk to mak a poynt her. This iz not a gr8 way to komyunik8. If we all adapt our own ways of spelling words, we will find greater difficulty understanding one another. This does not reflect an improvement in the function of communication. Yes, some need it spelled out for them: An “improvement” to the function of communication should make it easier, not harder, to understand one another.

punctuation of course is a different matter as lynne truss pointed out in her amusing and enlightening volume eats shoots & leaves punctuation is vital to understanding exactly what we are saying the title of the book comes from a joke that apparently made it into the house of commons in england in which a panda shoots up a restaurant and justifies his actions by a badly punctuated wildlife guide that says a panda is a large black and white bear like mammal native to china eats shoots and leaves give it a read if you find the time or inclination but without punctuation it is difficult to explain the difference between potatoes and potatoes call me a luddite if you want ill thank you

So just think about it, please. We need not complain about the profanity or arrogance of colloquial speech; slang is intended to be exclusionary, and those who wish to be separate ought not be surprised when they find their “evolution” of the language renders them unintelligible to their neighbors. It’s not necessarily racism, or that you’re stupid, that you get a bad grade on a term paper, or fail to get a job. But when you make a point that your teachers shouldn’t be able to understand you, don’t be surprised if they don’t. And when you’re asking someone to give you money in exchange for your labor, it’s not exactly to your benefit to suggest that your American boss ought to learn a new language called “English”; it counts against you because miscommunication inevitably reduces productivity, and that’s the bottom line employers are supposed to answer to.

And, for the record, what brings this issue to mind today is an old story from USA Today I happened to read this morning, and let me disclaim that the politics are beside the point. Halliburton may wish to be a UAE company, but in this case, I’m wondering when the word “office” became a verb:

“Halliburton is opening its corporate headquarters in Dubai while maintaining a corporate office in Houston,” spokeswoman Cathy Mann said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “The chairman, president and CEO will office from and be based in Dubai to run the company from the UAE.”

Anyone? Anyone? I doubt this is the first example in history, but I could be wrong.

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