Thursday, December 3, 2009

English: A Crazy Cool Language

English can do some pretty crazy/amazing/frustrating things with words, which is a distinguishing factor about English among the world's languages.  In History of the English Language this week, we discussed how words from one grammatical category can easily be "persuaded" into another grammatical category; for example, Pluto is a noun, yet it can be used as a verb ("to pluto" something means to demote it).  The comic strip above plays with the ability of gerund, a noun, to be used as a verb and even as an adjective: you can gerund any word; a gerunded word.

One area of our language that is taking off with this ability is computer-based language, especially the language used with social networks.  I've seen plays on Twitter in words like "twitterverse" and "twitizens."  Furthermore, twitter was originally a verb that, over time, became used as a noun, and now the trend is once again reversing.  When most people hear twitter, they think of a noun because of that social-networking website, yet we can now say someone twittered, meaning they sent a message via Twitter (so the noun has become denominalized to mean something completely different from the original verb).  Twitter is further changing the landscape of the English language through the limitation of only having 140 characters to express your thoughts, which encourages abbreviations, shortened terms, and sentences lacking verbs or nouns that would otherwise be warranted.  Take the "tweet" (another word that has been denominalized for Twitterers around the world) shown at the beginning of this paragraph for example (from one of my favorite "tweeple"): Poverty not been an entirely horrid experience.Challenging tho. No resentment of people with money but even more respect for those without.  The tweet consists of three sentences, none of which are complete; typically speaking, you'd expect something like Poverty's not been... It's been challenging... I don't have resentment...  Also, the word though now occurs in its shortened form, tho, in many of its appearances.

Another social engine that is associated with language play is Facebook:

You can facebook someone, you can friend someone, and you can even de-friend/un-friend someone (which one of those is preferred differs among speakers).

In English, we take things one step further and distinguish between different forms of the same word; for example, my students noticed that they use crept as the simple past tense of the verb creep when they are using it to mean they snuck (sneaked?) somewhere (I crept into the room), but they have to use creeped as the simple past when saying something like He really creeped me out.  Another example is that what used to be the normal plural of brother is now restricted in its use (brethren) while the new, regularized form that took over is used in all other instances (brothers).  Once you start thinking of the irregularities of our language and word usage, you can't help but find incongruities everywhere.  For native speakers, it can be liberating to know that you can easily morph existing words into new ones by simply using it in a new way; for anyone trying to learn to speak English, it can be quite a headache to figure out why you can pepper a wall with paper or paper a wall with pepper.  Okay, so maybe I reached a bit for those last two examples, but they make my point: English is a crazy cool language.  Or if you're in Boston, perhaps you think it is a wicked cool language?

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