From Shakespeare to ‘sexting’: The dynamic evolution of English

New words, such as "sexting," "webinar," and "smartphone," fly into an open dictionary.
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

One hears much angst and kvetching these days about the hegemony of English, and with good reason: English has come to dominate the global linguistic hierarchy to an unprecedented degree, crowding out less-spoken languages and making itself increasingly indispensable in every dimension of life, from the arts to the sciences.

But I am not one of these anti-English curmudgeons; alas, I am an English apologist, and I am thus inclined to wonder why English is so durable (aside from the embedded social and historical factors that spread it around the globe). I feel that, far from decrying the insidiousness of English, many might do well to examine its dynamism and utility.

Perhaps the essential merit of English, in my view, is its adaptability — for instance, in English, a handy portmanteau is never far off. Lacking a pithy term for exchanging explicit instant messages? Fear not; English quickly conjures up “sexting,” and voilà: The new word, equally a noun or verb, neatly synthesizes two existing words and is nigh impossible to misunderstand. Even when these new words are hideous (“webinar” and “chortle,” most likely a combination of “chuckle” and “snort,” come to mind), they still communicate new ideas, disregarding tradition to achieve greater precision.

Here, those wishing to preserve the purity of their native tongues against the intrusion of Americanisms or neologisms are at a disadvantage: One of the great assets of English is its irreverence; another is its pragmatism. All language is arguably “fabricated” and bastardizes the “purity” of the vernacular it joins, but that is because language must continuously and inevitably evolve.

As every durable language must, English bows to the whims of its speakers: It unabashedly welcomes words from other languages and often creates new ones in lieu of amalgamating the old; this unpretentious capacity for change is perhaps its greatest strength: Potent indeed is the language flexible enough to express that “brevity is the soul of wit” while also populating the pages of Urban Dictionary.

Doubtless, all languages can create new words, but in this regard, English is sui generis. I, as a relative linguistic conservative, often find that proclivity for innovation maddening (if undeniably useful). My ire, however, is ultimately picayune, for the benefits of change dwarf the comfort or decorum of tradition.

For many, it is not absurd to fear that the evolution of their language consists mainly of increasingly resembling and incorporating English. But language exists, inter alia, to make communication possible, and the ways that communities, peoples and nations communicate have never been so mercurial. Now more than ever, linguistic dynamism is in vogue.

There is certainly no case to be made that less linguistic diversity would do the world good. But there is much to recommend English: It is a progressive, forward-looking language, structurally free of gender and phenomenally precise in its technical vocabulary.

Though indefensibly irregular in everything from verb conjugation to pronunciation, English is neither too proud nor too old to be taught new tricks. And for fogies like me, there is always a silver lining: The intervening centuries notwithstanding, speakers of contemporary English can still grasp the language of Shakespeare.

Contact Aidan Bassett at [email protected]