We live in a world brimming with words — and they are changing all the time.
Does the way we name and describe things around us profoundly influence the way we think and experience life? Kyce Bello, a poet and mother of two, thinks so. “In the very young child, the acquisition of language leads to the capacity for thought. Language both reflects and shapes knowledge, and evolves alongside thought and culture.”
But with our culture and technology evolving at alarming rates, how is our language keeping up? We are certainly not hesitant to come up with new phrases, which we coin daily to name all the new and updated technological gizmos around us. In the beginning of his book, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane gives a shocking example of this: “… a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”
What does this signify for the world we inhabit?
Nathaniel Kerr, an English teacher at the Santa Fe Waldorf School, said, “The texture of our language is endangered by technology. Small, boiled down words like ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ have wormed their way into the English language. They get the point across, but when language gets simplified so that it’s cheap and easy and quick, is there any point to getting the point across?”
Waldorf School senior Zoe Whittle said she thinks there is. “The way we speak nowadays lets us get to the point faster,” Whittle said. And let’s face it: Teens are growing up on this type of shorthand speak. They adapt to it, embrace it, use it.
If we do get to the point faster, however, we need to acquire new points all the time because they become worldwide points very quickly. “The Internet makes it so that the world is connected, so that the new catchy phrases are more likely to be global and not just local” Whittle said. “Changes in language spread faster. … New terms that catch on with teens will tend to catch on with all teens, and they will do so swiftly.”
Perhaps this is one reason why phrases that seem so fresh and fun one day may already seem overused by the next. “When the words that used to mean something have been overused or become obsolete, we have to search for new words or new meanings for words, and that’s hard, but if language didn’t evolve, it wouldn’t exist,” Whittle said. “Everything has an origin and a history of how it has evolved into the word it is now.”
Elias Trujillo, a sophomore at Mandela International Magnet School, agreed. “What about ‘love,’ though?” he asked. “Did people say ‘I love you,’ the casual way we do now, or did it have a lot more meaning?” Trujillo also noticed, “We’re definitely developing weird slang — we say really strange things using words that mean something which is different from their original definition.”
“Weird” might be an understatement when you consider the curious and often foul jargon that teens these days seem so fond of. Whittle remarked that this is natural and has always been the case: “Teens want to prove that they’re not kids anymore. They have their own ideas, they can coin their own language, they can innovate and create, but they also want to prove that they’re not adults by speaking differently than adults.”
“Yes, we’re always at the mercy of the young,” Kerr said with a sigh. “They are the keepers of the language.”
Words do have the power to set our ideas free, while helping us explore and shape them into terms we can vocalize.
“We can never truly say or express an idea as it exists in our minds — it is translated by words, or art, into its own idea,” Bello said. Maybe it is this that makes our language so important, this way of giving tongue to enigmatic notions.
“Words themselves are endlessly undefinable” Bello said. “The ways we use them reflect our moment in history more than their actual meaning.”
The Oxford Junior Dictionary is a testament to the slipperiness of language. And yet, we are always able to find words to express ourselves, to attempt to translate our thought and ideas to the world. Or maybe it is language’s very ambiguous nature that makes it such a useful and enticing entity to everyone from hasty texters to professional writers like Miriam Sagan, who heads up the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College.
“Contemporary poetry reflects how we speak, and I enjoy everything about it from slang to elegant turns of phrase to new metaphors,” Sagan said. “I remember when I first heard ‘talk to the hand,’ I thought it was so entertaining I kept saying it over and over. …
“To me, English is just a beautiful spreading tree, alive for centuries, changing, flourishing.”
Hannah Laga Abram is a sophomore at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.