The Evolution of Language


   Image from puffun

16 January 2014

When we moved to Hong Kong from the US, we had to learn a new language.


And I’m not just talking about Cantonese or Mandarin.


I’m talking about ‘British’. (America and the UK are sometimes described as ‘two countries separated by a common language’.)


Our son, who was in primary school at the time, had difficulty with some of the language used at the British school he attended. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, his teacher told us that he didn’t always pay attention very well. We told her that he was still learning British English, so she shouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t ‘line up by the elevator’ when she said ‘queue up by the lift’.


My first lesson in the evolution of language

I still find some British words, like ‘whilst’ and ‘learnt’, quaint and old-fashioned. And at first, whenever I heard someone use ‘have got’ as the past participle of ‘get’, rather than ‘have gotten’ as we do in the US, they sounded poorly educated to me. (Funnily enough, some years later, a British friend of ours made fun of Americans’ use of ‘have gotten’, calling it old-fashioned.) Now I’m so used to the British usage, I have difficulty going back to the American form. So when we return to the US next year, I'll be the one that sounds poorly educated!


That was the first lesson I learned about the evolution of language. Much of the English language that migrated from England to North America back in the 17th century remains in use there, while some words and word forms in the UK are now different. This is similar to the French currently spoken in Quebec, which is an older form of French than that used in modern-day France.


Despite the older forms of English still spoken in the US, many new English words have been coined there over the years, particularly technological terms. And, of course, there are many ‘Englishes’ around the world (eg, Japlish, Singlish, Chinglish) with vocabulary and grammar all their own. 


Online evolution of English

But nothing compares to the speed of language (and other) change brought about by computers and the Internet.


Recently, my husband told me about a use of language that undoubtedly relates to the younger generation’s use of computers.


While marking research papers recently, he found that several students used the wrong preposition when citing sources. For example, they cited book reviews ‘published on Asian Affairs’ or ‘published on the Financial Times’. Others also used the wrong verb, saying, for example, that an article was ‘posted on the Financial Times’.


Many younger people do nearly all their reading online, which is probably why the students used the wrong preposition and verb.


The correct form (for now)

At this point, every reference to articles published in a book, newspaper or journal, whether it’s hard copy or online, needs to be described as being published in that source – not ‘on’ it.


And at this point, every article published in a book, newspaper or journal, whether hard copy or online, needs to be referred to as published – not ‘posted’. (The verb ‘post’ is currently only used for blogs, like this one.) 


But stay tuned.  In future, the language could indeed evolve again, making the students’ current mistakes the new correct form.

(PS -- I just thought about articles published solely online, for example in the Huffington Post. Should we say 'on' or 'in' for those sources? I'll have to research that one and get back to you.)





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