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It’s the poetry every American writes every day—a centuries-old epic of abuse, taunt, criminality, love, and bright, mocking beauty.
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
I think you have a greater acceptance of—let’s say, for lack of a better phrase—linguistic wit in places that once were bastions of Standard English. If you compare the diction of any of today’s newsmagazines with that of newspapers of the nineteenth century or even the early part of the twentieth century, I think you’ll see that the writing nowadays is much breezier. Writers now, even when they’re discussing fairly serious subjects, seem more likely to use informal terms and slang terms than would have been considered acceptable 75 years ago. We have become more open to using neologisms—to the coining of new and amusing words. And this, I think, implies that many of these slangy words are going to become Standard English a lot faster than they might have in the past.
Does the use of slang increase constantly or in spurts? You spoke earlier about O.K. and the newspapers of the 1830s, when writers went through a period of playing with language. Do you see waves or cycles in the formation of slang?
The difference is that when the nineteenth-century newspapers played with words, they did it in their humor columns. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn , published in 1884, was a watershed in American fiction. Here for the first time a recognized author, a serious author, produced a serious novel that was purportedly written by an illiterate protagonist in an illiterate way. Davy Crockett’s autobiography, written in 1834, did something similar for nonfiction, though that autobiographical style never became customary.
And what of the future?
It is impossible to predict with any accuracy what particular changes will take place in language. The fact is that usage is changing all the time, frequently in subtle ways that we don’t notice. Every once in a while a particular usage attracts attention and is condemned and avoided by some people. Most people, however, just go ahead and use language however they want, unless they are writing themes for a college class or doing some other special writing that they know will be judged on fine points of usage.
All we can say about English is that we’re going to have more new words—and not just slang but words at all levels of speech.
Many old words will change their meanings and eventually become unfamiliar. Don’t forget that Shakespeare’s plays generally are published with all sorts of glosses and footnotes for words that were perfectly familiar to his audiences when he wrote them. Their meanings have changed, or they have fallen out of use. We can expect the same processes to continue. Ordinary speakers of language will continue to speak in a way that they find natural and which they feel expresses their thoughts.
There are going to be innovations. There are going to be changes. There are going to be new words and meanings. Certain aspects of grammar will fall by the wayside. But the essential continuity of English, which goes all the way back to the sixth century, is assured for as long as people speak it.