Thursday, June 18, 2009

English, the inventive language

The millionth English word?

In a recent CNN news report John D. Suttor reports (here) that according to Global Language Monitor 'Web 2.0' was declared the millionth English language word on Wednesday 10 June. Global Language Monitor is a web site that uses a mathematics formula to estimate how often words are created. If we could be sure that this was the millionth word (which we can't) it would perhaps be fitting given the proliferation of new words in the last 10-20 years generated by the establishment of the Internet.

The 'Million Word March' has not been well received by linguists who see the notion that you can track the creation of words mathematically as nonsense. Language is always changing. But the man behind the counter Paul J.J. Payack argues that what is more important than just counting words is the idea that the idea that English is a complex global language and unlike some other languages (e.g. he cites French) is less concerned about ring fencing their vocabularies. Australians love inventing words. In fact one of my favourite radio presenters (Richard Glover) invented a program segment on ABC radio that is devoted to listeners inventing a new word each week to fit a specific definition. For example, the new word listeners created for that sense of joy and elation when you find a parking space right outside where you need to go, was named "autopia". He has even published his 'Dag's dictionary' (here) and the adult version led to a kid's version with such classic new words as 'Dinobore' - a word for the kid who can't talk about anything other than dinosaurs (kids version here). NOTE: a 'dag' can mean dried dung on a sheep's rear end. But in this instance it means 'an amusing person', so to be called 'a real dag' would be seen as a nice comment not an offensive one.

English the changing language

There is no doubt that English is a constantly changing language, but so are other languages. In fact, different languages borrow from one another. English has partly succeeded in becoming such an international language because it has incorporated so many words from other languages (e.g. Latin, French and German). Its users have also been good at adapting, combining and cannibalising words.

But English has changed not just in terms of vocabulary. Even the way we spell words has changed over time. Many like to cite William Shakespeare's multiple spellings of his own name as an example of the variability of spelling by individual language users, let alone across generations of writers.

Even the way we pronounce known words changes over time. It has been interesting to note Australian news readers in the last year suddenly observing the 'n' in columnist after treating it like a silent letter for generations.

Finally, what is seen as acceptable grammar may change over time. A relatively recent change has been the demise in concerns over split infinitives. Many people have also given up the practice of trying not to end a sentence with a preposition. Many will be aware of Churchill's famous statement - "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put" - which some assume he used to make fun of those who try to avoid putting a preposition at the end of a sentence. Others think he was serious. The point is that we can take rules too far and that even grammar changes.

There is of course always a need to vary language according to purpose and audience, some of which demand (and deserve) standard English conventions. But language use varies across language registers. A 'register' is a variety of language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting (see Halliday and Hasan's classic work on 'Cohesion in English'). If you are giving your first address to the local Toastmasters' Club, the language will be different to that which you use with the under 16 baseball team that you coach after school. Similarly, in written language the specific written genre (i.e. a text structure that reflects a specific purpose and audience) required will change the way you use language.

While there is a need for conventional spelling, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary and conformity to language registers and genres to enable effective communication, language is adaptable and is always changing. This should be seen as a natural part of any language not a weakness.

Being inventive with language

Building on what has been said above, I want to argue that language 'play' is important for children's language and literacy development. One of the most important things about early language and literacy development is the need to encourage creativity and inventiveness. No, I'm not talking about encouraging invented spelling and sloppy word pronunciation (although there is a place to allow the young writer to feel free to use approximate spellings when doing free writing); I'm talking about children being encouraged to experiment and have fun with language.

Word play and creative use of words and sound is one of the great joys of language use and something that children should experience. In fact, as I have mentioned in previous posts, language play is vital for the development of creative children (here) and effective writers (here). When I played with my children, and now as I still play with my grandchildren, language play and inventiveness is a constant source of amusement, challenge and stimulation. Children love the inventive language of rhymes and chants. One of the reasons they like nursery rhymes is because of their play with words:
Fe fi, fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman...
Incy wincy spider climbed up the waterspout..
Hickory, dickory, dock...
Chants are a special type of rhyming fun that have been around for centuries and that are still heard in any playground. June Factor has published a number of volumes of well known Australian chants and rhymes, including 'All right vegemite!" (more details here). Who could forget:
Jelly on the plate, jelly on the plate
Wiggle woggle, wiggle woggle
Jelly on the plate.....
Children also like to invent new words or play with known words. I can't play with my grandchildren without us inventing new names for toy animals, cars, dolls, stuffed animals, insects. We create imaginary monsters like Schlickleback and Wontilbong and assign names to cars that match their colour, shape and 'personality', or use alliteration to help us (me!) remember them. Willy is a white car, Billy is a blue one and Greg is a green one.

But we also combine words to invent our own new 'English' words. My grandchildren all know what a 'Huggle' is (it's a combination of a cuddle and a hug), and I grew up knowing that to be 'splificated' by my maths teacher was not good. Who knows when and how this 18th century nonsense word became a mainstream transitive verb, but I suspect it's origin was as part of word play.

Some very young children even use a type of gibberish language which at times is little more than random sounds that are an approximation to language rather than a real language that communicates. But it is still motivated by language play and exploration. Sometimes this seemingly unintelligible language is used in more sophisticated forms by older children as they transform known rhymes and songs with invented words. For example, 'Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are' might become:
Blinkle, blonkle wickle tar, Billy sat on Sally's galah
Children's love of nonense, repetition, and inventiveness with words is something that many children's writers use to great effect. The master of course is Dr Seuss and when this natural love of language play meets written language in like form you ofen find a level of reading engagement that surprises you (here). Children will seek out joke books (for example), rhymes, chants and read almost any book that does outrageous and inventive things with words. I've written a previous post on the use of humour in literature (here).

Summing up
  • Language is constantly changing
  • English is a very adaptable language
  • Playing with language is a common and desirable thing to do with one's language
  • Language play and inventiveness is good for children's language development, creativity, thinking ability, reading and writing.

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