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Betsy Maytham

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Language Evolution: the OED's new words

There have been some extremely strong reactions to the news revealed today that the Oxford English Dictionary – that revered institution of a publication – has made some controversial decisions in its choice of 500 new words to be preserved within its hallowed pages. The most polarizing choices seem to be what a lot of us would consider extremely recent and (based on some of the comments I’ve read) unpleasant slang such as “twerk”, “fo’ shizzle” and  “meh”. However, these are not the only unusual additions. An assortment of what the OED, on its website, describes as ‘loanwords…localised neologisms and changes in the usage of common English words’ taken from varieties of English as disparate as Canadian English, Filipino English, South African English and Indian English.

I have now used the word ‘English’ so many times, it almost doesn’t sound like a real word any more and I am aware of this! However, it bears repeating, because the point here is that these countries are not exclusively English-speaking countries. (Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking: what country is, nowadays, with the growth of multi-lingual communities? All right then, to be clear, I mean primarilyEnglish-speaking and, crucially, English-speaking in its legal, administrative and educational domains.) This means, therefore, that the English spoken in these countries is heavily influenced by other languages; French, Filipino, Nguni, Sotho and Spanish, to name a few. This therefore means that these neologisms are regional to the point of incomprehensibility in other English-speaking countries or regions. I don’t know about you, but I would struggle to use ‘inukshuk’, ‘barkada’ or ‘dhaba’ in a sentence – or even to recognize them as demonstrably ‘English’.

In an educational climate where we are now being asked to ‘promote British values’, it’s interesting to ask ourselves where we stand on this. Do we whole-heartedly embrace the inclusivity we have been striving for for so long in education, in the workplace, in government – and now in language? Or do we take a stand against the ‘political correctness gone maaaaaaad’ we hear so much about and argue that in a traditional English dictionary, the inclusion of what can only be described as peripherally influential, regional words and phrases is tantamount to a bastardisation of the principle on which the OED was founded? (I can’t help feeling the same argument could be made against the inclusion of “fo’ shizzle”, myself, but that’s beside the point. Or is it?)

Well, in order to come to a decision as to which side to come down on, perhaps we should take these ideas to their logical conclusions within our classrooms. If we fully embrace our multi-lingual global community, our heavily influential and influenced language and the inclusive attitude we are rightly encouraged to take to all aspects of our teaching, what do we end up with? Potentially, a group of children whose language is as varied as the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and whose writing is borderline incomprehensible. No matter the range of your vocabulary, if you have not grown up in South Africa, I would wager that a child who used the word ‘zef’ to describe a character in their story would leave you at a loss. And while we cannot always be thinking in terms of extrinsic verification, there is always the threat of the SATs hanging over our heads. Forgive me, but using vocabulary like ‘twerk’ ain’t gonna getcha dat Level 6, bae. True dat.

So let’s look at it from the other side. If we allow for no language innovation or evolution whatsoever, what is the logical result? Stagnation. And potentially, a situation in fifty years where our writing is no longer reflective of our speech. It happened, to an extent, with Latin – why not English? Latin was once a language that spanned the globe. However, written language was not always the same as the spoken form. Your everyday Latin speaker on the street would have spoken a completely different form of the language to that written by Horace, Virgil or Ovid. Is this a situation we want for our language?

Another consideration is this: what if Shakespeare had been constricted in this way? We would have lost hundreds upon hundreds of new words, without which our language would have been incalculably poorer. English has always been something of a mongrel language, shamelessly borrowing (and never returning) words from other languages; macho, café, bonsai, aspirin, opera, pajamas, fiancée, bourgeois, schmooze, marmalade, banana, cot, traffic…I could go on. We are even in the unique position of having borrowed words in English, which are no longer used in their original language! This is how long this pillaging has been going on for. And, for heaven’s sake, why not? This is where a lot of the innovation and creativity of the English language stems from – its flexibility.So let’s be real about this: language changes and evolves, like anything, and there is little or nothing we can do to change this. The question we asked ourselves at the beginning was: should we try? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say…ask the children! Not to be corny, but I believe that children are the future (someone should write a song about that) and, in all seriousness, it’s not you or I that will change the future of language – it’s them. So let’s put it to them. Let them debate these changes. They could write speeches to be performed in assembly or letters to send to the collators of the Oxford English Dictionary. And, please, please, please, if they do write letters, do send them! 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they actually got a response? You never know. Children love to and need to actually use language in a meaningful context and there is nothing more meaningful than actually expressing their opinions, in written form, to the administrators of the largest collection of words in the English language! Maybe the children could do a research project on the history of the English language, or choose their favourite word and trace its etymology through time. The introduction of new words to our language is a process that dates back to the formation of language. We are simply at the forefront of the newest changes and seeing how this has occurred throughout time allows children to take their place in history – and that’s a beautiful thing.

Go on then, my lovely educators: whatever your opinion, shelve it. Much as I respect your ideas, it’s not yours that count: it’s theirs. The ideas, opinions, experiences and joy for learning of those wonderful small people we have the responsibility for and pleasure of educating, that’s what matters. So let’s let them lead the way in this and I have no doubt that whatever they come up with will surprise us.