4 Subtle Changes to English People Hardly Notice

iStock
iStock

Everyone knows that language changes. It's easy to pick out words that have only been recently introduced (bromance, YOLO, derp) or sentence constructions that have gone out of style (How do you do? Have you a moment?), but we are constantly in the middle of language change that may not be noticeable for decades or even centuries. Some of the biggest and most lasting changes to language happen slowly and imperceptibly. The Great Vowel Shift, for example, was a series of pronunciation changes occurring over 350 years, and not really noticed for over 100 years after that. It resulted in an intelligibility gap between Modern and Middle English and created the annoying misalignment between English pronunciation and spelling. But it was impossible to see while it was going on.

These days, however, it is possible to spot subtle linguistic changes by analyzing large digital collections of text or transcribed speech, some of which cover long periods of time. Linguists can run the numbers on these large corpora to determine the direction of language use trends and whether they are statistically significant. Here are 4 rather subtle changes happening in English, as determined by looking at the numbers.

1. SHIFT FROM "THEY STARTED TO WALK" TO "THEY STARTED WALKING"

There are a number of verbs that can take a complement with another verb in either the "-ing" form or the "to" form: "They liked painting/to paint;" "We tried leaving/to leave;" "He didn't bother calling/to call." Both of these constructions are still used, and they have both been used for a long time. But there has been a steady shift over time from the "to" to the "-ing" complement. "Start" and "begin" saw a big increase in the "-ing" complement until leveling out in the 1940s, while emotion verbs like "like," "love," "hate," and "fear" saw their proportion of "-ing" complements start to rise in the 1950s and 60s. Not all verbs have participated in the shift: "stand," "intend," and "cease" went the "to" way.

2. GETTING MORE PROGRESSIVE

English has been getting more progressive over time—that is, the progressive form of the verb has steadily increased in use. (The progressive form is the –ing form that indicates something is continuous or ongoing: "They are speaking" vs. "They speak.") This change started hundreds of years ago, but in each subsequent era, the form has grown into parts of the grammar it hadn't had much to do with in previous eras. For example, at least in British English, its use in the passive ("It is being held" rather than "It is held") and with modal verbs like "should," "would," and "might" ("I should be going" rather than "I should go") has grown dramatically. There is also an increase of "be" in the progressive form with adjectives ("I'm being serious" vs. "I'm serious").

3. GOING TO, HAVE TO, NEED TO, WANT TO

It's pretty noticeable that words like "shall" and "ought" are on the way out, but "will," "should," and "can" are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. "Going to," "have to," "need to," and "want to" cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.

4. RISE OF THE "GET-PASSIVE"

The passive in English is usually formed with the verb "to be," yielding "they were fired" or "the tourist was robbed." But we also have the "get" passive, giving us "they got fired" and "the tourist got robbed." The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject—getting fired, getting robbed—but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger.

This article draws on work by Mark Davies, Geoffrey Leech, and Christian Mair.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

- Selieve Toys Old Children's Walkie Talkies $17 (save $7)

- Yard Games Giant Tumbling Timbers $59 (save $21)

- Duckura Jump Rocket Launchers $11 (save $17)

- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

- Yankee Candle Large Jar Candle Vanilla Cupcake $17 (save $12)

- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

- Lush Decor Blue and Gray Flower Curtains Pair $57 (save $55)

- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

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Duolingo’s Free Virtual Convention Will Cover How “Black Languages Matter” and More

Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
Classrooms are especially important places to embrace language variations.
SDI Productions/iStock via Getty Images

Last September, a few hundred language enthusiasts gathered in London for Duolingo’s first annual convention, or “Duocon.” They attended panels, decorated cupcakes to look like the Duolingo owl, and generally celebrated their love of language. In light of the pandemic, this year’s Duocon will be all-virtual—and while that means you’ll have to bake your own cupcakes, it also means you can attend without leaving home.

The free event, which takes place this Saturday, September 26, boasts an exciting list of speakers covering a wide range of language-related topics. Participants will get a behind-the-scenes look at Duolingo itself: illustrator Greg Hartman will talk about creating the app’s cast of characters, for example, and software engineer Joseph Rollinson will discuss how he gauges the program’s effectiveness. Other experts will focus on the broader implications of language. Among them is Dr. Anne Charity Hudley, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies how the language used in classrooms can (often negatively) impact the education of students from diverse racial backgrounds.

Her talk, titled “Black Languages Matter: Learning the Languages and Language Varieties of the Black Diaspora,” illuminates the influences of Black language on American culture as a whole. As Hudley explains, it goes beyond common examples from sports and entertainment.

“There is no U.S. without the harsh and real legacy of slavery and strength that enslaved people had to create culture in a new place, in contact with those around them. So, the language and culture are embedded in how we think about the U.S.” she tells Mental Floss. “The big influences [are] in the discourses about what key U.S. concepts mean to us—like liberation, freedom, and justice. Black people taught the U.S.—and the world—what it means to have a history of oppression and still be proud.”

Dr. Hudley's Duocon lecture is a must-see.Duolingo

When you learn about language variations, you’re gaining insight into the lives of the people who speak them—how they “eat, sleep, learn, work, and create community and identity,” Hudley says. Language can also help preserve those traditions when you’re unable to actually practice them.

“One aspect from Black culture my students and I have been talking about a lot during the pandemic is the language of Black cookouts [and] barbecues. We can’t safely have [them] in person, but we can talk about them—and that language helps keep our cultural memory alive and our cultural practices intact,” she says. “What we eat at the cookout, how we negotiate who brings and cooks what (and who is even allowed to cook, as in: who can make the potato salad) are all culturally situated and negotiated through language.”

And since language is so intimately linked to culture, teaching someone that a certain word or pronunciation is “broken English”—and forcing them to stop using it—is a harmful way of separating them from who they are.

“A person is their language and their culture—colonizers knew this,” Hudley explains. “By telling someone their language was broken, it was a very effective way to colonize their mind and make them very quickly and effectively ashamed of their entire being. We have to make people aware of this process and actively dismantle it.”

Learn more by tuning into Hudley’s Duocon presentation at 2:10 p.m. EST this Saturday, which you can register for here.