English Language A Trip

15 Jun

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I have a difficult time keeping up with the ever-evolving English language. Words are shortening down to almost indecipherable acronyms. Sometimes while reading text messages, I feel like I need a translator. IYKWIM (if you know what I mean), then you’re ahead of the curve. Spellings are altering left and right, and chat-speak is now entering the dictionaries. Is meh really a word? Oxford dictionary has that one. Sentence and grammatical structures change too regularly to keep up. Did you know Google is now a verb? That’s in the Oxford Dictionary now, too.

All this constant change makes my head spin. You would think after a few hundred years the language would have stopped changing. I wish! Instead, style guides are updated often and sometimes even flip-flop on their decisions. Just a couple of years ago, the APA reinstated the rule about using two spaces after a period, though it had earlier been to use just one space.

There have been repeated efforts throughout the language’s history to standardize spelling, but words continue to evolve. Have you ever tried to read Chaucer’s original text, written in Middle English? Here is a sample from “The Knight’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte Theseus;
Of Atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful
many a riche contree hadde he wonne,
What with his wysdom and his chivalrie;
He conquered al the regne of Femenye,
That whilom was ycleped Scithia,
And weddede the queene Ypolita,
And broghte hir hoom with hym in his contree,
With muchel glorie and greet solempnytee,
And eek hir yonge suster Emelye.”

Believe it or not, that translates (depending on the translator, of course) to:

“Long ago, as old histories tell us,
There was a duke called Theseus,
Lord and ruler of Athens,
And in his time such a conqueror
That there was none greater under the sun.
He had subdued many rich countries,
And with his wisdom and his knighthood
Had conquered all the realm of the Amazons, the land of women,
Which formerly was called Scythia.
He wedded the Queen Hippolyta
And brought her home with him to his country
In great glory and pomp,
And her young sister Emily with her.”

Flash forward to the twenty-first century. Our modern minds should have locked down spelling and grammar by now. But no! The changes affect our manuscripts, as well. In a recent project, we had several grammar and spelling questions come up. Is it email or e-mail? Is it Web page, web page, Webpage, or webpage? How do you deal with the words that are not yet in the dictionary but come up in manuscripts? When is it okay to not use serial (or Oxford) commas?

As recent as March 2011, AP changed its rule on the word e-mail to exclude the hyphen. Cellphone and smartphone are each one word, though Microsoft Word insists they are incorrectly spelled. They even altered the spelling of Calcutta to Kolkata! I wasn’t aware you could change the spelling of a whole city.

Chicago Manual of Style has been changing things up, as well. While e-mail retains its hyphen, you can now begin a sentence with the word iPhone without capitalizing the i. Web, website, and web page are now no longer capitalized, but Internet remains so. Who knows how long these will stay in place? Perhaps only until the next edition.

The best advice I can give is to keep an open mind and brace yourself for inevitable changes. You have to stay on your toes just to keep up. Language will never stop evolving, and that keeps this job exciting.

Sources:

http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/about16_rules.html

http://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm

http://www.umm.maine.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/translation/

­-Ana

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